The great horned owl is named for the tufts of feathers that sit atop its head.
The great horned owl is named for the tufts of feathers that sit atop its head.
Photograph by Stephen Mcsweeny, Dreamstime

Great Horned Owl

The great horned owl has no horns! It is named for the tufts of feathers that sit on top of its head, called plumicorns.

Common Name:
Great Horned Owl
Scientific Name:
Bubo virginianus
Average Life Span In The Wild:
5 to 15 years
Body: 18 to 25 inches; wingspan: 3.3 to 4.8 feet
2 to 5.5 pounds

Scientists don’t know why these owls sport tufts of feathers on top of their heads, but they do have a few theories. The tufts might help members of their own species to recognize each other among the forest around them, or they may use the tufts to blend into their surroundings, making them look more like broken tree branches than a tasty meal.

The great horned owl is one of the most common owls in North America, found in a range of habitats that includes forests, swamps, deserts, tundra edges, tropical rain forests, cities, suburbs, and parks. If you live in North America, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the deep, soft, stuttering hoots of this owl: hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo. This owl uses this hoot to advertise its territory. It can also make a variety of other sounds, including whistles, barks, shrieks, hisses, coos, and wavering cries.

You are most likely to hear an owl hoot at night because they are nocturnal birds. They have big eyes and wide pupils that allow them to spot their prey. Unlike people’s eyes, their eyes don’t move in their sockets, but the owls can swivel their heads to look in any direction. Their short but wide wings allow them to fly through the forest, and their soft feathers help them approach prey very quietly.

Great horned owls eat a wide variety of prey—from small rodents to skunks and geese. Like other owls, these birds sometimes swallow their prey whole and later regurgitate pellets composed of bone, fur, and other unwanted parts of their meal.

These fierce predators are also great parents. Mated pairs will find a nest—usually a disused nest from another large bird species—and will defend it from intruders at all costs. Baby great horned owls are ready to fly at between 10 and 12 weeks old.