For the Birds: Halloween Bird—The Great Horned Owl

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Great Horned Owl
Photo by Pat Taylor
By Christine Southwick

A witch flying in front of a full moon, with a large owl with ears sitting on a branch is a common Halloween picture.

The Great Horned Owl is that large owl. It does not have horns, nor are their ears located in those distinctive tuffs of feathers. They have large eyes, even for owls, are long-lived and have very powerful talons.

Great Horned Owls are so adaptive that they have the widest prey base and live in the greatest variety of habitat of any North American owl.

Great Horned Owl on post in field
Photo by Marlin Greene
The only habitat that they avoid is arctic-alpine regions.

While they prefer to eat rabbits, skunks, and rodents, their menu may include grouse, coots, smaller owls, even reptiles, amphibians, fish, and during lean times, large insects. If hunting is really poor, they will hunt during the day.

These owls are large and need habitat with open areas. Fragmenting of our local forests has opened up areas that were once too dense for them. They usually hunt by the perch and pounce, “sit-and-wait” method, but will hunt by quartering fields if the prey is scarce.

Great Horned Owl nesting on cliff
Photo by Eric Bjorkman
Great Horned Owls use nests built by other large birds -- hawks, crows, even Great Blue Herons, which means these owls are most often found in deciduous trees that are on the edges of fields. They will use cliff edges and crevices where trees are rare, and can easily survive in the desert.

Owl feathers are remarkably soft and great isolators, which enables these females to keep their eggs warm even when temperatures outside are more than 70 degrees colder.

Long-term monogamous, the pairs can be heard courtship calling in early winter. By late February the female will be sitting on one to four eggs for over a month, during which the male brings her food.

GH owlet in snag with White-breasted Nuthatch
Photo by Nancy J. Wagner Photography
The nestlings stay in the nest for six weeks, and then start climbing out on the nearby branches. The nestlings take short flights at seven weeks, and become fully fledged at nine-ten weeks. The parents feed and teach their young for several months, sometimes into October.

Great Horned Owls may fly long distances during fall and early winter, but don’t migrate.

One of the best ways to find these masters of camouflage is to look for whitewash on the tree/cliff face, and look for pellets (packets of indigestible bones, fur, hair) near the base of their perches or nest.


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