Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

name = Great Horned Owl
status = LC
status_system = iucn3.1
status_ref =

image_width = 250px
image_caption = Great Horned Owl, "Bubo virginianus pacificus"
regnum = Animalia
phylum = Chordata
classis = Aves
ordo = Strigiformes
familia = Strigidae
genus = " Bubo"
species = "B. virginianus"
binomial = "Bubo virginianus"
binomial_authority = (Gmelin, 1788)

range_map_width = 204px
range_map_caption = Distribution
subdivision_ranks = Subspecies
subdivision = see text
synonyms ="Strix virginiana" Gmelin, 1788
The Great Horned Owl, "Bubo virginianus", is a large owl native to North and South America. It is an adaptable bird with a vast range, though it is not as widespread as the Barn Owl.


The breeding habitat of the Great Horned Owl extends almost throughout both North America and South America. Within their habitat they can take up residence in trees that include deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests, tropical rainforests, pampas, prairie, mountainous areas, deserts, subarctic tundra, rocky coasts, mangrove swamps, and some urban areas. Though less common in the more extreme areas (i.e. the heart of the deserts, extremely dense rainforests) and missing from the high Arctic tundra, they are found in most habitats.


Individuals range in length from 46 to 68 cm (18 to 27 inches) and have a wingspan of 101 to 153 cm (40 to 60.5 inches). An average Great Horned Owl is 55 cm (22 inches) long, has a wingspan of 124 cm (49 inches) and weighs about 1400 grams (3.1 lbs). Generally, the largest owls are found closer to the Polar regions and the smallest owls are found closer to the Equator. Females are larger than males. Adults have large ear tufts, a reddish, brown or gray face and a white patch on the throat. The iris is yellow, except in the race "B. v. nacurutu" where it is amber. The ear tufts are not actually ears, but simply tufts of feathers. The underparts are light with brown barring; the upper parts are mottled brown. The legs and feet are covered in feathers up to the talons. There are individual and regional variations in color; birds from the sub-Arctic are a washed-out, light-buff color, while those from Central America can be a dark chocolate brown. Owls also have spectacular binocular vision needed to pinpoint prey and see in low light. Owls cannot move their eyes as humans can. They are locked in a special circular bone. Therefore, their neck must be able to turn a full 270 degrees in order to see in other directions without moving its entire body. An owl's hearing is as good — if not better — than its vision. Owls have stereo hearing that allows them to find the exact location of their prey. These birds also have 500 pounds per square inch of crushing power in their talons. A normal man has about 60 pounds per square inch in his hands. Fact|date=May 2008


Great Horned Owls are some of the earliest-breeding birds in North America. They breed in late January or early February and are often heard calling to each other in the fall, starting in October. They choose a mate by December and are often heard duetting before this time. For owls found in more tropical climates, the dates of the breeding season are somewhat undefined. They often take over a nest used by some other large bird, sometimes adding feathers to line the nest but usually not much more. Old crow, Common Raven, Red-tailed Hawk and large squirrel nests are often favored in North America. However, they are far from dependent on the old nests of others and may use cavities in trees and snags, cliffs, deserted buildings, and artificial platforms.

There are usually 2 eggs per clutch, with a clutch ranging in size from 1 to 5 eggs (5 is very rare). The average egg breadth is 46.5 mm (1.8 inches), the average length is 55.2 mm (2.2 inches) and the average weight is 51 grams (1.8 oz). The incubation period ranges from 30 to 37 days, averaging 33 days. Brooding is almost continuous until the offspring are about 2 weeks old, after which it decreases. Young owls move onto nearby branches at 6 weeks and start to fly about a week later. The offspring have still been seen begging for food in late October (5 months after leaving the nest) and most do not separate from their parents until right before they start to reproduce for the next clutch (usually December). Birds may not breed for another year or two, and are often vagrants ("floaters") until they establish their own territories. All adult Great Horned Owls are permanent residents of their territories. Eggs, nestlings and fledgings may be preyed on by foxes, coyotes, wild or feral cats. There are almost no predators of adults, but they may be killed in confrontations with eagles, Snowy Owls and, mostly, other Great Horned Owls, which may end in the eating of the dead owl.

Hunting and Behavior

The birds hunt at night by waiting on a high perch and swooping down on prey. Prey is quite variable, but is predominantly small to medium-sized mammals such as rats, squirrels, mice, moles, voles, marmots, skunks, shrews, bats, weasels, gerbils and even porcupines. Locally, hares and rabbits can comprise a great majority of subsistence for Great Horned Owls. Birds comprise the other large portion of Great Horned Owl prey, with birds ranging in size from kinglets to Great Blue Herons being taken. Locally, waterbirds, especially coots and ducks, can be important prey; raptors up to the size of Snowy Owls are sometimes taken. Reptiles, amphibians, fish, crustaceans and even insects are occasional prey. In northern regions, where larger prey that cannot be eaten quickly are most prevalent, they may let uneaten food freeze and then thaw it out later using their own body heat. They also tend to eat and regurgitate food in the same locations.

They have excellent hearing and exceptional vision in low light. Their hearing has better depth perception than human hearing Fact|date=April 2008 and better perception of sound elevation (up-down direction). The latter is possible because owl ears are not placed in the same position on either side of their head: the right ear is typically set higher in the skull and at a slightly different angle. By tilting or turning its head until the sound is the same in each ear, an owl can pinpoint both the horizontal and vertical direction of a sound. The eyes of Great Horned Owls are also nearly as large as those of humans and are immobile within their sockets. Instead of turning their eyes, they turn their heads.

Their call is a low-pitched but loud "ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo." Sometimes it is only four syllables instead of five. The female's call is higher and rises in pitch at the end of the call. Young owls make hissing or screeching sounds that are often confused with the calls of Barn Owls. The male owl's call is often used in Hollywood movies, no matter what kind of owl is being depicted on screen (in a manner similar to the cry of the Red-tailed Hawk). The Great Horned Owl is the provincial bird of Alberta. Great Horned Owls can be easily confused with "Bubo magellanicus", the Magellanic Horned Owl (which was for some time believed to belong in this species), and other eagle-owls.


A large number of subspecies have been named. As indicated above, many of these are only examples of individual or clinal variation. Subspecies differences are mainly in color and size and generally follow Gloger's and Bergmann's Rules.

* "B. v. virginianus" (Gmelin, 1788): Common Great Horned Owl:USA eastwards from Minnesota to E Texas; northeastwards to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Canada. Resident all-year.:A brown form, tinged rufous and barred distinctly blackish-brown below. Feet tawny to buff, often barred black.

* "B. v. nacurutu" (Vieillot, 1817): South American Great Horned Owl:A lowland form occurring in disjunct populations from from E Colombia to the Guyanas; also from Bolivia and Brazil south of the Amazonas basin to N Argentina; resident all-year. Includes the proposed subspecies "scotinus", "elutus", and "deserti" (Holt "et al." 1999). The status of this form, especially the relationships between the subpopulations and with ssp. "nigrescens" and the Magellanic Horned Owl, deserves more study.:Dull brownish with long bill; birds from the semiarid interior of Brazil often have much white on uppertail- and ear-coverts. It is the only subspecies where the iris is amber, not yellow.

* "B. v. subarcticus" Hoy, 1852: Northern Great Horned Owl:Breeding range from Mackenzie and NE British Columbia E to Hudson Bay; southern limit unclear but at least reaches to Montana and North Dakota. Non-breeding birds are regularly found south to latitude 45°S, occasionally beyond. Includes the birds described as "occidentalis" (but see below), and "sclariventris" (Dickerman 2004). The older name "wapacuthu" was occasionally used for this subspecies, but it cannot with certainty be assigned to a recognizable taxon and is thus considered a "nomen dubium". The population described as "algistus" is probably based on wandering individuals and/or intergrades of "subarcticus", "saturatus" and "lagophonus".(Holt "et al." 1999):A pale form, essentially whitish with faint buff tinge; black underside barring variable from indistinct to pronounced. Very pale birds are similar to a young female Snowy Owl from a distance. Feet whitish to buff, with little or no pattern.

* "B. v. pacificus" Cassin, 1854: California Great Horned Owl:Central and southern California west of the Sierra Nevada except San Joaquin Valley, south to NW Baja California, Mexico. Intergrades with "pallescens" in San Diego County, California (see also below). Resident all-year.:Very rich brown, dark underside barring distinct but less pronounced than in "saturatus". Humeral area black. Feet mottled dark.

* "B. v. saturatus" Ridgway, 1877: Coastal Great Horned Owl:Pacific coast from SE Alaska to N California. Resident all-year.:A dark, dull and somewhat greyish form with heavily barred underside. Feet fairly dusky overall.

* "B. v. nigrescens" Berlepsch, 1884: North Andean Great Horned Owl:Andes; arid temperate and puna zones from Colombia to NW Peru. Resident all-year round.:A dark, cold gray-brown form with heavy fuscous blotching.

* "B. v. pallescens" Stone, 1897: Desert Great Horned Owl:San Joaquin Valley southeastwards through arid regions of SE California and S Utah eastwards to W Kansas and southwards to Guerrero and W Veracruz in Mexico; intergrades with "pacificus" in San Diego County; vagrant individuals of "lagophonus" and the Rocky Mountains population, which look similar to intergrades, also seem to occur in its range. Resident all-year.:A small, pale dusky buff form with indistinct barring, especially on the underside. Humeral area umber. Feet white and usually unmarked.

* "B. v. mayensis" (Nelson, 1901): Yucatán Great Horned Owl:Yucatán Peninsula. Resident all-year.:A small and medium pale form.

* "B. v. elachistus" Brewster, 1902: Baja California Great Horned Owl:S Baja California, Mexico. Resident all-year.:Similar in color to "pacificus", but considerably (5-10%) smaller; some overlap though.

* "B. v. heterocnemis" (Oberholser, 1904): Northeastern Great Horned Owl:Breeds in E Canada (N Quebec, Labrador, Newfoundland). In winter, disperses southwards to Ontario to NW USA. Doubtfully distinct from "saturatus" (Holt "et al." 1999).:A fairly dark and grey, heavily barred form. Feet pale with dusky mottling.

* "B. v. lagophonus" (Oberholser, 1904): Northwestern Great Horned Owl:Breeds from inland Alaska south through mountaineous areas of British Columbia to NE Oregon, the Snake River, and NW Montana. Reported in winter as far south as Colorado and Texas. Doubtfully distinct from "saturatus" (Holt "et al." 1999).:Greyer than "saturatus", but similar overall. Feet with dusky barring.

* "B. v. mesembrinus" (Oberholser, 1904): Central American Great Horned Owl:Isthmus of Tehuantepec to W Panama. Resident all-year.:A mid-sized form; darker than "mayensis".

* "B. v." ssp. nov.?: Rocky Mountains Great Horned Owl:The Rocky Mountains population may constitute an as yet undescribed subspecies. It breeds south of the Snake River south to Arizona, New Mexico, and the Guadalupe Mountains. Westwards, it is presumed to occur to the Modoc Plateau and Mono Lake. The name "occidentalis" may apply to these birds pending analysis of the type specimen; certainly, they were included in the presumed subspecies named thus, but intergradation between "pallescens" and "lagophonus" and altitudinal migration of Rocky Mountain birds is not sufficiently researched yet (Holt "et al." 1999). :A medium gray form, intermediate between "lagophonus" and "pallescens". Moderately barred and tinged buff on the underside. Feet mottled.

The Pleistocene Sinclair Owl from California, "Bubo sinclairi", may be a paleosubspecies of this species (Howard 1947).

References in Media

* The "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" book series has two great horned owl characters, Bubo the Blacksmith and Skench, the evil Ablah General.
* Rachel and Cassie of Animorphs frequently use great horned owl morphs.





* Database entry includes justification for why this species is of least concern

* Dickerman, Robert W. (2004): Notes on the type of "Bubo virginianus sclariventris". "Bull. B.O.C." 124(1): 5-6. [ PDF fulltext]

* Holt, Denver W., Berkley, Regan; Deppe, Caroline; Enríquez Rocha, Paula L.; Olsen, Penny D.; Petersen, Julie L.; Rangel Salazar, José Luis; Segars, Kelley P. & Wood, Kristin L. (1999): 69. Great Horned Owl. "In:" del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (eds): "Handbook of Birds of the World, Volume 5: Barn-owls to Hummingbirds": 185, plate 10. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-25-3

* Howard, Hildegarde (1947): A preliminary survey of trends in avian evolution from Pleistocene to recent time. 'Condor" 49(1): 10-13. [ PDF fulltext]

* Houston, C. S., Smith, D. G. & Rohner, C. (1998): Great Horned Owl ("Bubo virginianus"). "In:" Poole, A. & Gill, F. (eds.): "The Birds of North America" 372. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA & American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. Online version, retrieved 2006-DEC-05. DOI|10.2173/bna.372 (requires subscription)

External links

*Cornell Lab of Ornithology: [ Great Horned Owl Species Account] . Retrieved 2007-JAN-29.
*South Dakota Birds and Birding: [ Great Horned Owl Information and Photos] . Retrieved 2007-JAN-29.
*USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter: [ Great Horned Owl Information] . Retrieved 2007-JAN-29.
* [ Great Horned Owl videos] on the Internet Bird Collection

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • great horned owl — Horned Horned, a. Furnished with a horn or horns; furnished with a hornlike process or appendage; as, horned cattle; having some part shaped like a horn. [1913 Webster] The horned moon with one bright star Within the nether tip. Coleridge. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • great horned owl — great′ horned′ owl′ n. orn a large, brown speckled New World owl, Bubo virginianus, having prominent ear tufts …   From formal English to slang

  • great horned owl — n. a large, pale gray and brownish American owl (Bubo virginianus) with two prominent tufts of black feathers on its head …   English World dictionary

  • great horned owl — noun brown North American horned owl • Syn: ↑Bubo virginianus • Hypernyms: ↑horned owl * * * noun 1. : a large No. American owl (Bubo virginianus) with conspicuous ear tufts 2. : an eagle o …   Useful english dictionary

  • great horned owl — virgininis didysis apuokas statusas T sritis zoologija | vardynas atitikmenys: lot. Bubo virginianus angl. great horned owl vok. Virginiauhu, m rus. виргинский филин, m pranc. grand duc d Amérique, m ryšiai: platesnis terminas – didieji apuokai …   Paukščių pavadinimų žodynas

  • great horned owl — a large, brown speckled owl, Bubo virginianus, common in the Western Hemisphere, having prominent ear tufts. See illus. under owl. [1670 80] * * * Horned owl species (Bubo virginianus) that ranges from Arctic tree limits south to the Strait of… …   Universalium

  • great horned owl — noun Date: 1812 a large American owl (Bubo virginianus) with conspicuous ear tufts …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • great horned owl — noun A large owl, Bubo virginianus, resident in North America, having tufts on its ears …   Wiktionary

  • South American Great Horned Owl — Taxobox name = South American Great Horned Owl status = image width = image caption = regnum = Animalia phylum = Chordata classis = Aves ordo = Strigiformes familia = Strigidae genus = Bubo species = B. virginianus subspecies = B. v. nacurutu… …   Wikipedia

  • horned owl — n. any of several owls having two projecting tufts of feathers on the head * * * Any owl of the genus Bubo (family Strigidae), with hornlike tufts of feathers, especially the great horned owl. Other horned owls, all birds of prey, are found in… …   Universalium

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