The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is our largest and most widespread raptor in North America. It is also our second heaviest owl in North America, (Snowy owl is heavier). It ranges in length from 17–25 inches and has a wingspan of 36–60 inches, with the females somewhat larger than males. Although the body shape of the Great Horned owl is consistent throughout its wide range, there is considerable variation in plumage coloration. The facial disks might be gray, brown or reddish colored. Also, the white patch on the throat may vary in size and the ear tufts may have some reddish feathers.
Adult birds have large ear tufts, which are just clusters of tall feathers, and the Great Horned owl is the only very large bird in its range with these features. The eyes of this bird are nearly as large as those of a human being and are immobile within their circular bone sockets. As a result, they can’t move their eyes up or down or side to side – the owl has to move its whole head to compensate for the fixed eyes. Thanks to extra vertebrae in their necks, they can rotate their head a full 270 degrees in order to see in various directions without moving their entire body.
The year-round range of the Great Horned owl extends from Central America all the way to just south of the Yukon territories in northern North America. They are known to occupy nests of other large birds and it is the earliest nesting bird in many parts of its range. They will also nest on cliff ledges or even on the ground. No matter where they nest, people are advised not to go near them. They will attack any animal that threatens their nests.
Like most owls the Great Horned is generally nocturnal. However, it can often be seen or heard hunting during dusk and twilight, especially on cloudy days. This owl can hoot, bark, chuckle, growl, hiss, screech, scream, and clack its beak. Because the male has a larger voice box, its hoot is deeper than the female’s. I’ve also noticed that the males tend to range farther for their hunting whereas the females prefer to stay in or near the shelter of trees or brush, possibly close to their nest.
Having a nesting pair on my former place on the high prairies for eight years, the male and I established a respectful relationship. Often times I would answer his hoots in the early mornings or evenings. He would fly near my sitting spot and land on a utility pole or fence post and we would have conversations. Even in the middle of the summer nights when he was perched outside my open bedroom window. Although I often heard the female return his calls, I never did see her but once or twice when she flew out of the thick woods bordering my property.
Once in awhile I would lose my Internet connection via the satellite dish mounted on my roof. I discovered when I went outside to check the weather conditions that Mr. Horned Owl was proudly perching on top of the satellite dish and hooting at me underneath him. I smiled and sat down on the bench to pick up the conversation with him. I am tickled happy that there is a nesting pair near where I live now here in the desert.