SIB “Bird of the Week” – Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl in flight. Photo by Peter Burian, Wikimedia Commons.

Great Horned OwlBubo virginianus
Length: 18.1-24.8″.; Wingspan: 39.8-57.1″ ; Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz.

“Who’s awake? Me too! Who’s awake? Me too!”

My “Birding by Ear” audio training suggests these phonetic phrases to help identify the Great Horned Owl. One night, while sitting on our back deck at Seabrook, my husband and I heard this very sound coming from an area nearby. We jumped up and ran out to the yard, looking all around. There in the moonlight, on top of the house, sat a Great Horned Owl. What an incredible sight! We stood there for a full minute and watched him through our binoculars while he watched the surrounding dunes and kept an eye on us at the same time. Suddenly he flew down to the dunes, we heard a brief yelp, then he flew up into the trees, carrying his prey. It was an incredible moment to witness.

Found throughout North America and much of South America, this large owl is an aggressive and powerful hunter. Prey includes hawks, ospreys, falcons and other owls. They also eat rabbits, snakes, rodents, frogs, and even skunks. Its large eyes have many rods for night vision and pupils that open widely in the dark. While its eyes don’t move, this owl can swivel its head more than 180 degrees and look in any direction. Great Horned owls have acute hearing, assisted by facial disc feathers that direct sound waves to its ears. Short, wide wings allow maneuverability through the forest and exceptionally soft feathers allow for silent flight. They clench their prey with talons so strong it takes 28 pounds of force to open them, a grip so deadly it can easily sever the spine of large prey.

It’s one of the most common owls in North America, found in deserts, wetlands, forests, grasslands, backyards, cities and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the tropics. A very broad range! They’re nocturnal and can be seen at dusk sitting on fence posts or tree limbs at the edge of open areas, always watching. If you hear an agitated group of American Crows they may be mobbing a Great Horned owl. They gather from near and far to harass an owl for hours. And for good reason – it’s their most dangerous predator.

Great Horned Owl, Seabrook Island – David Woodman

Female Great Horned Owls are larger than males. In courtship, males perform flight displays and also feed the female. They typically use old nests of other large birds such as hawks, eagles, crows, herons and ospreys. Nests are usually 20-60′ above ground and they add little or no nest material to the existing nest. In fact, currently on Seabrook Island, a Great Horned Owl is actively nesting in what is believed to be a former Osprey nest.

Great Horned Owl on nest – Dean Morr

Two to three eggs is normal, with the female doing the majority of the incubation over a 28-35 day period. Both parents take part in providing food for the young owls, then when they’re 5 weeks old they can leave the nest and climb on nearby branches, can fly at 9-10 weeks, and are tended and fed by parents for several months,

Since owls are easier to hear than to see, take some time to learn the different hoots and calls. They’re often heard on Seabrook, so keep your ears tuned and binoculars handy.

To learn more about Great Horned Owls, go to:

Submitted by Gina Sanders

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