Family: Strigidae (STRIJ-ih-dee). The Typical Owl Family, includes about 140 owls except for barn owls and bay owls.
Genus: Bubo (BEW-boh) is from the Latin word meaning "owl" or from the Greek word for "eagle owl" used by the great 1st century Roman naturalist Pliny (Gaius Plinius Secundus). Great horned owls are related to the eagle owl of Eurasia.
Species: virginianus, meaning "of Virginia" where the first specimen of great horned owls was collected. The common name "horned owl" comes from the large ear tufts.
Great horned owls occur all over the United States and most of Canada, and southward to Central and South America to the Straits of Magellan. They are one of the most widespread species of owls. They mostly reside year round in their territories, but ones from the far north move southward in fall or winter.
Of course, if you hear a great horned owl call, that is a great identification aid. Their call is a series of deep hoots, from 3 to 8 notes long, and sounds like - "Whose Awake, Me Too", with the "Me Too" part descending in tone or who-who-ah-whoo, who-ah-whoo. Like a coyote howl, the call of the great horned owl is a classic sound of the wild and can be heard a long way off. And when nesting pairs of great horned owls call, the female has the higher pitched voice.
Young great horned owls have a screeching hunger call that is also very loud and sounds like short blasts of escaping steam through metal pipes.
Found in woods, mountain forests, desert canyons, marshes, city parks, and urban forests. The owls prefer open areas to dense woodlands or nest sites close to the edge of a forest where they can hunt.
Breeding and Nesting
Great horned owls are one of the earliest spring nesting birds; eggs may be laid in January or February through April. They use abandoned stick nests of a hawk or heron or crow, but also nest in rock alcoves, hollows of trees, abandoned buildings, or sometimes on the ground.
Throughout the winter, courting great horned owls will light up their nesting territory with nighttime hooting. Generally 2-3 white eggs are laid, although they may lay up to 6 eggs. Both the male and female incubate the eggs for 30-35 days. The young are fed by both parents, and the parents fiercely defend their nest site against intruders. If young owls fall out of the nest prematurely, the adults will feed the bird on the ground.
The young fledge from the nest at 45-55 days old.
Great horned owls can live greater than 12 years; some captive birds have lived to 29 years old.
Food and Hunting
Great horned owls tend to perch during the daylight hours in a protected rocky alcove or on a tree limb. They mainly hunt at night, but may hunt in daylight hours. From a quiet perch, the owl listens for sounds that betray a creature's presence. They may move about from tree to tree to get a better fix on the source of the sound. Once they pinpoint the sound, the owl silently swoops in, spreads its talons wide and pounces on its prey - known as the "perch and pounce" hunting method. Smaller prey is swallowed whole, but larger prey are torn into pieces.