Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl
Photo Credit: George W. Robinson © California Academy of Sciences
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Bubo Virginianus
DESCRIPTION: The largest of all owl species occurring in Alabama and the southeast, the great horned owl stands approximately 18 to 25 inches tall and has a wingspan up to 60 inches. It is most active at night and best seen and more frequently heard at dusk. Both sexes are similar in appearance but females are larger than males. They are generally brown in color with darker brown spots and white throat feathers that contrast with a belly that is finely barred horizontally. The white throat feathers are very conspicuous. Great horned owls get their name from their large, erect ear tufts set far apart on their head. The facial disk of great horned owls may have orangish or grayish feathers, and white feathers that form a V between the yellow eyes. The long eared owl and barred owl are two species that may be confused with great horned owls. Long eared owls are much slimmer in appearance and their ear tufts are much closer together. Barred owls are very common throughout Alabama but lack ear tufts and have an easily identifiable song.
DISTRIBUTION: Great horned owls are widely distributed in North, Central, and South America to the Straits of Magellan. They are one of the most widespread owl species in the world and occur throughout Alabama.
HABITAT: Found in a wide array of forested habitats throughout its range, in the east and north it frequents dense woodlands of conifers or hardwoods. In arid sections of the west, they are found along cliffs of rocky canyons or earth-walled gulches where there is suitable daytime shelter.
FEEDING HABITS: Great horned owls usually spend most of the day perched in a protected area or tree. They do most of their hunting at night, but may be active at any time during the day. Great horned owls, like many owls, sit quietly in a tree watching for movement and listening for sounds that give away the presence of a prey species. After locating a prey item, great horned owls take flight and silently swoop down and capture the prey with their sharp talons. Adaptations in their feathers allow them to fly silently through the night air.
Great horned owls eat a wide variety of prey including rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats, ducks, birds, and larger animals such as geese and an occasional turkey. They may even prey on other raptors such as owls, osprey, and falcons. Great horned owls are the only animal to regularly eat skunks. Small prey species are swallowed whole while larger prey is ripped into smaller pieces that can be swallowed. Indigestible items such as hair, bones, feathers, and fur are regurgitated in pellets. Teachers in Alabama have been known to collect these pellets as part of science classes for students to identify prey species and study anatomy.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Great horned owls are solitary birds of prey that form strong pair bonds during the courting and nesting season only. They typically use abandoned nests of other large birds such as hawks, herons, and crows. They have also been known to nest in hollow trees, abandoned buildings, and various other structures. Typical nests in Alabama are found high in pine or other evergreen trees.
Females generally lay two to three white eggs beginning as early as December. Males and females incubate the eggs for approximately 30 to 35 days. Young great horned owls (owlets) have been seen in Alabama nests as early as mid to late January. Both sexes gather and feed the owlets and are highly protective of the nest site. The young owlets fledge from the nest in approximately 45 to 55 days.
Grosvenor, Gilbert and Alexander Wetmore. 1939. The Book of Birds, Volume II. Published by The National Geographic Society.
Imhof, Thomas A. 1962. Alabama Birds. State of Alabama, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Game and Fish Division by the University of Alabama Press
Robbins, Chandler S, Bertel Bruun, and Herbert S. Zim. 1983. A Guide to Field Identification Birds of North America. Western Publishing Company.
Author: Ray Metzler, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries