Great Horned Owl: The Greatest Nocturnal Hunter

If you hear owl sounds in your neighborhood, it’s likely a great horned owl. Learn about their size, wingspan, nests, what they eat and more.

Great Horned Owl Size

great-horned owlphoto credit: Marie Read
Those “horns” on top of the great horned’s head aren’t ears at all, but feather tufts called plumicorns. Scientists theorize that owls use them to recognize each other.

Great horned owls are big birds, one of the largest owl species in North America, measuring around 2 feet long, and weighing around 3 pounds with a wingspan of 4½ feet! The bird’s anatomy is adapted to its habitat and behavior. It has a sharp beak for eating meat, talons for gripping prey and fringed wing feathers for silent flight.

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What Prey Do Great Horned Owls Eat?

09 Billrobertson Bbon19Courtesy Bill Robertson
Owl resting after chasing prey across a Colorado backyard.

Their favorite food? Skunks! But their full menu is a long one, including crows and other birds, frogs, shrews, bats, rabbits and other small mammals. But overall they aren’t too picky about what they eat. From scorpions to mice, a great horned owl’s diet is expansive.

One thing that makes great horned owls skilled nocturnal hunters is their hearing capability. The owl’s facial disk (the collection of feathers around the eyes) works like a satellite dish, trapping the sound and forcing it toward the ear canal. Its ears are on either side of the head, with one higher than the other to help the owl zero in on the location of its prey.

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Do Great Horned Owls Eat Birds?

274234305 1 Curt Lundeen Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Curt Lundeen
The great horned owl’s wide wingspan in flight

Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman say, “There’s no need to be too concerned about other birds. These big owls capture a wide variety of prey, from insects and snakes to groundhogs. On average, birds make up less than 10% of their diet.

Even if you hear them often, the owls are probably hunting over a large area, up to a square mile or more, not concentrating on your yard. The best protection for smaller birds is to provide plenty of dense cover, such as native shrubs and trees, where they can sleep securely at night when the owls are hunting.”

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Great Horned Owl Sounds

great horned owlCourtesy Laura Palmer
A great horned owl on a chilly winter afternoon in Howell, Michigan

If you ask someone what noise owls make, expect some variation of hoos or hoots. The great horned owl makes these soft, deep sounds that many people associate with owls. The recognizable hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo … hoooh notes ring out across North America. They’re most vocal in winter, so bundle up and step outside for a listen.

Great horneds are early nesters; listen for their characteristic hoots on cold, crisp nights, and especially before breeding season. A paired male and female perform a courtship duet. They utter a low series of five to eight hoots; the female’s notes are higher pitched. They also bow to each other and rub their bills together.

Female great horned owls are bigger than males, but males have larger voice boxes. When you hear them calling back and forth, try to pick up the male’s deeper voice and the female’s corresponding higher pitched hoots.

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Do Great Horned Owls Mate for Life?

owl close upCourtesy Kelly Isley
Great horned owl in Sedona, Arizona, on an early fall morning

Great horned owl pairs are monogamous and may stay together for five years or more. Some researchers think they stick by each other’s sides for life. Males assist throughout the entire nesting season and will bring food to the nest for the female and young.

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Great Horned Owl Nest

great horned owl in nestCourtesy Ron Matason
On osprey nest taken over by a great horned owl

While fall and winter might seem like improbable times to nest, the great horned owl is no ordinary bird.

“When the young are hatching, there has to be an abundant prey source to feed them, and great horned owls have it timed just right,” says Jim Herkert, executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society. In late winter and early spring, plenty of mammals and other prey are available for the parents to bring to their recently hatched young.

They raise their young in abandoned squirrel or hawk nests made of sticks, or in tree cavities. Females lay eggs in late November in Florida, late December in the Carolinas, and late January farther north.

It is still winter in the northern states when great horned owls start incubating their eggs. It’s essential that these owls get an early start on nesting because the species is slow to hatch and fledge. It is remarkable to think of the owls sitting on eggs as snow piles up during frigid nights.

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Baby and Juvenile Great Horned Owls

baby owlsCourtesy Brent Barnes
Juvenile great horned owls

Growing up takes a long time for young great horned owls. The young hatch in about 30 days. The male brings food to his partner, who tears it into bite-sized pieces and feeds it to the young.

In three weeks, their offspring begin peering out of the nest, showing off the white down on their heads. They stay in the nest for five or six weeks after hatching. They climb out of the nest onto nearby tree branches, and sometimes they fall to the ground and clamber or flutter back up to safety.

By seven weeks, fledgling great horned owls are fully feathered enough to make short flights. But adults continue to bring them food, responding to an eerie begging call that sounds like a human scream. Fledged owls typically stay with their parents for most of the summer.

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How to Attract Great Horned Owls

251870095 1 Arnold Landsman Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Arnold Landsman
Owl in take springtime in St. Augustine Florida

Great horned owl numbers are declining, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. To help, erect a wooden nesting platform with shallow sides in a live tree. Place large sticks and grass inside to mimic a hawk’s or crow’s nest.

Once you’ve attracted a pair of great horned owls, listen for hoots in the autumn night. Just make sure you watch from a distance so you don’t disturb them. 

Get more tips on how to attract owls to nest in your backyard.

Habitat

great horned owlCourtesy Thomas Orourke

If there’s an owl in your neighborhood, there’s a good chance it’s a great horned owl. These birds of prey make themselves at home in a diverse range of habitats, including deserts, wetlands and forests. Overall, they prefer woods near open areas and fields, but they are found across North America, even in cities.

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Sheryl DeVore
Sheryl DeVore is a science, nature, health and social issues writer, editor and educator. In addition to being an expert on wild birds, she has been studying plants, insects and other natural wonders for more than 25 years. Her byline has appeared in Birds & Blooms, the Chicago Tribune and the publications of the National Audubon Society and the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. DeVore has taught journalism classes at Northwestern University, as well as nature and bird writing classes and workshops for The Field Museum, The Nature Conservancy, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Lake County Forest Preser.
Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten has more than 15 years of experience writing and editing birding and gardening content. As content director of Birds & Blooms, she leads the team of editors and freelance writers sharing tried-and-true advice for nature enthusiasts who love to garden and feed birds in their backyards. Since joining Birds & Blooms 17 years ago, Kirsten has held roles in digital and print, editing direct-to-consumer books, running as many as five magazines at a time, and managing special interest publications. Kirsten has traveled to see amazing North American birds and attended various festivals, including the Sedona Hummingbird Festival, the Rio Grande Bird Festival, The Biggest Week in American Birding Festival, and the Cape May Spring Festival. She has also witnessed the epic sandhill crane migration while on a photography workshop trip to Colorado. Kirsten has participated in several GardenComm and Outdoor Writers Association of America annual conferences and is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. When she's not researching, writing, and editing all things birding and gardening, Kirsten is enjoying the outdoors with her nature-loving family. She and her husband are slowly chipping away at making their small acreage the backyard of their dreams.