When we hear the hoot-hoot of an owl’s call, this is the bird we think of first. The Great Horned Owl is found across the country and is one of the largest owls at 22 inches long with a wingspan of up to five feet. Its most distinguishing feature is the pair of widely spaced, feather ear-tufts that resemble horns, giving this owl its name.
A fearsome hunter, the Great Horned Owl has binocular vision and can see in extremely low light. Because its eyes are fixed in their sockets, the owl turns its head to see rather than moving its eyes. It can turn its head a full 270 degrees while keeping it’s body perfectly still, letting it silently observe the surrounding area, completely unseen. When prey is spotted, the bird swoops silently from its perch, grasping its meal with formidable talons that have a crushing force of 500 lbs per square inch. In comparison, a human’s hands can exert only 60 lbs. of force per square inch!
The Great Horned Owl can take prey as large as a Great Blue Heron and frequently dines on birds, including hawks, and mammals such as squirrels, rabbits, skunks, domestic cats. As well as a host of other creatures, including reptiles and amphibians. It will even prey on other owls. The Great Horned is a major predator of the smaller Barred Owl. And the only predator an adult Great Horned has is another Great Horned Owl, although their eggs are sometimes taken by crows or raccoons. There’s very little this bird doesn’t consider food, but since it hunts only at night, there’s not a lot of competition between it and its daytime equal, the Red-tailed Hawk. As a result, they often share the same territory.
Another interesting fact about owls is that they eat every part of their prey. As a result, they consume a lot of indigestible material, such as feet, bills and bones. Owls regurgitate this material in the form of pellets which are usually found at the base of the bird’s roosting tree. It may seem unpleasant, but you can find out a lot about an owl’s diet by dissecting the pellets—or perhaps we can just leave that part to the ornithologists!
Great Horned Owls choose their mates in December and can often be heard calling to each other during the courtship period, beginning in October. They don’t really build their own nests, but rather take over nests made by other birds or squirrels. They’ll also nest in tree cavities or on man-made platforms. By late January or early February, two eggs are usually laid, although rarely there can be as many as five in the clutch. Within 7 weeks, the little ones are flying with their parents. They’ll stay together as a family until the parents are ready for the next brood the following December. I hope the next time you hear this magnificent bird calling in the night, you’ll know a little more about them!