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The Great Horned Owl: A Detailed Look at North America’s Iconic Bird of Prey

Mackenzie Gary

Bird cages Guide


The Majestic Great Horned Owl, a prevalent and versatile bird, thrives throughout North America, extending up to the northern forests.

These owls adapt to diverse environments, including deserts, wetlands, various forests, grasslands, urban areas, and more.

Their nesting habits are quite adaptable as well; they often occupy old nests left by

  • hawks,
  • crows,
  • ravens,
  • herons, or squirrels,
  • and sometimes even seize nests from hawks or corvids.

Additionally, they utilize tree cavities, dead snags, buildings, cliff crevices, and artificial structures such as Osprey platforms and Peregrine Falcon hack boxes.

While they sometimes add bark, foliage, or feathers to nests, they generally do little to maintain them.

A telltale sign of their presence is a pile of regurgitated pellets beneath their nests.


As the heaviest owl species in North America, Great Horned Owls may seem less imposing than the Great Gray or Snowy Owls, but they are stronger and capable of preying on these species.

Recognizable by their prominent ear tufts and striking yellow eyes, these owls have fixed eyes but can rotate their heads impressively over 180°.

They are nocturnal hunters with superb night vision and hearing, enabling them to locate prey in almost complete darkness.

Their hunting prowess is formidable, with a grip strong enough to overpower prey up to twice their size.

Their diet is exceptionally varied, including small animals like

  1. mice,
  2. bats,
  3. scorpions,

and larger creatures such as

  1. hares,
  2. skunks,
  3. squirrels,
  4. and even other birds and raptors.

They also consume reptiles, insects, fish, and amphibians depending on their habitat.

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Great Horned Owls sometimes roost visibly on fence posts or tree limbs at twilight, but when hidden, their presence is often betrayed by the loud calls of crows, jays, or chickadees.

They defend their territory aggressively, snapping their bills and hissing, and can strike with their talons if threatened.

Their vocalizations are distinctive, especially the deep “hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo” calls that can be heard from dusk to dawn.

The male and female engage in alternating calls, with the female’s voice being slightly higher.

The young owlets produce a raspy scream when hungry, similar to the screech of a Barn Owl, often leading to confusion.

Conservation Status and Concerns The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies this species as Least Concern, indicating a stable population.

However, there are ongoing conservation challenges, including habitat degradation and frequent collisions, which pose threats to their well-being.

Taxonomic Classification Belonging to the owl family, this species is a notable member of the avian group known for its nocturnal habits and distinctive hooting calls.

Physical Dimensions.

The size of these birds is quite impressive, with a length ranging from 21 to 24 inches and a wingspan that spans between 42 and 55 inches, showcasing their majestic presence in their natural habitats.

Flight Characteristics

In the air, it moves with strong, deep, slow wingbeats, maintaining a silent flight.

Typically, it flies short distances, usually moving from one tree to another, especially when startled.

Feather Coloring.

The bird’s plumage displays a mix of mottled gray-brown, complemented by a reddish-brown face and a distinct facial disk.

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Notably, there’s a white patch on the throat or upper chest. Its large eyes are a striking yellow, paired with a black bill.

Depending on its geographical location, the coloration varies: it’s sootier in the Pacific Northwest, paler and grayer in the Southwest, whiter in Canada, and a pale gray-brown in the eastern regions.


This bird boasts a wide, robust body coupled with a short, stout head.

It is distinguished by two noticeable feathered tufts resembling ears atop its head.

Its wings are characterized by their broadness and rounded tips.

In flight, it presents a sturdy, blunt-headed profile.