Great Horned Owls: The Greatest Hunters

If there’s a nesting owl in your neighborhood, there’s a good chance it’s a great horned owl. Get an up-close look at these fierce birds of prey.

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.

If there’s a nesting owl in your neighborhood, there’s a good chance it’s a great horned owl. The second-largest owl species in North America, these birds of prey make themselves at home in a diverse range of habitats, including deserts, wetlands and forests.

What Do Great Horned Owls Eat?

Overall, they prefer woods near open areas and fields, but they aren’t too picky about what they eat. From snakes and scorpions to rabbits and 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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When Do Great Horned Owls Mate?

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.

Owls hoot at night, especially before breeding season in fall. A paired male and female utter a low series of five to eight hoots. They also bow to each other and rub their bills together. 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. They raise their young in abandoned squirrel or hawk nests or in tree cavities. Females lay eggs in late November in Florida, late December in the Carolinas, and late January farther north.

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How Great Horned Owls Raise Their Young

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. By seven weeks, fledgling great horned owls 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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Attract Great Horned Owls

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. Here’s how to safely observe nesting birds.

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Sheryl DeVore
Sheryl DeVore is a science, nature, health and social Issues writer, editor, educator and wild birds expert.