The Great Horned Owl: A Magnificent Avian Apex Predator
Great Horned Owls Live All Across the Americas
The great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) are ultimate Americans. From halfway to the northernmost portions of Alaska and Canada, all the way down to the south Amazon basin, you'll find the great horned owls of the Americas. These magnificent predators live as long as 28 years.
The birds of this species demand and are deserving of respect. If you don't think so, try getting at one of the owl's eggs.
First and foremost, beware of their talons, as they are the most dangerous thing—that and the fact you won't be looking for one when one is looking to injure you. These owls' talons are said to exert 500 pounds per square inch of pressure against your skin. Losing an eye is certainly within the realm of possibilities. The strength of the great horned owl's talons is comparable to that of a golden eagle, or to that of a German shepherd's bite.
This article will cover just about everything you need to know about great horned owls, including the legality of owning or hunting them, what they look like, what they eat, and how they live.
Beware: Great Horned Owls Will Attack You
These raptors are predators. Ever hear of a predator that doesn't protect its young, its territory, or itself? No, you have not. Great horned owls can and do attack humans when they feel threatened—and they should! Humans tend not to respect each other much, and much less so other earthlings.
Disrespect them at your own peril, however. They are the only known bird of prey to have ever killed a human being. Yes, the silly dead human tried to get some owl eggs—bad decision, that.
Stay Away From Their Nests
Here's a helpful hint: The great horned owl is liable to see your behavior as disrespectful or threatening even when it isn't. The picture below is of a man who was collecting rabbits from his snares in the woods. Perhaps the owl recognized the human as a threat to his diet? Owls aren't stupid, you know.
All predators are territorial, and the great horned owl is no different. These owls are known to occasionally dive-bomb humans. If you know good and well you are in an area where owls are attacking, then you should carry an umbrella. When it is raining owl talons, an umbrella, thin and simple as one is, can provide some deterrence.
It Is Very Illegal to Harm or Possess a Great Horned Owl Without a License to Do So
It is illegal for you, for me, and for the largest part of the population to possess a great horned owl, or any part of one. Obviously, it is also illegal to kill one, as they are federally protected. We're talking felony charges here. You do not want a felony record.
You have every right, however, to protect yourself from a great horned owl. You just don't have the right to kill one outside the realm of an incident where one is actually attacking you or someone with you. While owl attacks do happen, it's probably not a thing you should worry your little head over.
Me? Heck, I'm forever pleased when I even get to see any owl. A super predator like a great horned owl isn't the type of creature that poses for cameras. Even when I've been out and listening to owls hootie hoodie hoo-ing, I typically don't see them, as it is typically very dark outside at those times. These are nocturnal predators.
What Do Great Horned Owls Eat?
So what do these semi-mythical and powerful raptors eat? Meat, of course. They eat lots of meat. Fresh, wiggling meat is how the great horned owls like it. Of course, a diverse diet is advantageous for most any animal's survival, and the great horned owls are no different. This diversity also goes a long way towards explaining the owl's very large range of dominion from the skies.
A Diverse Diet of Mammals, Birds, and Insects
Great horned owls have the most diverse diet of all North American raptors. Their prey range in size from tiny rodents and scorpions to hares, skunks, geese, and raptors. They eat mostly mammals and birds—especially rabbits, hares, mice, and American coots. But they also eat also many other species, including voles, moles, shrews, rats, gophers, chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, marmots, prairie dogs, bats, skunks, house cats, porcupines, ducks, loons, mergansers, grebes, rails, owls, hawks, crows, ravens, doves, and starlings. They supplement their diet with reptiles, insects, fish, invertebrates, and sometimes carrion.
These birds are all-out predatory. They even eat other owls. The list above of prey is merely a grouping of common examples. Great horned owls prey on 500 known species of creatures, even going so far as to attack and eat bald eagle chicks, assuming the parent birds are not in the nest. This avian apex predator is speculated by some to be the single most successful predator on the planet Earth.
Great Horned Owls Also Hunt During the Day
Although they are usually nocturnal hunters, Great Horned Owls sometimes hunt in broad daylight. After spotting their prey from a perch, they pursue it on the wing over woodland edges, meadows, wetlands, open water, or other habitats. They may also walk along the ground to stalk small prey around bushes or other obstacles.
The Lives of Great Horned Owls
Great horned owls lay eggs weeks in advance of other species of raptors. This gives the owl's chicks a competitive advantage over, say, those of the red-tailed hawk. (The red-tailed hawk, by the way, is a definite competitor to the great horned owls, for just about everything. The two completely distinct species of raptors share the same ecological niche.)
A Courting Process of Posturing, Hooting, and Gift-Giving
These owls spend some time choosing their mates. They start courting in October, make decisions by December, and then are mated for life. These are totally monogamous birds of prey. Besides physical posturing and loads of hooting, the males also do another traditional sort of thing during courtship—they treat the lady to a fine meal of fresh meat.
Their Nests Are Often Stolen From Other Birds
Great horned owl nests are as varied as the vast stretches of land they inhabit. The most consistent characteristic of great horned owl nests is that they're often stolen from other birds. Why build a nest when you can just take one? It's almost human, this raptor, in many of its admirable and less-than-admirable behaviors.
They Fiercely Protect and Amply Provide for Their Young
The laying of eggs is timed according to the region the particular owls inhabit, and the weather in said region. Once again, be advised that you are most likely going to be attacked by a large raptor with powerful talons if you disturb a nest. You may be attacked simply for being too close to it, whether you know about said nest or not.
The females stay with the nest unless something dramatic forces them out. The males act like consummate and loving mates during this time, often doing the hunting for both adults and even stockpiling food for the chicks when they hatch. A studying biologist observed one nest and found a full 18 pounds of meat stored and ready for the chicks.
Eggs are incubated, regardless of the temperature, by the female for 28–37 days before chicks hatch. It's often more than 10 weeks before the baby birds can fly competently.
How Big Are Great Horned Owls?
So how big are these great horned owls? The female is larger than the male, as a rule. Despite the size difference, the male has more developed vocal abilities and can hoot with a deeper, louder voice.
Females weigh around 4 pounds, while males weigh about 3 pounds. The females usually stand 2 feet tall and the males a foot and a half. Wingspans are truly impressive and stretch as far as 5 feet wide in females and 4 feet for the males.
What Are the Great Horned Owl's Enemies?
These birds are veritable avian apex predators, but they still have enemies. Very few, however, pose an actual threat to them.
While great horned owls are so bold as to attack and even eat the chicks of a bald eagle, it is a rare thing. Though in defending their nests bald eagles have been known to kill great horned owls, they do not, however, hunt them. Crows are known to gang up on the great horned owls and harass them for hours and hours at a time, but they can't kill one. Once every blue moon, a red-tailed hawk gets the jump on the great horned owl and kills one.
Though there is exactly one creature that literally hunts this apex predator. That fearsome and huge raptor is the golden eagle, the sworn enemy of great horned owls.
When Ears Are Not Ears
Owls in general are known for having outstanding ears and eyes, and this species is no exception. The eyes of the great horned owl are huge in comparison to the size of its face, and those "horns" are certainly the ears, right? Wrong. The "horns" are not ears, and they aren't horns either. They're actually just feathers, and that is all that they are.
Huge eyes and massive pupils allow the great horned owls to collect all available light while hunting at night. Though they cannot swivel their eyes in their heads as we can, they can rotate their heads as much as 270° in either direction. Who needs swiveling eyes when you can do that? These owls have less ability to differentiate colors than we do though. For colors are not what the owl seeks, but rather, movement.
The ear tufts, which are only feathers, serve the great horned owls as camouflage, and they shift in position to indicate the bird's moods. As shown in the illustration above, the actual ears of this bird are not easily visible to the untrained eye. Those ears, however—along with their eyes—are possibly the greatest surveillance weapons developed by natural selection on the planet Earth.
The Great Horned Owl in Flight
No species of owl is particularly fast as a flyer. Like other owls, this species is almost completely silent in flight. They glide more than they ever flap their wings. With near pinpoint accuracy with the dish face, huge eyes, and finely tuned ears, it is simply not fair for the great horned owl's prey.
You've been losing your cats, have you? You were sure it was coyotes killing them, huh? Think again, my friend. The great horned owl can kill and fly off with prey more than twice its own body weight. Even if a cat was too big for the owl to fly off with, the raptor can easily kill one and get a bellyful on the ground. Instances such as these—where the prey is too large to carry off and the bird must feed there on the ground—are some of the only instances when a great horned owl is ever in physical danger.
Great Horned Owls Are Common Throughout Human Mythology and Fiction
Great horned owls are frequent figures in pop culture, mythology, and folk tales.
In the Harry Potter stories, there is Errol, a messenger great horned owl who plays a role alongside a snow owl. There's little surprising about this, as the wizard Merlin was very fond of owls. His owl's name was Archimedes, and Archimedes was a rather important character to the tale of The Once and Future King.
In addition to pop culture, all owls, not just the great horned ones, are mythological birds. More often than not, owls are thought to be harbingers of doom. One can only imagine how early peoples would react to a nocturnal raptor that seemingly has devil's horns on its head, and the ability to rotate its head to alarming angles.
I hope to have spread some appreciation, if not love, here for the great horned owls. Thanks for reading, and happy hunting to you.
Questions & Answers
I have a pair of nesting owls with two owlets in my and my neighbor's backyard. I watch them every evening with a scope. The juveniles are flying; they are so incredibly noisy. At what point do the kids leave home? At what age do they seek a mate?
Young Great Horned owls are not competent flyers until they are ten to twelve weeks old, but then after that, the time when they leave their parents is dependent upon how much food is available. They are typically gone from a nest before the Fall is over.Helpful 8
Is it legal to own a Great Horned Owl?
You have to have a license to have one.
Will a Great Horned Owl eventually seek new territory? I saw my first one late this evening coasting from pine tree to pine tree, robbing mockingbird nests. All this with a squadron of mockers dive bombing and screeching.
I think if the climate changes the Great Horned Owl could find some new territory. I don't think the other birds could ever chase the Great Horned Owl out of a place though.
Can owls pass disease through their claws?
It is possible such could be the case as an owl's claws are often ripping into prey animals, and there is no certainty as to the health of the prey.
If an owl is hopping around on the ground for quite a while. Is that a sign that it’s I’ll or injured?
Yes, I believe so. I also believe the bird is dangerous when injured, and shouldn't be bothered except by persons trained to do so. I got very close to a great horned owl once, late at night, and strangely enough - standing at a dirt crossroads. Got within ten feet of it, as it was just standing there. Still looked like an animal which could do me great harm, and I respectfully backed away, slowly.Helpful 5
© 2016 Wesman Todd Shaw