The largest owl in North America and the most common, the great horned owl may look like the wise, old owl in storybooks and children’s cartoons, but this bird is a fierce predator.
The great horned owl is an adaptable species that has learned how to survive and thrive in forests, cities, deserts, tropical rainforests, suburbs, swamps, and even at the edge of the frozen tundra. It has the greatest range of all North American owls, stretching from the Arctic to the tropics.
This apex predator has positioned itself at the top of its food chain thanks in part to its extraordinary adaptations. Let’s look at 15 facts that prove the great horned owl is, indeed, great.
1. The Great Horned Owl Has The Softest Horns In Town
It may look like the great horned owl has devilish horns atop its head, but those are really just soft tufts of feathers.
Biologists still aren’t sure why this owl species have adapted to look like it is sporting horns. They have some theories, though.
The feathery horns may help the owls blend into their surroundings when sitting on three branches. Or, perhaps, the horns help the owls to be more easily recognized by other members of their own species.
2. About Those Soft Feathers…
It is not just the feathery horns of the great horned owl that are soft. Its whole body is.
The feathers of great horned owls are exceptionally soft, fluffy, and light. Scientists believe there are three reasons for this adaptation.
First, the fluffy feathers help keep the owl cozy and warm in the frigid winter months. Second, the soft, light feathers ensure that the owls can fly in near total silence when they hunt their prey.
Lastly, the feathering on the great horned owls helps them fly through the forests without getting their feathers snagged on tree branches.
3. Their Biggest Threat Is Humans
Full-grown great horned owls have no natural enemies so once the bird reaches adulthood, it enjoys a great survival rate.
Yet, injured great horned owls routinely show up at wildlife rehabilitation centers. Why? Humans.
The leading causes of injuries to great horned owls are all related to human activity. They include being shot, snagged in a barbed wire fence, electrocuted, struck by a vehicle, or caught in a trap.
Wildlife rehabilitators have even found great horned owls that have been poisoned.
4. Owls And Head Spinning
Great horned owls can turn their heads completely around, right? Not exactly. But they can rotate their heads more than 180 degrees and can even give the illusion of spinning their heads completely around.
Most of the time, the great horned owl simply turns its head to see what’s behind it. However, if the owl is already looking over one of its shoulders, it can swivel its head back to the front and then over its opposite shoulder to peer backwards.
This gives the illusion of the owl turning its head completely around, but it cannot make a 360-turn.
5. Great Horned Owls Have More Vertebrae Than Giraffes
Would you believe that the great horned owl has more vertebrae in its neck than giraffes? It’s true.
Giraffes, humans, and most other mammals all have seven vertebrae, but the great horned owl has twice as many, 14 vertebrae.
When you look at a great horned owl, however, it looks like it has a short, stubby neck. How can this be?
It is because the owl’s neck is compressed into an “S” shape and it uses all those extra vertebrae to rotate its head, not to stretch it up high.
6. The Eyes Have It
In proportion to its body size, the great horned owl’s eyes rank among the largest of all land animals.
The big, round eyes act like a telescope, helping the owl spot its prey far away. Its enormous pupils enable it to see in the dark, a necessity for this nocturnal hunter.
The great horned owl’s eyes are so big, however, that the bird can’t move its eyes around in its eye sockets. That’s why the owl adapted to be able to whip its head around to see behind it.
7. Wait… Those Horns Aren’t Ears?
No, the feathery horns on top of the great horned owl’s head are not the bird’s ears.
Like all birds, the great horned owl has ear openings on either side of its head but they are hard to see because they are hidden among the feathers. That doesn’t mean the great horned owl’s hearing is muffled, though.
The great horned owl has excellent hearing which helps it pinpoint its prey, even if it’s hiding under snow or brush. The great horned owl’s feathery facial disc funnels sound waves to its ears.
The hearing ability of the great horned owl is estimated to be ten times greater than that of humans.
8. Great Horned Owls Have Triangulated Hearing
Those ear openings on either side of the great horned owl’s head are not symmetrically spaced. The ear opening on the left side is bigger than the one on its right and slightly higher.
This isn’t a design flaw; it’s a clever and effective adaptation.
The asymmetrical placement of the great horned owl’s ear holes gives it the ability to triangular sounds so it can accurately locate its prey, even when it is a dark, moonless night.
9. Great Horned Owls Have A Powerful Grip
Great horned owls have large, powerful talons with a mighty strong grip.
With a force of approximately 300 pounds per square inch, the great horned owl’s talons can crush its prey and snap its spines with intense pressure. It has the talon strength of larger birds of prey, like eagles.
10. Great Horned Owls Have a Diverse, Meat-Based Diet
As carnivores and apex hunters, great horned owls eat only meat, almost always from the prey it has killed, but the birds will eat carrion if they have to.
Among their favorite foods are rabbits, squirrels, gophers, possums, raccoons, skunks, woodchucks, mice, geese, ducks, chickens, snakes, frogs, fish, and even small pets like dogs and cats.
Great horned owls hunt in the air, as well as on the ground. They will catch bats, hawks, doves, pheasants, crows, osprey, and other owl species.
Its diverse diet has allowed the great horned owl to adapt to whatever environment it lives in.
11. Great Horned Owls Can Be The Targets Of Bullies
Crows, one of the great horned owl’s favorite foods, have figured out that the best way to protect themselves from these owls, their number one foe, is to form an angry mob to run the owl out of town.
A loud and excited group of crows will team up to harass and bully the neighborhood great horned owl. It can go on for hours.
In fact, their noisy caws will attract other crows from great distances to come and join in on the bullying.
Although the great horned owl is a formidable predator, it is no match for a screaming mob of aggressive bully crows. The crows are usually successful in chasing the owl away.
12. Great Horned Owls Vomit Pellets
Great horned owls are pellet producers. When they devour their prey, they will eat everything, including bones, fur, feathers, and beaks. But its digestive system wasn’t built to handle all this.
Within the owl’s digestive system, the indigestible items, like the bones and fur, are neatly clustered together into a tidy pellet. Once or twice a day, the bird will vomit up the slime-covered pellet to rid its body of the stuff it ate but can’t digest.
13. You May Not See Great Horned Owls, But You Have Probably Heard Them
Great horned owls are so commonplace in North America that chances are good you have heard one, even if you haven’t seen one. They make the classic, low-pitch “who-who” sound. But that is not the only sound this bird can produce.
Great horned owls also emit whistling sounds, as well as screams, hisses, barks, chatters, shrieks, caws, growls, and coos. The noise the owl makes depends on the situation.
The sounds made by male great horned owls are lower in pitch than those of females.
14. Great Horned Owls Are Terrible Nest Builders
Nest building is not their forte. Instead, great horned owls will take over abandoned nests of other birds, like crows or hawks. Or they will make use of whatever available places they can find.
Great horned owls can nest in caves, under bridges, on power poles, in barns, on rocky ledges, or even on the ground.
In these nests, the female will lay between two and four eggs which she will incubate for around 33 days.
Newly hatched owlets have ravenous appetites and grow quickly. They will learn to fly by the time they are 12 weeks old.
15. Great Horned Owls Live Well Into Their Twenties
Although their first year of life is fraught with danger, once great horned owls reach adulthood, they often enjoy a long life.
In the wild, the owls can live into their mid-twenties. In captivity, great horned owls can live several years longer.