Great Horned Owl
Bubo virginianus

By Jessica Smith

The Great Horned Owl is the common name for the only American owl in a group of 19 others called the eagle owls. The Great Horned Owl is a member of the class Aves (birds), Strigiformes (owls) is its order, and Strigidae (typical owls) is its family. They typically range from 18-25 inches in height and have a wingspan of 35-55 inches. Like most owls the females are substantially larger than the males. The females can weigh about one to two pounds more than the males. The Great Horned Owl is one of the largest and most powerful American owls, with only the Great Grey Owl being larger.

This owl varies greatly in color, according to the area where it lives. In the desert regions it is a very sandy color, in the Pacific Northwest it is usually very dark, and in the Arctic it is obviously almost completely white. This owl also has ear tufts of feathers, which resemble "horns"; this is how the Great Horned Owl got its name.

The Great Horned Owl can be found in a variety of habitats, throughout North and South America. The different places they nest in can be trees, caves, cliff ledges, or simply on the ground. In the northeast United States they are one of the earliest birds to begin nesting. They do not build their own nests, however; they borrow old nests of other large birds. This owl typically lays about 2-3 eggs between January to February. Until the owlets are able to fly they stay protected in their nests, which can be as long as two weeks. Great Horned Owls are known to mate for life.

They usually hunt at night and sleep during the day. They stalk their prey and then they swoop down out of the sky to catch their unsuspecting meal. They will eat almost any living prey, such as mice, small dogs, skunks, and even other owls. Their sense of smell is very poor, which is why skunks do not affect them. Before the owl strikes, its head snaps back, its tail goes down, and its feet extend forward in order to latch onto its prey with the sharp talons on the end of its feet. It will eat the animal whole, bones and all, and then later the fur, bones, and claws will be coughed up in little packages called pellets.

There have been fossil remains from the great horned owl found as old as 36 million years. Their strong will to survive and their fierce hunting habits suggest that they will be around even longer.

Written fall 2000, as a service learning project for Dr. Gary Coté's Biology 102 class at Radford University. Copyright Pathways for Radford.

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