Brown owl with prominent feathers sticking up like horns

Wise and Wonderful Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianis) are found all over North America, wherever there are trees. They particularly like open spaces with trees on the edge, making Willow Spring Open Space a prime location for them, although they have been heard and seen more often in the neighborhoods nearby. With their large yellow eyes, the white neck and ear tufts that resemble horns, they are easily differentiated from other owls.

Owls are traditionally known as being wise. This goes back to Ancient Greece, who associated owls with the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena, due to their night vision and hunting skills! For more on this topic, here is a fun article at Bird

What they eat

Great Horned Owls are great predators with their sharp hearing, talons and pointed beak. They eat mice, rabbits, squirrels and skunks. Unfortunately, they are also more of a threat to stray cats than the local coyotes, as many cat collars have been found in owl nests. The bones and fur of their prey are formed into a pellet and spit up. These can be found under trees where they roost and give us a clue where to find them.

split apart brown pellet with mouse bones
Owl Pellet being dissected and analyzed for bones and fur

How to Recognize a Great Horned Owl

side view of owl with large yellow eyes and sharp beak
Great Horned Owl

One of the most common ways to know that there is a Great Horned Owl nearby is by hearing their hoots, which are the typical owl noises we all learned as children – who-who-hoo-hoo.

These wonderful owls are very imposing, with a length of 18-25 inches and a wingspan of 3 to 5 feet. In addition to their size, ways to distinguish Great Horned Owls from other owls include their large yellow eyes, their ear tufts which look like horns, and their white throat which shows brightly in the twilight compared to the camouflage brown, black and cream mix of feathers on the rest of their body.

Scientific Bird Family

Great Horned Owls are in the Strigidae family. This family includes all owls except for barn owls. Birds in this family are birds of prey, with upright posture, short necks and the forward-facing eyes of predators. All owls have a special adaptation in that their feathers have a soft covering on the flight feathers, allowing for silent flight to sneak up on their prey. With acute hearing and sharp eyesight in dim light, most owls are active at night.

Through the Seasons – migration and nesting

Great Horned Owls are here year-round; they do not migrate. They begin nesting in February, though they don’t make their own nests. They use tree cavities or old hawk, squirrel or heron nests at the tops of trees.

The female lays about 2-3 eggs, which are about 2 inches long. The female incubates the eggs for about 29-33 days, and the baby birds start to explore outside the nest when they are about 6 weeks old. The young owls stay with their parents during the summer and then leave to find their own territories in late fall and early winter.

mother great horned owl with chick camoflauged in tree
Mother Great-Horned Owl with Chick

A fun way to remember the timing of the Great Horned Owls life cycle in this part of the country is tied in with holidays: nesting starts around Valentines Day, the eggs hatch around St. Patrick’s Day and the chicks can be seen outside the nest shortly before Mother’s Day.

Where to find in Willow Spring Open Space

Even though it is easy to identify a Great Horned Owl, they are difficult to see! They are generally spotted by their profile sitting on high tree branches. However, when they are close to the trunks, their coloring blends in with the tree bark, camouflaging them well. They are mostly active in the dim light a couple of hours after sunset and a couple of hours before sunrise, which is not normally the time the people are out looking for them.

Logically, Great Horned Owls should be found near the old tree trunks along the east side of the bike path, which gives them a nesting area, a roosting area, and an open area for flying. However, on the eBird website for the Willow Spring Open Space, it shows that they have only been spotted there at the beginning of November. Nearby in the neighborhood, their hooting has been heard at all seasons.

A fun detective outing would be to go out in the evening after sunset, listen for soft hoots and look for owl pellets!

Great Horned owl with ear tufts upright
Great Horned Owl

Did You Know?

The pupils of owls’ eyes do not move, so they have to move their head in order to look around. They have special adaptations in their neck allowing them to move their heads 270 degrees (3/4 of a circle)!

References and Further Reading

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