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Facts About Great Horned Owls

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Great Horned Owl
Dennis Macdonald/ Photographer's Choice RF/ Getty Images

Great horned owls are a large species of true owls that inhabits many parts of North and South America. These nocturnal avian hunters take a wide range of prey including mammals, other birds, reptiles and amphibians. In this article, you'll find a collection of great horned owl facts that will help you gain a deeper understanding of this intriguing owl species.

FACT: Great horned owls occupy the most extensive range of any owl species.

The range of great horned owls includes most parts of North and South America. It stretches from the northern boreal forests of Alaska and Canada, southward throughout the United States and Mexico, into Northern parts of South America and throughout Patagonia.

FACT: Great horned owls are also known as hoot owls, cat owls or winged tigers.

Great horned owls were first described in 1788 by Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who published the 13th edition of Systema Naturae by Carolus Linnaeus. That edition included a description of the great horned owl and gave it the scientific name Bubo virginianus which reflected the fact that the species was first observed in the Virginia colonies.

FACT: Great horned owls have priminent ear tufts atop their head.

Great horned owls are one of several owl species that posess ear tufts. Scientists disagree as to the function of these ear tufts. Some suggest that the ear tufts serve as camouflage by breaking the contour of the owl's head. Others suggest that the tufts serve some role in communication or recognition, enabling the owls to convey some kind of signals to one another. Experts agree though, that the ear tufts play no role in hearing.

FACT: Great horned owls are mainly nocturnal birds.

Great horned owls become active at dusk and hunt throughout the night. In some areas, they have also been known to be active during the late afternoon or during the hours around dawn.

FACT: Great horned owls are the only animal that feeds on skunks with regularity.

Great horned owls do not feed exclusively on skunks but instead feed on a wide variety of prey species. Although they mainly feed on small mammals, great horned owls also feed on birds such as peregrine falcon nestlings and osprey nestlings. They also take American crows, both adults and nestlings. For this reason, American crows often mob owls and caw at them to discourage them from lingering about.

FACT: Great horned owls are long-lived birds.

Great horned owls are known to live as long as 38 years in captivity. In the wild, great horned owls live up to 13 years of age. In the wild, great horned owls are most often killed by man, by shooting, trapping, collision with high-tension wires or car strikes. Great horned owls have few natural predators, they are occasionally killed by members of their own species or by northern goshawks, a species that often battles with the owls for available nesting sites.

FACT: Great horned owls live in a wide variety of habitats.

Great horned owls inhabit boreal forests in the northernmost parts of their range. They prefer open and secondary-growth woodlands and will also live in agricultural areas and suburban settings.

FACT: Great horned owls nest during the months of January and February.

During mating season, male and female great horned owls hoot back and forth to each other. Their mating rituals include bowing to each other and rubbing bills. When ready to nest, they do not build their own nest but instead seek out existing sites such as the nests of other birds, squirrel nests, tree holes, crevaces in rocks and nooks in buildings.

FACT: Great horned owls are large owls, although they are not the largest of all owls.

Great horned owls grow to lengths of up to 23 inches and weights of as much as 3¼ pounds. But this does not earn them the title of largest of all owls, that distinction goes instead to the great grey owl. which grows to lengths of 33 inches and weights of over 3 pounds.

FACT: Great horned owls are cryptically colored.

Because they remain largely inactive during the day, great horned owls are cryptically colored so they blend with their surroundings while they rest. They have a rust-brown colored facial disk and white feathers on their chin and throat. Their body is a mottled grey and brown color above and barred on the belly.

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