Bird Lore: Great Horned Owl

The Great Horned Owl is native to the Americas. It is a resident species in all of the contiguous states and Alaska, as far north as tree line. It can be a fierce predator, intimidating with its yellow-eyed stare. It is the quintessential owl of story books, also know as the hoot owl.

The Great Horned Owl used to be seen or heard in the Edmonds area years ago. Birders with many years of local experience have mentioned reports of nesting in Southwest County Park. Then, whether it was coincidental or causative, Great Horned Owl reports declined as Barred Owls moved into the area. Over the years there have been occasional, unconfirmed reports of possible nocturnal hooting. Then in December a local birder observed a Great Horned Owl at Point Edwards. In both January and February, a birder heard and recorded the territorial hoots of a Great Horned Owl after dark in the Seaview neighborhood.

Almost all habitats in North America support the Great Horned Owl, from swamps to deserts to northern coniferous forests. It gravitates toward second-growth woodlands, orchards, and agricultural areas. It is a fairly common species in wooded parks, suburban areas, and even cities.

This owl has a varied diet, comprised mostly of mammals and birds. It will hunt mice, rats, rabbits, ground squirrels, opossums, and skunks, among other mammals. It will also hunt birds up to the size of geese, ducks, hawks, and smaller owls. It will also eat snakes, lizards, frogs, scorpions, insects, and rarely fish. It hunts mostly at night, but can sometimes be seen hunting at dusk. It watches from a high perch and will swoop down to catch prey in its talons. This owl has acute hearing and excellent vision in low light. It is also covered in very soft feathers that help it fly quietly in pursuit of prey.

The male owl performs a display flight in courtship. It also feeds the female as part of courtship. Mated pairs are monogamous and will defend their territory with vigorous hooting. Nesting begins in late winter in the northern latitudes. A pair will typically use the old nest of another large bird, such as that of a hawk, eagle, crow, or heron. It looks for a nest usually 20 – 60 feet above the ground. It may also nest on a cliff ledge particularly in desert habitat. There are usually two to three eggs, incubated mostly by the female for 28 – 35 days. Both adults provide food for the owlets. The young can leave the nest and climb onto nearby branches at about five weeks. They can fly at about ten weeks. The adults tend and feed their young for up to several months.

The Great Horned Owl in Washington is a fairly dark bird, as can be seen in the first two accompanying photos. The fourth photo is of an Arizona bird, a much lighter subspecies. This owl has excellent vision because of large eyes with pupils that open widely in the dark and retinas that contain many rod cells. The eyes do not move in their sockets, so the owl appears to be staring. It can see in all directions because it can swivel its head more than 180 degrees. The oldest Great Horned Owl of record was more that 28 years of age when found in Ohio in 2005.

There is no regular migration of Great Horned Owls. Individual birds may wander long distances in fall and winter. When a pair is through raising their young, they often remain together in their territory but roost separately. There are many collective nouns for any group of owls. Because this species cannot move its eyes in their sockets, perhaps a glaring is the most apt collective noun for the Great Horned Owl. Others include bazaar, parliament, and wisdom.

For conservation purposes, the Great Horned Owl is a species of low concern. The global breeding population is about six million, with about 45% found in the United States, 14% in Canada, and 7% in Mexico. Although the population number seems large, the species has declined by about 33% between 1966 and 2015. So the numbers are going in the wrong direction, as is the case with so many species. In the Pacific Northwest, Great Horned Owls have expanded into open space created by recent logging. Owls can be poisoned by pesticides and other toxic substances that accumulate in their prey.

You can listen to male and female Great Horned Owls calling to in this recording from Camano Island: The louder, deeper call is that of the male.

β€” By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

  1. We have one in the green belt behind our house. It should be endangered. It’s so sad that the City of Edmonds is still going to let developers tear apart the nature so many animals call home. Money talks

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