The Great Horned Owl begins courtship in late January and early February. By the end of February, while snow still covers the ground over much of its range, nesting has begun and eggs have been laid.
Great Horned OwlTyto alba
This big owl is found almost throughout the Americas. Aggressive and powerful in its hunting (sometimes known by nicknames such as "tiger owl"), it takes prey as varied as rabbits, hawks, snakes, and even skunks, and will even attack porcupines, often with fatal results for both prey and predator. Great Horned Owls begin nesting very early in the north, and their deep hoots may be heard rolling across the forest on midwinter nights.
Field MarksThe "Cat Owl." A large owl with ear tufts or "horns." Heavily barred beneath; conspicuous white throat bib. In flight, as large as our largest hawks; looks neckless, large-headed. Varies regionally from very dark to very pale.
Size18-25" (45-63 cm)
Similar SpeciesLong-eared Owl is much smaller (crow-sized in flight), with lengthwise streaking rather than crosswise barring beneath. Ears closer together; lacks white bib.
VoiceMale usually utters five or six resonant hoots: Hoo!, hu-hu-hu, Hoo! Hoo! Female's hoots are said to be higher, in shorter sequence.
RangeTree limit in North America to Tierra del Fuego.
MigrationNo regular migration, but individuals may wander long distances in fall and winter, some of them moving southward.
HabitatForests, woodlots, streamsides, open country. Found in practically all habitats in North America, from swamps to deserts to northern coniferous forest near treeline. In breeding season avoids tundra and unbroken grassland, since it requires some trees or heavy brush for cover.
FeedingDiet: Varied, mostly mammals and birds. Takes many rats, mice, and rabbits, also ground squirrels, opossums, skunks, many others. Eats some birds, up to size of geese, hawks, and smaller owls. Also eats snakes, lizards, frogs, insects, scorpions, rarely fish.
Behavior: Hunts mostly at night, sometimes at dusk. Watches from high perch, then swoops down to capture prey in its talons. Has extremely good hearing and good vision in low light conditions. As with most owls, the indigestible bones, fur, and feathers of prey are coughed up as pellets.
NestingMay begin nesting very early in north (late winter), possibly so that young will have time to learn hunting skills before next winter begins. In courtship, male performs display flight, also feeds female.
Nest: Typically uses old nest of other large bird, such as hawk, eagle, crow, heron, usually 20-60' above ground; also may nest on cliff ledge, in cave, in broken-off tree stump, sometimes on ground. Adds little or no nest material, aside from feathers at times.
Eggs: 2-3, sometimes 1-5, rarely 6. Dull whitish. Incubation mostly by female, 28-35 days.
Young: Both parents take part in providing food for young owls. Young may leave nest and climb on nearby branches at 5 weeks, can fly at about 9-10 weeks; are tended and fed by parents for up to several months.
ConservationWidespread and common, numbers apparently holding up well in most areas.