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Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus


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Great Horned Owl
credit: Brendan Lally/CCSA

© Lang Elliot/ (audio)

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Family: Strigidae, Owls view all from this family

Description ADULT Has mostly brown plumage overall, beautifully patterned on upperparts and resembling tree bark; underparts are strongly barred. Head has rounded, orange-brown facial disc and yellow eyes. JUVENILE Has fluffy down at first, but by fall acquires adultlike plumage.

Dimensions Length: 25" (64 cm); Wngspn: 4' 7" (1.4 m)

Habitat Common but strongly territorial, hence thinly spread. Tolerates a wide range of habitats from forests in north of range to deserts in south. Sometimes also in surprisingly urban settings.

Observation Tips Nests extremely early in season (eggs typically laid Jan-Mar depending on geographical location), so incubating birds are sometimes obvious in leafless winter trees. Otherwise, occasionally glimpsed in car headlights while hunting after dark, or located by tracking small birds mobbing a roosting bird in daytime.

Range Eastern Canada, Southeast, Rocky Mountains, California, Alaska, Western Canada, Florida, Southwest, Mid-Atlantic, Texas, Plains, Northwest, Great Lakes, New England

Voice Territorial "song" (heard in midwinter) comprises a series of tremulous hoots; male's hoot is deeper than female's.

Discussion Huge and impressive owl with a bulky body, proportionately large head, and striking "ear" tufts that may be raised or flattened. Active mainly at dusk and after dark, has a broad diet, but prefers tackling prey the size of rabbits and hares. Typically scans for prey from lookout perch, then glides down on broad wings, grabbing and killing victim with powerful talons. Several subspecies exist: palest of all is ssp. subarcticus, which occurs across Arctic and sub-Arctic North America, but birds in most of range covered by this book, and described here, are a darker, richer brown. Given this variation, sexes are similar, although female is larger than male.