The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), one of America’s most powerful raptors, ranges across the Western Hemisphere, from the northernmost forests of Canada and Alaska to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. It is a year-round resident in our area. This imposing bird is the largest of our local owls, standing eighteen to twenty-five inches tall. Its “horns” are actually tufts of feathers that stand atop its head. Some people call them “ear tufts,” but they have nothing to do with the owl’s ears, which are situated on the sides of its face. Those bright yellow eyes, encircled by facial disks and hooded by a v-shaped feathered brow, seem to stare right through you. There is no doubt about it – this bird means business.
Roosting by day in white pines and other dense cover, the Great Horned Owl avoids detection and harassment from mobbing crows. By night it is the consummate hunter, preying on birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects. Rabbits are a favorite food, but the great horned often will kill larger prey species such as geese, swans, woodchucks, hawks, and even other owls. Historical and first-hand accounts have documented that skunk is another favorite food. Come into contact with a great horned owl or its nest and invariably you will detect the pungent scent of skunk.
Great Horned Owls are the earliest breeding raptors in our area and nesting begins in late winter, often while there is still snow on the ground. A mated pair will hunt, roost and breed in the same area year after year, defending their territory from other Great Horned Owls. The pair will use the abandoned nest of a hawk, crow or even a squirrel. If you happen upon an owl nest in early February, leave it be. The adults are incubating eggs, protecting their future offspring from the vestiges of winter.