GREAT HORNED OWL(Bubo virginianus)

The Great horned owl is a large and powerful nocturnal bird of prey that will hunt even animals larger than itself. It has quite a reputation around its behavior and interactions with humans, and when we think about an owl often this is the species that comes to mind. Its appearance, with its raised ear ‘horns’ (hence the English name) or tufts (proper name: plumicorns) and intense stare from its large yellow eyes, can be quite intimidating.

The great horned owl is about 60 cm (24 in.) long, and can weigh up to 2.5 kg (5.5 lb). This makes it one of the heaviest owls in the Americas. The large yellow eyes are specialized for night hunting. The plumage is meant for camouflage – whitish under parts with dense horizontal brown barring, and the upper parts mottled brown. The sides also are barred. There’s a white patch on the throat. The legs and feet are covered with feathers. The bill and talons are dark grey. Although the eyes don’t move in their sockets, the head can turn more than 180 degrees. The facial disc helps focus sounds to increase hearing capacity. Sexes are similar, but females are larger. When erected, the ear tufts form a ‘V’ that descends down to the bill and separates the facial disc, which is reddish brown or grey depending on the subspecies.

The name ‘Owl’ is an onomatopoeia for the bird’s call and comes from Cockney. The genus Latin name ‘Bubo’ means ‘owl’, and the species name ‘virginianus’ refers to the fact that the first specimen was discovered in the Virginia colony of the United States.

As with other owls, the great horned owl swallows its small prey whole and whatever is not digested (fur, feathers, bones) is regurgitated as ‘pellets’. So if someone wants to know the diet of an owl, all they have to do is look for those biological indicators. This predator will also hunt larger prey such as raccoons, skunks (likely because this owl has a poor sense of smell), other birds of prey and also, unfortunately, cats and dogs.

The American crow is known to mob birds of prey such as the great horned owl, and can harass them for hours. This owl will also try taking porcupines, often with fatal results. It usually hunts at night, but on cloudy days may hunt late in the afternoon.

The great horned owl has a silent flight due to the softness and density of its wing feathers. This makes him a stealth killer.

The habitat of the great horned owl is quite diverse, from forests to deserts to parks in cities – everywhere there is adequate food available. Their sounds also are diverse – in addition to the typical hooting call, great horned owls emit squawking sounds, and snap their bills when defending the nest. Do great horned owls hoot and squawk more during the full moon?

Pairs of this bird species mate for life, and both parents will share feeding the young. They are very protective of their young and will attack even humans if they get too close to the nest. The latter is built in an existing tree cavity or from another large bird’s nest such as a great blue heron.

The Great horned owl breeds on PEI and is a year-round resident on the island. It is considered as fairly common throughout all seasons. This owl has a vast non-migratory distribution throughout the Americas, up north to the end of the tree line, and in many parts of South America. The birds near the extreme northern range may partially migrate south however.

Conservation: great horned owl numbers have declined markedly over the last few decades, but in spite of this the species is not considered threatened. Sometimes this owl, like other birds of prey, will get poisoned from pesticides and other toxins accumulated in their prey.

The Great horned owl had an important cultural significance for many First Nation tribes, who saw strength and courage in its behavior. They admired its beauty and associated it sometimes with love and fertility.

Finally, the great horned owl is the provincial bird of Alberta.

Great horned owl - Quebec City, QC - photo by Cephas
Great horned owl – Quebec City, QC – photo by Cephas
Great horned owl chicks - photo by AmericanLemming-Connie Stampfl
Great horned owl chicks – photo by AmericanLemming-Connie Stampfl