Great Horned Owls: The Largest and Most Recognized Owl Species in North America

Great Horned Owls are a fascinating species that captivates both bird enthusiasts and casual observers alike. As one of the largest and most recognized owls in North America, they command attention with their impressive size and distinctive features. Found throughout the Americas, these adaptable owls can thrive in a variety of environments, showcasing variations in coloring and size depending on their location. With their renowned “horns” on their heads, which are actually tufts of feathers known as plumicorns, Great Horned Owls are easily identifiable. Known for their powerful perch hunting skills and diverse diet, these owls mainly feed on mammals and birds. Their large yellow eyes, coupled with excellent eyesight especially in low light conditions, further contribute to their status as formidable predators. With their characteristic hooting calls and ability to establish and defend territories for extended periods, Great Horned Owls demonstrate their highly territorial nature. Furthermore, their unique breeding habits and nesting behavior add to the intrigue surrounding these majestic birds. Overall, the study of Great Horned Owls not only provides insight into their behavior and ecology but also offers a captivating glimpse into the intricate workings of the natural world.

Distribution and Habitat


Great Horned Owls have a wide distribution range, being found throughout North, Central, and South America. They are one of the largest and most recognized owl species in North America, and their range extends from the Arctic tundra to the tropical rainforests. They have adapted to various environments, including forests, deserts, mountains, and urban areas.

Variations in Size and Coloring

The size and coloring of Great Horned Owls can vary depending on their location. Birds from northern regions tend to be larger, while those from southern regions are smaller. This variation in size is an adaptation to the different environments they inhabit. Additionally, the coloring of their plumage can range from grayish-brown to reddish-brown, providing excellent camouflage in their respective habitats.

Adaptability to Different Environments

Great Horned Owls are highly adaptable birds, which allows them to thrive in a wide range of environments. They have powerful wings and can fly long distances, enabling them to transition between different habitats. Whether it’s hunting in dense forests or soaring above open grasslands, these owls have the ability to adapt to the resources and conditions available in their surroundings.

Physical Characteristics

Plumicorns: The Distinctive “Horns”

Great Horned Owls have a distinctive feature known as “plumicorns.” These are actually tufts of feathers on either side of their heads that resemble horns. The plumicorns serve various purposes, including visual communication between individuals and providing camouflage by breaking up the owl’s silhouette against tree branches or foliage. While both males and females have plumicorns, they are more prominent and larger in males.

Large Yellow Eyes and Excellent Vision

One of the most noticeable physical characteristics of Great Horned Owls is their large yellow eyes. These eyes are adapted for excellent vision, especially in low light conditions. Their pupils are wide and round, enabling them to gather as much available light as possible. This enhanced eyesight allows them to efficiently locate and track their prey at night when they are most active.

Size and Weight

Great Horned Owls are considered one of the largest owl species in North America. On average, adults range in size from 18 to 25 inches (45 to 63 cm) in height, with a wingspan of 3 to 5 feet (91 to 152 cm). In terms of weight, males typically weigh between 2.2 to 3.8 pounds (1 to 1.7 kg), while females are slightly larger, weighing between 2.8 to 4.6 pounds (1.3 to 2.1 kg).

Hunting and Diet

Powerful Perch Hunters

Great Horned Owls are skilled hunters that primarily rely on perching to catch their prey. They have powerful feet with sharp talons that allow them to grasp and secure their prey. They are skilled at remaining stationary for long periods, patiently waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Their ability to silently swoop down on their prey from a perch makes them highly efficient hunters.

Predominantly Mammalian Diet

The diet of Great Horned Owls consists mainly of mammals. They have a diverse palate and prey on a variety of small to medium-sized mammals, including rabbits, rats, mice, skunks, and even small deer. They have been known to take down prey larger than themselves, showcasing their exceptional hunting skills. Their powerful talons and sharp beak enable them to easily dispatch their prey.

Occasional Consumption of Birds

While mammals make up the majority of their diet, Great Horned Owls also consume birds. They have been observed preying on birds of various sizes, from small songbirds to medium-sized waterfowl. They are opportunistic hunters and will take advantage of any available food source in their environment. Birds provide an additional source of nutrition and diversify their diet.


Characteristic Hooting Calls

Great Horned Owls are known for their distinctive hooting calls. Their vocalizations are deep and resonant, consisting of a series of hoots. These calls are often associated with territorial displays and establishing their presence within a specific area. The hooting calls are unique to each owl and can be used for identification and communication between individuals.

Variations Between Males and Females

While both male and female Great Horned Owls hoot, there are variations between their calls. Typically, males have a deeper and lower-pitched hoot, while females have a higher-pitched hoot. These variations in vocalizations between genders may play a role in courtship and mate selection, allowing individuals to recognize and attract potential mates.

Predators and Threats

Few Predators for Adult Owls

Adult Great Horned Owls have few natural predators due to their large size and formidable hunting skills. They are at the top of the food chain in their ecosystems and can fend off most threats. However, there are some instances where larger raptors or large mammals, such as bears or cougars, may pose a threat to adult owls.

Vulnerability of Eggs and Young

While adult owls have few predators, their eggs and young are vulnerable to attacks from a range of animals. This includes larger birds, such as eagles and other owl species, as well as mammals like raccoons and snakes. Protecting their nests and offspring becomes a critical task for the adult owls, as they prioritize the survival and safety of their young.

Attacks from Other Animals

In addition to threats to their eggs and young, Great Horned Owls may also face attacks from other animals while they are hunting or defending their territories. They may encounter territorial conflicts with other raptors or confrontations with mammals defending their own territories. Despite their powerful nature, they must remain vigilant and capable of defending themselves against potential threats.

Territorial Behavior

Establishment and Defense of Territories

Great Horned Owls are highly territorial birds. They establish and defend their territories, which can range in size from a few acres to several square miles, depending on the availability of resources. Owls will vocalize and display aggressive behaviors, such as fluffing their feathers and raising their wings, to deter intruders from entering their territory.

Longevity of Territories

Once a territory is established, Great Horned Owls can maintain it for long periods of time. They may occupy the same territory year after year, only relinquishing it if resources become scarce or if there is a significant change in their surroundings. Maintaining a stable territory allows them to secure consistent access to food sources and potential mates.

Breeding and Mating

Possibility of Lifetime Mating

While Great Horned Owls can have multiple mates throughout their lifetime, there is a possibility of lifetime monogamy. Once a pair forms a bond, they may remain together for several years or even for life. This long-term bonding not only helps in raising their offspring but also ensures a stable partnership within their territories.

Early Breeding Season

Great Horned Owls start their breeding season early in the year, usually during late winter or early spring. They are one of the earliest nesting bird species in North America, taking advantage of the availability of prey and resources during this time. The timing of their breeding season ensures that their young will have ample food sources as they grow and develop.

Nesting Behavior

Great Horned Owls are known for their unique nesting behaviors. They typically do not build their own nests but instead use abandoned nests of other birds or animals. They choose locations such as tree cavities, old hawk or eagle nests, or even cliffs. By reusing existing nests, they save time and energy, focusing instead on maintaining and defending their chosen nesting site.

Nesting Habits

Preference for Abandoned Nests

Great Horned Owls show a strong preference for using abandoned nests. These nests provide a ready-made structure that meets their requirements for nesting. By occupying these pre-existing nests, they avoid the need to construct their own and can instead concentrate on raising their young.

Incredibly Strong Talons for Nesting

Nesting for Great Horned Owls requires strength and stability. Their talons play a crucial role in securing their nests and ensuring the safety of their eggs and young. With their incredibly strong grip, they can firmly grasp tree branches, nest edges, or other secure structures, allowing them to maintain a stable nesting environment.

Use of Nest Boxes

In some cases, Great Horned Owls may use nest boxes provided by conservation organizations or individuals. However, these nest boxes must be large and sturdy enough to accommodate their size and weight. Nest boxes can provide an alternative nesting option in areas where suitable natural nesting sites are limited or unavailable.

Pellets and Diet Analysis

Production of Undigested Material Pellets

Great Horned Owls produce undigested material pellets as a result of their unique digestive system. Instead of regurgitating food like some other birds, they form pellets in their stomachs. These pellets consist of indigestible parts of their prey, such as bones, fur, and feathers, which are compacted and expelled through the owl’s digestive tract.

Studying Diet through Pellet Examination

Scientists can study the diet of Great Horned Owls by collecting and examining the pellets they produce. By carefully dissecting these pellets, researchers can identify the remains of various prey species. This method provides valuable insights into the owl’s feeding habits, prey preferences, and even the overall health of the ecosystem they inhabit.


Great Horned Owls are fascinating and adaptable creatures with a wide distribution range spanning the Americas. Their distinctive plumicorns, large yellow eyes, and powerful hunting abilities make them a recognizable and respected species. Their varied diet, territorial behavior, and unique nesting habits contribute to their successful survival in diverse environments. By understanding and appreciating these incredible birds, we can work towards their conservation and ensure their continued presence in the natural world.

Nature Blog Network is the leading birding research and information website. Serving the birding community since 2010.

Recent Posts