The great horned owl is a large owl with wide-set ear tufts, a reddish, brown or gray face, and a white throat. The iris is yellow. The upper parts are mottled brown; the underparts are light with brown barring. After dark, you can identify it by its three to eight deep hoots grouped in a pattern such as “hoo h'HOO, HOO, HOO.”
Length: 22 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).
Common statewide, in most habitats, from forest to urban areas.
Habitat and Conservation
Great horned owls are found in many habitats, from deep forests to urban areas.
Prey includes mice, insects, crows, snakes, and rabbits. Great horned owls have been known to take barred owls, wild turkeys, and other larger animals, including skunks. These owls are nocturnal, with sharp eyes and keen hearing. They observe quietly from a high perch and swoop down to catch prey.
Common permanent resident.
Breeding occurs in late January or early February, following a few months of hooting. Great horned owls often reuse old nests of other large birds or squirrels, but they can also nest in cavities or other places. Clutches average 2 eggs, incubation lasts about a month, and the young tend to stay near their parents until the next breeding season. Great horned owls may potentially live for nearly 30 years, but 13 is a ripe old age for most wild specimens.
Great horned owls help reduce populations of mice, rats, and other rodents that can be very troublesome for humans.
Rat and mice poison can kill raptors that eat rodents and other animals that have consumed the poison.
A wide-ranging North American species, the great horned owl has long been admired by many tribes of Native Americans, who incorporated it into their spirituality, folklore, and ceremonies.
This species is the official provincial bird of Alberta, Canada.
Owls, hawks, and other raptors used to be heavily persecuted by people because they were blamed for harming livestock and poultry. Improved enclosures have helped farmers protect their livestock and poultry, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has helped protect owls and other raptors from persecution.
As predators, great horned owls play an important role in the wildlife community. They serve to control populations of rodents, rabbits, and many other species. Their steady removal of slow, noisy, clumsy, or careless individuals from prey populations leaves only the speediest, quietest, most alert individuals to survive and reproduce. Their capturing sick individuals of prey species lowers the chances for disease transmission among those populations.
Great horned owls have their highest populations when prey species are plentiful. But when prey population numbers plummet, the owl populations crash soon after.
Although adult great horned owls are not preyed on by many carnivores, their vulnerable eggs and young are eaten by many animals, including foxes, coyotes, opossums, and raccoons.
Where to See Species
About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.