Great horned owls are the largest of the “tufted” owls in North America. The ear tufts are actually feather arrangements called plumicorns. These do not aid in hearing but can be flattened or extended depending on the mood of the owl. They have yellow eyes and a white throat patch. This contrasts with the dark cross-barred underparts. They range in color from brown to gray to black and white. Great horned owls have large feet, which are feathered to the ends of the toes. Males, females, and immature owls are similar in appearance. Their wings are long and fringed with sound-lessening filaments at the tips of their flight feathers. These special feathers allow the Great Horned Owl to approach their prey extremely quietly, which assists in their nighttime hunting. Great horned owls have the largest eyes of all owl species and their vision is 10 times better than humans in daylight and 100 times better at night. However, they cannot move their eyes from side to side. Instead, their heads can rotate up to 270 degrees. This head rotation is necessary because the eyes are fixed in the sockets with no muscle attachments.
Range/Habitat: They can be found throughout North America in dense wilderness forests, suburban woodlands, city parks, and along the coasts. The Great Horned Owl is found in northern, central and southern America, where it ranks amongst the largest owls. It is present in many habitats, including northern forests, coastal mangrove forests, and mountain and desert areas.
Diet: Great Horned Owls are mainly nocturnal, but they will hunt night or day. They have extremely acute hearing and swoop down, catching their prey by surprise in their powerful talons. They feed on a variety of animals including waterfowl, rabbits, squirrels, marshbirds, hawks, rodents, frogs, eels, fish, and insects.
Reproduction and Nesting: The males usually begin calling for a mate as early as December and January. They use abandoned nests of other species such as red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, herons, crows, or old leaf nests of squirrels. The nests are located fifteen to seventy feet above the ground. The female lays one to six white eggs with the average ranging from two to three. Both parents incubate the eggs; incubation lasts about a month. The young stay in the nest for six to seven weeks and begin to fly when they are ten to twelve weeks of age. The female tends to provide most of the care.
Lifespan: In captivity, a great horned owl has lived up to 29 years. In the wild, one banded female was known to live nearly 20 years. The average lifespan of a wild great horned owl would be about five years.
Legal Protection: Great horned owls are protected through the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act pf 1918. This Act states that it is illegal to harm or kill any raptor species, or to interfere with nests or eggs. It is also illegal to possess any part of a raptor unless permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Act provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture or kill; attempt to take, capture or kill; or possess any migratory bird or part of a bird. Anyone who knowingly takes a migratory bird and intends to, offers to, or actually sells or barters the bird is guilty of a felony, with fines up to $2,000, jail up to two years, or both.
For more information, see the Natural Diversity Information Source species profile.