Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is one of our most widely distributed birds. Almost our entire area is potential Great Horned Owl habitat. These fierce, powerful predators range over large areas in search of prey, which can range in size from insects to skunks and Wild Turkeys.
Like most owls, Great Horned Owls are more often heard than seen. Their call is a deep, rhythmic hooting, which can be rendered roughly “hu hu-hu-hu, hu-hu hu.” The best way to actually see this owl is probably to keep an ear out for any hysterical-sounding chorus of crows, who noisily “mob” horned owls when they find them.
This species is a large bird, marginally bigger, and considerably stockier than, a Red-tailed Hawk. As with most raptors, the female is slightly larger than the male, size being the only visible difference between the sexes. The upperparts are generally a mottled brownish-gray, while the underparts are tawny with dense dark horizontal barring. A white patch on the front of the neck contrasts with a brownish-orange facial disk, which is bisected by a whitish area around the short, hooked bill. This hooked bill and the large, sharp talons are telltale indicators of this species’ predatory nature. The eyes are yellow, with black pupils, giving the bird a rather fierce, glaring aspect, and the two ear tufts, or “horns,” that project above the top of the head give the species its name.
The Great Horned Owl is the earliest nester of all our birds. It lays its two to three white eggs sometimes as early as January, typically in an unused stick nest of some other large species of bird, often those of the Red-tailed Hawk or American Crow. Readers should probably simply take my word for this, as it’s not recommended to investigate the nesting habits of this species too closely unless equipped with full body armor. For example, consider this passage from Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds:
Donald J. Nicholson (in Oologist, vol.43, p.14) received …[rough] treatment when he climbed to within 6 feet of a nest containing eggs; he writes: “Swiftly the old bird came straight as an arrow from behind and drove her sharp claws into my side, causing a deep dull pain and unnerving me, and no sooner had she done this than the other attacked from the front and sank his talons deep in my right arm causing blood to flow freely, and a third attack and my shirt sleeve was torn to shreds for they had struck me a third terrible blow on the right arm tearing three long, deep gashes, four inches long; also one claw went through the sinew of my arm, which about paralyzed the entire arm.”
No, crossing a Great Horned Owl is not recommended. But unless climbing a nest tree, people have little to fear from this magnificent predator. Unattended cats (and miniature poodles), however, may be a different story– and there’s another reason among many to keep cats inside.