Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Bubo virginianus

Status: Not Listed

Classification: Bird


Despite its name, the great horned owl doesn’t actually have horns. Instead it has tufts of feathers on either side of its head, which resemble horns or ears. The bird's feathers are brown to gray, except for the ones on its throat, which are white. Great horned owls have a wingspan of approximately 4.6 feet (1.4 meters) and weigh just three pounds (1.4 kilograms).


The great horned owl is found throughout the continental United States, as well as in Alaska. Its geographic range extends south into Mexico, Central America, and South America. This bird is a solitary species that inhabits forests, canyons, and clearings. Like other owls, the great horned owl is nocturnal, spending its nights awake in search of prey.


Modern birds don’t have teeth for chewing, so owls eat their prey whole and then later regurgitate pellets of indigestible material. They feed mostly on small mammals and other birds, and are one of the only animals that includes skunk in their regular diet. They have even been known to eat owls and other large birds of prey. Owls have many fantastic adaptations that make them great birds of prey. Their sense of hearing is so acute that they can detect a mouse stepping on a twig from a distance of 75 feet (23 meters). Their eyes are so large that they cannot move them back and forth like humans—instead they must turn their heads. Owls can move their heads up to 270 degrees (a three-quarter turn) to look in different directions.

Life History

Courtship begins in January or February between a pair of mating great horned owls. Both parents incubate the eggs until they hatch, which happens after about four weeks. The offspring are protected by the parents until they’ve reached maturity at an age of one to two months. The oldest known great horned owl in the wild lived to be at least 28 years old.


Great horned owls are stable. There has been some animosity toward great horned owls because of their tendency to prey upon poultry. However, it is also recognized that the owls are beneficial to humans because they control rodent populations.

5 Fun Facts

1. Great horned owls are one of North America’s largest and most widespread owl species.

2. Though common, great horned owls are rarely seen due to their nocturnal habits and excellent camouflage.

3. Instead of actual “horns,” great horned owls have feather tufts that they use for territorial displays.

4. Great horned owls’ ears are actually simple holes in their heads underneath their feathers.

5. The owl’s flight feathers have soft edges that allow it to fly silently and ambush prey.


Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

NatureServe Explorer

San Diego Zoo

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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