Birds of Prey

Great Horned Owl

Latin name: Bubo virginianus
Weight: 2 - 4 pounds
Wingspan: 48 - 60 inches
Life expectancy: 13 years

Habitat and Distribution: Great Horned Owls live primarily in woodlands in the Northeast, but are very adaptable, being found in deserts, high elevations and even in city parks. Great Horned Owls are the most widespread owl, being found throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Diet: Great Horned Owls eat mostly mammals, their favorite being skunks, but will also take other birds and amphibians.

Status: No special status.

Personal Biography: The New Canaan Nature Center's resident Great Horned Owl came to us on July 6, 2001 after living at the St. Francis Wildlife Center in Tallahassee, FL for a couple of years. The left wing was broken and did not heal properly making it impossible for release back to the wild. We now care for the owl and use it in our educational programs.

Facts: Their breeding strategy is unusual. Nesting generally begins in late January or early February after a vocal fall courtship. Two or three eggs are laid and hatch asynchronously (at different times) 27-35 days later. Young fly at 63-70 days. A hazard to this strategy is severe winter weather; adult owls have been found frozen to death on their nest. Besides the lack of competition for nesting sites from other raptors, young prey species become readily available as food at an optimum time for the owls and their hungry young. Both the male and female incubate the eggs and feed the young.

Great Horned Owls capture food with their powerful feet, called talons. They eat small prey, whole, or use their sharp hooked beak to tear up larger prey. Great Horned Owls are capable of taking prey as large as a raccoon. Skunks are a regular addition to a Great Horned Owls diet since most birds do not have a good sense of smell.

Like most nocturnal owls, Great Horned Owls have modified wing feathers, enabling silent flight. Their eyes are enormous in relation to their body size and taking up about three fourths of their head and are fixed in their sockets. To compensate, they have 14 vertebrae, twice that of mammals, and can turn their heads to look directly behind them. Their eyes have many rods, enabling them to see well at night. They have a third eyelid, called a nictitating membrane, used to protect and clean the eye. The "tufts" of feathers on their head are not ears, but feathers which enable them to better camouflage themselves. Their ears, located on the sides of their heads, are large, of different sizes, and situated asymmetrically on the skull, allowing them to triangulate on their prey by sound. The round facial disk feathers help to collect and focus sound to their ears.


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