Lake Milton Raptor Center

Great Horned Owl

Bubo virginianus
Bald Eagle Bald Eagle
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Strigiformes
  • Family: Strigidae
  • Genus: Bubo
  • Species: Bubo virginianus
  • Geographic Range

    Neotropical, Nearctic: The great horned owl has a large geographic range. It is found throughout the forests of North, Central, and South America, from the Arctic regions in the North to the Straits of Magellan in the South.

    Physical Characteristics

    The great horned owl, the fiercest and most powerful of the common owls, is visually stunning. It is sometimes called the cat owl because of its catlike ears, eyes, shape of head, and appearance when huddled up on its nest. The great horned owl is highly recognizable for the feather tufts on its head that resemble horns. The upper parts of the owl's body are sooty brown with gray-brown mottling, and its dark underparts make its white throat standout. The great horned owl measures approximately .5 m. in length and has a wingspan of approximately 1.4 m from tip to tip.

    Natural History

    Food Habits

    Owls as a group eat their prey whole and regurgitate the unwanted parts (bones, fur, and feathers) in pellets. The food habits of the great horned owl are best ascertained by studying the remains of its prey in these pellets.

    The great horned owl is a bird of prey that feeds on a varied assortment of animal life. It does the majority of its hunting at night, preferring to feed on small mammals, such as rabbits, woodchucks, mice, rats, squirrels, and skunks. The great horned owl is also known to feed on birds such as ducks, game birds, quails, and occasionally geese or turkeys.


    The courtship of the great horned owl usually begins in late January or early February. The mating rituals of the owl include the singing of love songs between the female and male. After mating the owls will use the abandoned nest of another bird, usually a hawk or crow. The eggs usually number 2-3, and rarely as many as 5. The great horned owl raises one family each year. The male and the female will both incubate the eggs, which will hatch in approximately 4 weeks. The great horned owl is also known to be a very protective parent, guarding the young until they mature fully and can leave the family (at approx. 1-2 months old).


    The great horned owl spends the majority of its time hunting. The owl can see during the day, but has even better vision at night. The silent flight of this owl can be attributed to its loose, soft feathers. These two factors, and the fact that its prey is most active at night make it most advantageous for the great horned owl to hunt at night.

    When there are young in its nest, the great horned owl is known to be very hostile. The owl has been observed flying near intruders snapping its bill and hooting. Overall, the great horned owl is a powerful, swift, and graceful bird of prey.


    Within its range the great horned owl can be found in dense woodlands of hardwoods and conifers, along cliffs and rocky canyons, and in forest openings. In general, the great horned owl is solitary and inhabits unsettled places.

    Economic Importance for Humans


    The great horned owl controls harmful rat and mice populations throughout the United States. They kill domestic cats which in turn would have killed wild birds that humans value.


    The great horned owl is capable of destroying game birds and animals. Poultry is also a favorite of the owls because they are easily captured. The occasional domestic cat can also fall victim to the great horned owl.


    Despite the reputation that the great horned owl has gotten from angry poultry raisers, they are not as harmful as thought in the past. That they control pest populations has been recognized. Now, the great horned owl and other birds of prey are given complete protection in most states throughout the United States.