Great Horned Owl

Bubo virginianus

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Photo of a great horned owl on a tree branch
Great horned owls have almost no sense of smell, and they are among the few animals that will eat skunks.
Noppadol Paothong
Family

Strigidae (owls) in the order Strigiformes

Description

The great horned owl is a large owl with wide-set ear tufts, a reddish, brown or gray face, and a white throat. The iris is yellow. The upper parts are mottled brown; the underparts are light with brown barring. After dark, you can identify it by its three to eight deep hoots grouped in a pattern such as “hoo h'HOO, HOO, HOO.”

Size

Length: 22 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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Closeup photo of great horned owl face
Great Horned Owl
Great horned owls are large, with wide-set ear tufts, a white throat, and yellow irises.

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Photo of female great horned owl and chicks at nest hole
Great Horned Owl Female And Chicks At Nest Hole
Great horned owls often nest in cavities in trees, often abandoned nests of other animals.

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Photo of two great horned owl chicks at entrance of nest hole
Great Horned Owl Nestlings
Young great horned owls tend to stay near their parents until the next breeding season.

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Closeup photo of head of great horned owl chick
Great Horned Owl (Chick)
The eyes of owls do not rotate in their sockets, but owls can easily turn their heads to look completely behind them.

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Video of a great horned owl.

Great horned owl in Creve Coeur, MO

Great horned owl in Creve Coeur, MO
Great horned owl in Creve Coeur, MO

Great horned owl chicks in Creve Coeur, MO

Great horned owl chicks in Creve Coeur, MO
Great horned owl chicks in Creve Coeur, MO
Habitat and conservation

Great horned owls are found in many habitats, from deep forests to urban areas.

Foods

Prey includes mice, insects, crows, snakes, and rabbits. Great horned owls have been known to take barred owls, wild turkeys, and other larger animals, including skunks. These owls are nocturnal, with sharp eyes and keen hearing. They observe quietly from a high perch and swoop down to catch prey.

image of Great Horned Owl Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Common statewide, in most habitats, from forest to urban areas.

Status

Common permanent resident.

Life cycle

Breeding occurs in late January or early February, following a few months of hooting. Great horned owls often reuse old nests of other large birds or squirrels, but they can also nest in cavities or other places. Clutches average 2 eggs, incubation lasts about a month, and the young tend to stay near their parents until the next breeding season. Great horned owls may potentially live for nearly 30 years, but 13 is a ripe old age for most wild specimens.

Human connections

Great horned owls help reduce populations of mice, rats, and other rodents that can be very troublesome for humans.

Rat and mice poison can kill raptors that eat rodents and other animals that have consumed the poison.

A wide-ranging North American species, the great horned owl has long been admired by many tribes of Native Americans, who incorporated it into their spirituality, folklore, and ceremonies.

This species is the official provincial bird of Alberta, Canada.

Owls, hawks, and other raptors used to be heavily persecuted by people because they were blamed for harming livestock and poultry. Improved enclosures have helped farmers protect their livestock and poultry, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has helped protect owls and other raptors from persecution.

Ecosystem connections

As predators, great horned owls play an important role in the wildlife community. They serve to control populations of rodents, rabbits, and many other species. Their steady removal of slow, noisy, clumsy, or careless individuals from prey populations leaves only the speediest, quietest, most alert individuals to survive and reproduce. Their capturing sick individuals of prey species lowers the chances for disease transmission among those populations.

Great horned owls have their highest populations when prey species are plentiful. But when prey population numbers plummet, the owl populations crash soon after.

Although adult great horned owls are not preyed on by many carnivores, their vulnerable eggs and young are eaten by many animals, including foxes, coyotes, opossums, and raccoons.