The Great horned owl is a round-faced bird with the distinctive horn-shaped feather tuft on the crown of its head, which is darker than the rest of its head, promoting the overall camouflage. The owl possesses powerful, solid legs, feet and claws. The Great horned owl has binocular vision due to its eyes, facing forward.
Read the full article, by Pritish Kumar Halder, in which he briefly describes the Great Owl.
The eyes of the horned owl are various shades of yellow. This bird can also be distinguished by the white colored patch on its throat. Black and brown stripes extend all over the white underbelly. The bill of the bird is black, surrounded by white or tan colored plumage. Plumage on their back is darker, covered with brown and black markings.
This owl is native to the Americas with its range, covering the greater part of North America, stretching to Central America and reaching South America.
The Great horned owl occurs primarily in woodlands and open fields, scattered throughout its range. However, the species can also be found in mangroves, grasslands, swampy and marshy areas as well as desert. In addition, this bird occasionally inhabits human settlements, found throughout rural and urban areas.
The great horned owl is generally colored for camouflage. The underparts of the species are usually light with some brown horizontal barring; the upper parts and upper wings are generally a mottled brown usually bearing heavy, complex, darker markings. All subspecies are darkly barred to some extent along the sides, as well.
A variable-sized white patch is seen on the throat. The white throat may continue as a streak running down the middle of the breast even when the birds are not displaying, which in particularly pale individuals can widen at the belly into a large white area. South American great horned owls typically have a smaller white throat patch, often unseen unless actively displaying, and rarely display the white area on the chest.
Individual and regional variations in overall color occur, with birds from the subarctic showing a washed-out, light-buff color, while those from the Pacific Coast of North America, Central America, and much of South America can be a dark brownish color overlaid with blackish blotching. The skin of the feet and legs, though almost entirely obscured by feathers, is black. Even tropical great horned owls have feathered legs and feet. The feathers on the feet of the great horned owl are the second-longest known in any owl (after the snowy owl). The bill is dark gunmetal-gray, as are the talons.
All great horned owls have a facial disc. This can be reddish, brown, or gray in color (depending on geographical and racial variation) and is demarked by a dark rim culminating in bold, blackish side brackets. This species’ “horns” are tufts of feathers, called plumicorns. The purpose of plumicorns is not fully understood, but the hypothesis that they serve as a visual cue in territorial and sociosexual interactions with other owls is generally accepted.
Habits and Lifestyle
These birds are solitary animals, socializing only for nesting.
They usually roost by day in protected places such as a tree limb or a recess in a rock. Great horned owls are efficient nighttime hunters, though they are known to hunt in the daytime as well. Horned owls are non-migratory, remaining within the same area throughout the year.
Some individuals may become “territorial floaters”, not having a certain territory and constantly travelling through territories of other owls. These birds use hooting as a form of communication. Through hooting, they can search for mates during the mating season as well as set up territorial dominance.
Diet and Nutrition
Great horned owls are carnivorous, feeding mainly upon terrestrial vertebrates. Typically, their preferred prey is cottontail rabbit.
However, their diet consists of a wide variety of animal species, including shrews, jackrabbits, squirrels, muskrats, mice, domestic cats, scorpions, frogs, snakes, weasels, skunks, pocket gophers, bats, beetles and grasshoppers. They will also consume both small and large birds such as sparrows, juncos, grouse, wild ducks and pheasants. In addition, great horned owls can even eat other owls on occasion.
They have monogamous mating system. Typically, the owl pairs are territorial, driving away other pairs from their territory in order to have full access to prey. By the mating season, the birds begin hooting with increased intensity, looking for mates. Female owls hoot only at this period while males normally hoot all year round. Breeding season takes place from November to April. The mating pair finds a nest, which is usually one, abandoned by a squirrel or another bird, including great horned owl.
The female may lay up to 6 eggs with an average of 2-3. Both parents take part in the incubation for 30-35 days. After hatching, both male and the female provide the chicks with food. Young fledge by 6-9 weeks old, becoming independent at the age of 5-10 weeks. Sexual maturity is achieved at 1-3 years old.
One of the major concerns is poisoning from pesticides and rodenticides, which farmers usually use in agricultural areas. Also, Great horned owls occasionally collide with electric wires as well as get into road accidents.
Currently, these birds are fairly widespread all over the area of their habitat. The overall estimated population of these owls in North and South America is about 5,300,000 individuals. Great horned owls are classified on the IUCN Red List as a species of Least Concern (LC) with a stable population.
Due to preying upon various small mammals, Great horned owls control the populations of these species, thus preventing possible spread of disease or excessive grazing throughout the range, and maintaining the health of the ecosystem.
Fun Facts for Kids
- In poor lighting conditions, they are capable of seeing about 35 times better than humans.
- While humans have 7 neck bones, these birds possess 14 neck bones, which allow them to turn their heads up to 270 degrees.
- When flying, this bird can remain unheard due to its comb structured feathers. The leading edge of the feathers has a kind of fringe, which allows the bird to avoid noise, when the feathers rub against each other, so that the prey target rarely hears the approaching of the owl before being caught.
- Great horned owls are well known for the distinctive “who-who-who” call.
- Not only do these birds have acute vision, but they are also able to prey, using only the sense of hearing.
- The bill of the owl is hooked, allowing the bird to use its binocular vision without obstruction.
- Unlike human eyes, the eyes of the Great horned owl are fixed, allowing the bird to look only forward, so that it has to turn its head to see peripherally.
- The tufts on their ears serve as a mean of body language, which they use just like dogs: the ears lie horizontally when the owl is irritated, while stand upright, when the bird is inquisitive.