Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why Great Horned Owls Are Amazing

If you didn't read my last post, here's the news: we're about to go on an owl binge.  That means for the next eleven weeks you will learn about a different specie of owl each week.

When I decided to embark on this venture last week, I was very surprised to look back through my posts (there are 120 of them, but the way, so lots of stuff to look back through if you're interested) and see that I haven't yet written about myself!  I mean, it doesn't get much cooler than Great Horned Owls, and Great Horned Owls don't get much cooler than me, sooo...I don't know what happened.  But rest assured, that all changes now.  Without any further ado:


(is that too much?                                  ...Nah...)

Man, I don't even know where to start.  Should I talk first about how big and strong we are, or about our hunting habits, or maybe about our ability to live just about anywhere?  I know, let's start with the basics: size and shape and all that.

Great Horned Owls are the largest of the owls found in Colorado.  The heaviest North American owl is the Snowy Owl, and they're just a little heavier than Great Horned Owls.  Great Horned Owls usually weigh between 1.5 and 5.5 pounds, which is as little as a 700 ml bottle of pop, or as much as two Nalgene bottles of water, but we don't generally weigh more than 3.5 pounds around here.
As our name suggests, we have horn-shaped feathers on top of our heads.  Contrary to popular opinion, the horns are not our ears, nor are they located very near our ears.  (For more info on where owl ears actually are, check out last week's post about owls.  I added some diagrams of asymmetrical owl ears.)   The "horns" are called ear tufts, and they help us blend into tree bark by mimicking the back pattern and breaking up the smooth outline of the head, like so:
Ear tufts are also used to group owl species.  Colorado's "tufted owls" include the Great Horned Owl, the Long Eared Owl, the Screech Owl (Eastern and Western), and the Short Eared Owl.  Non-tufted owls are those with smooth heads, like the Common Barn Owl and the Saw-Whet Owl.

Comparison of tufted and non-tufted owls
In addition to size and horns, Great Horned Owls are easy to identify because of their shape.  We sit rather low on our feet, we have broad bodies and large heads.  While we're certainly not slender, most of our bulk is feathers.  Wikipedia calls my species "barrel-shaped" but I resent that.  Do I call Humans "log-shaped" or "lolly-pop shaped?" * Not usually.

As for coloration, there's actually a lot of variation.  Some Great Horned Owls are dark with striking contrast, and others are paler.  Some have a vivid white collar, others have the barest hint of one.  But one thing all Great Horned Owls have is gigantic yellow eyes.  The better to see you with, my dear.  In fact, if Humans had eyes proportional to Great Horned Owl eyes, their eyes would be the size of oranges:
If you have a hard time seeing a Great Horned Owl because of its camouflage, you'll have no problem recognizing the hoot of one.  It's the classic hoo-hoo-hoo call, which you can listen to here:

Great Horned Owls have pronounced facial discs because we're largely nocturnal.  During the dusk and dark hours we hunt a wide variety of prey, but rabbits make up a large portion of our diet, as well as small- to medium-sized rodents.  We kill our prey with our feet, like all raptors, but we have beefier feet than many raptors, with 300 pounds per square inch of crushing power.  That makes pretty quick work of a mouse, I can assure you.

If you were a Great Horned Owl, you would be very lucky indeed, for you could count the following among your best traits:
Adult and immature
  • Being very adaptable: We are able to live in almost any environment, from swampland to cities, and are the most widespread owl in the Americas.
  • Good parenting:  We take care of our young for a long time compared to most raptors, keeping an eye on them for as long as seven months after hatching. 
  • Pest controller: We help keep rodent and rabbit populations in check by preying on them as our dominant food source.
  • Awesomeness: We're beautiful and awe-inspiring, and who doesn't like that?
Despite these excellent recommendations, Great Horned Owls are still persecuted across the Americas.  People fear that owls will harm them or their domesticated animals, but Great Horned Owls are not agressive towards people who leave them along, and only take small pets very rarely.  Fortunately, as education about raptors improves, people are realizing that there are better ways to deal with these problems than by offering bounties on owls.  Here is an article on how to keep your pet safe from large raptors.

Getting an eye exam - eye trauma is common in impact injuries
Great Horned Owls also fall victim to many Human-related accidents.  Common injuries seen in Great Horned Owls at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program include those incurred from barbed wire fences, car hits, high voltage trauma from power lines, poisoning, and the occasional and saddening gunshot.  They are also one of the most common birds admitted to the RMRP - 48 were admitted here last year alone. 

That's all I have for now.  If I keep going I'll start talking about how awesome I am instead of my entire species.  Thank you for reading, and I hope you learned something!  Stay tuned next week for a profile on the Common Barn Owl.  I'll show you how very uncommon they are.  As always, you can email me with questions or comments at, follow me on Twitter @RaptorProgram, check us out on Facebook (Rocky Mountain Raptor Program), and find out more information and stories on our main website.  If you would like to subscribe to this blog, use the box in the toolbar to the right.

We appreciate your support of the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in helping us keep the raptor population strong and safe!  We're always seeking donations to help us continue our mission of rehabilitation, education and research.  Thank you!


*Answer:  only when making references to the "how many licks" Tootsie-Pop commercial, which, by the way, is entirely inaccurate: owls are only concerned with biting. Lots of biting.  Oh, and taloning.  That too.


  1. HOW BIG SHOULD my OWL PERCH BE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!