Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

Great Horned Owl
The Raptor Foundation

The Great Horned Owl is found thoughout the American continent, from Alaska & Northern Canada down to southern most tip of South America, it is not found in the West Indies or Hawaii. It is found in the majority of regions found throughout the Americas, including woodlands, mountains, deserts & coastal swamps, which make it unique amongst the owls.

The Great Horned Owl is slightly smaller than the Eurasian Eagle Owl, and has longer ear tufts, which can be up to 2 inches long. In appearance, the two species are otherwise very similar. It is thought that the Great Horned Owls may be related to the Eagle Owls found throughout Europe & Asia. It is also thought that the spread from Asia to the Americas is likely to be fairly recent due to the fact that despite its wide range in the Americas, there is still only a single species of Great Horned Owl, though there are a large number of subspecies, which have not had time to diverge into separate species.

The Great Horned Owl is a very fierce bird, which will vigourously defend its nest and territory. Due to its ferocious nature it is often refered to as the "Tiger of the Air", the "Tiger with Wings" & even "Tiger Owl". When established in a territory, the Great Horned Owls drive all other owls away. The diurnal raptors that compete for the same prey will be driven out too, though species that do not compete for prey (such as the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)), will often be safe. They have been recorded flying at speeds of up to 40mph.

The Great Horned Owl are usually nocturnal hunters, but are prepared to hunt during the daytime as well, especially during the breeding season & when they are raising their young. They have a large variety of prey including insects, most small mammals (up to size of foxes & domestic cats) & birds (up to size of herons). Its prey can often weigh up to 3 times the weight of bird itself. They regularly prey on skunks whose vile smelling defensive spray has no affect on the Great Horned Owl (for one thing, they have no sense of smell). They will also eat fish, including shellfish such as crayfish & reptiles. During times when food is scarce, they will feed on carrion. Amongst the birds the Great Horned Owls prey on are other owls & raptors including species up to the size of Red-Tailed Hawks.

The Great Horned Owls usually nests in old nests, often those used by Red-Tailed Hawks in the preceding year. They have also been known to nest in caves, on cliff ledges, on rocky outcrops & on or in cactuses. They usually start breeding very early in comparison to most owls, often from December to March. Depending on their latitude & the weather conditions, breeding can take place as late as July. Usually 2 eggs are, though anywhere up to 6 eggs may be laid if food is plentiful. Incubation of the eggs takes 4-5 weeks. Once hatched, the young are often out of the nest & on to branches after about 5 weeks and are fully fledged by about 10 weeks. The parents will subsequently look after the young for 5-6 months, at which time they will be ejected from the nests, if the haven't already left. It is thought that the Great Horned Owls mate for life.

In the wild the life expectancy of the Great Horned Owls is from 15 to 20yrs, with the oldest recorded individual reaching 28. They suffer from a very high mortality rate in the first 2 years of life, when they are learing to fend for themselves, but if they survive for those two years then they are ususally successful at surviving for their natural life span. In captivity their lifespan is usually from 25 to 30yrs, with the oldest recorded invidual reaching 38. (I have recently been informed that one Great Horned Owl at the San Francisco Zoo is 42 years old.)

Despite their persecution, since the arrival of the first settlers in America, their secretive nature & adaptability have enabled them to remain fairly common, but they are now protected in most states of North America.

Historically, they have been used to capture other raptor species, such as osprey & Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus), by tethering them close to a net close to the nest site of the prey (on rafts in the case of osprey). The Great Horned Owls are seen as a threat and the other raptors swoop down on them & are caught in the nets. The technique was once used for hunting, but is now used by ornithologists for purposes of ringing the captured species.

Mythology & Folklore :

The Great Horned Owl has the reputation of being the only owl that has killed man. There are several variations on this story. One suggests the the person concerned was wearing a raccoon hat when walking close to a nesting site & was attacked by mistake. Another suggests that the person was attempting to reach the nest of the owl and was attacked in defence of the eggs or young. It has also been suggested that for whatever reason the person was attacked, he actually died of a heart attack, out of fright, rather than the owl physically killing him.

Several American Indian tribes believe they are associated with the souls of the dead. The American Indian Newuk tribe believed that when a virtuous person died, he would become a Great Horned Owl. (If he were wicked, he would become a Barn Owl). Similarly, the Pima Indians believed that at death one's soul passes into the body of a GHO & would place owl feathers in the hands of those about to die. The tribes native to the Sierras, believed thet the Great Horned Owl captured the souls of the dead and carried them to the underworld.

The Hopis Indians believed that the Great Horned Owl helped their peaches grow

They were believed to be a symbol of divine wisdom by the American Creek Indians. The medicine men would wear a stuffed Great Horned Owl as part of his headdress or attached to his arm, as if perched there. The Great Horned Owl, known as a "magic maker" was believed to be in contact with the spirit world, only the spiritual leader of the tribe could ask advice of the bird. If crossed by the shadow of a flying owl, the unfortunate person was believed to be cursed.

IUCN Red List Status :

Least Concern (LC)

AOU Data :

Species Number : 375.0
Alpha Code : GHOW
Common Name : Great Horned Owl
Longevity Record : 27yrs 7months

Also Called :

(Big) Hoot owl
Chicken owl
Eagle owl
Big-eared owl
King owl
Night Eagle
Virginia horned owl
Tiger Owl (mainly due to its ferocious nature)
Cat Owl (mainly due to the round face & ear tuft)
Dutch Amerikaanse Oehoe
(Hibou) Grand-duc d'Amérique
(Hibou) Grand-duc de Virginie
German Virginiauhu
Portugese Corujao-orelhudo o jacurutú
Russian Виргинский филин (Virginskiy Filin)
Spanish Buho americano
Swedish Virginiauv
Inupiaq (Alaskan Eskimo) Nukisugaq
Yupik (Siberian Eskimo) Anipat

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