Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus pacificus)
Who is the “tiger of the air?” It’s a great horned owl. This nickname originated with an early naturalist’s description of a “winged tiger” and because of their aggressive and powerful hunting.
This is a large owl with large ear tufts (no, those are not their ears) and bright yellow eyes. They have a thick body with broad and rounded wings. They are slightly larger than a red-tailed hawk but with a very short rounded head. Their length varies from 18 to about 25 inches, and they weigh from 32 to 88 ounces! The body is a mottled gray-brown, the facial disk is a reddish brown and a white patch is on their throat. Regionally, the color varies a bit from dark sooty gray to a pale gray and almost white in northern Canada.
Just to add to your vocabulary, the ear tufts are call “plumicorns.” This is from Latin: “pluma meaning small soft feather and “corn” meaning horn. It is theorized that these are a visual cue in territorial and sociosexual interactions with other owls.
This owl has a varied diet including rabbits and hares, rats and mice, voles, and any animal it can overtake. That can include mid-sized mammals, skunks, snakes, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. They hunt mostly at dusk or during the night swooping down from a high perch to capture prey in its talons. These talons have a good grip able to sever the spine of large prey. It requires a force of 28 pounds to open their talons. Their excellent hearing and sight allow hunting even in low light conditions. Though their eyes do not move in their sockets, great horned owls can swivel their heads more than 180 degrees for tracking and locating prey.
Great horned owls often swallow small prey whole. No wasted food here, but they cannot digest the fur, bones, or feathers of their prey. Their gizzard sorts all of this, passing the soft tissues through to be digested and forming the indigestible parts into an oval mass. The mass is passed back up the digestive system and regurgitated as a “pellet” a few hours after eating.
This owl nests early in the year, weeks and even months before other raptors. This gives the young plenty of time to grow and learn to hunt before the next winter. They will usually nest in trees, using the old nest of another large bird or nest on a cliff ledge or tree stump. Typically, they lay 2 to 3 dull whitish eggs which the female incubates for 28-35 days. Both parents will hunt and provide food for the growing owls. At about five weeks of age, the young will climb on a nearby branch earning the nickname “brancher” until they are ready to fly at about 9-10 weeks. The parents tend and feed the young for several months.
Great horned owls are native to North America and found everywhere, in practically all habitats. They are at home in swamps, deserts, forests, woodlots, backyards, cities and open country. During breeding season, they will move to areas with trees and heavy brush that provide cover.
The oldest great horned owl was found in Ohio in 2005 and was at least 28 years old.
Tri County Wildlife Care, a local nonprofit started in 1994, is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of our native wildlife and helping our community live in balance with wildlife. They envision a world where wildlife and people thrive together. For more information call (209) 283-3245, or visit pawspartners.org.