Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl


North, Central and South America.


No other new world owl lives in so many habitats or so many climatic variations. All types of habitat are frequented by Great horned owls, although they prefer wooded or forested areas.


The great horned owl is readily recognized by its large size and large ear tufts, up to 3 inches in length, which are nearly always erect. The body is large and powerfully built. The legs and large feet are densely feathered. The long wings are rounded and are nearly as long as the tail when folded. The overall plumage is grayish-brown, mottled with white buff. There is great individual variation, with northern birds being much lighter and southern birds appearing almost black. A black ruff of feathers partially encircles the round facial disc that surrounds the large yellow eyes. The juveniles may be slightly more buff than the adults and there is no sexual dimorphism in the plumage.

Great Horned Owl

Great horned owls are generally solitary and nocturnal, but they can be seen during daylight hours, especially if the sky is overcast. Most often during the day these birds perch in an upright posture close to the trunk of a large tree where their cryptic plumage conceals their presence. The great horned owl has great maneuverability for its size. While they most often fly at treetop level, they are capable of soaring at heights of several thousand feet. Great horned owls most often "still" or "perch" hunt. They will choose a tall perch, most often on the edge of a clearing, and drop down on the prey as it travels under the perch. They have been observed walking on the ground picking up bits of wood or moving stones to look for small invertebrates. They will often take diurnal birds, such as red-tailed hawks, off their nests or perches and will tackle cats and skunks. Great horned owls are bold, unpredictable birds. They become aggressive with little provocation, but can also be approached to within a few feet with little reaction. The defensive posture is typical of owls; beak clacking, outstretched wings and side to side swaying. They are essentially non-migratory, except in the extreme northern parts of their range.


Courtship can begin as early as November or December. No flight display is involved; instead the male calls and is answered by the female. After alighting next to the female, the male will often move around her, clacking his beak and ruffling his feathers. Eventually he will offer her a mouse or other prey and copulation usually takes place soon after. As with most owls, great horned owls do not build their own nests; instead they make use of nests built by other species: red-tailed hawks, magpies, herons, or squirrels. If no tree nests are available, they will use a scrape on a cliff ledge. One to four white eggs are laid and the thirty-day incubation begins with the first egg. The young fledge at seven to eight weeks and the family stays together for another one to two months. Sexual maturity is reached at two years, although younger birds may be recruited if nest sites are available and population levels are low.

Interesting Facts:

The genus Bubo contains some of the largest owls in the world, and the great horned owl is the only member of the genus native to Utah. Great horned owls have also been called the big-eared owl, hoot owl and cat owl. Great horned owls are long-lived birds in captivity, commonly living into their twenties. In the wild, life expectancy is the mid-teens.

Did YOU Know?    
Of the 18 owls native to North America, the great horned owl is second in overall size only to the snowy owl.
Great Horned Owl
Class: birds
Genus: Bubo
Species: virginianus
Length: 18-25 inches; wingspan: 4 ft.
Weight: 2-4 1/2 pounds
Average Lifespan: 15-20 years
Wild Diet: All types of vertebrates and invertebrates, including frogs, fish, insects, rodents, rabbits, and birds.
Predators: The great horned owl has no natural enemies, although golden eagles may take the owls if they invade the eagles\\\\\\\' nesting territory. Man has always considered the owl to be a competitor for wild game and domestic livestock, when in fact man has greatly benefitted from the owl\\\\\\\'s dietary habits.
USFWS Status: Not Listed
CITES Status: Not Listed
Where at the Zoo? Off Exhibit: Education Animal Facility

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