The Great horned owl is a round-faced bird with the distinctive horn-shaped feather tuft on the crown of its head, which is darker than the rest of its head, promoting the overall camouflage. The owl possesses powerful, solid legs, feet and claws. The Great horned owl has binocular vision due to its eyes, facing forward. The eyes of the horned owl are various shades of yellow. This bird can also be distinguished by the white colored patch on its throat. Black and brown stripes extend all over the white underbelly. The bill of the bird is black, surrounded by white or tan colored plumage. Plumage on their back is darker, covered with brown and black markings.
This owl is native to the Americas with its range, covering the greater part of North America, stretching to Central America and reaching South America. The Great horned owl occurs primarily in woodlands and open fields, scattered throughout its range. However, the species can also be found in mangroves, grasslands, swampy and marshy areas as well as desert. In addition, this bird occasionally inhabits human settlements, found throughout rural and urban areas.
These birds are solitary animals, socializing only for nesting. They usually roost by day in protected places such as a tree limb or a recess in a rock. Great horned owls are efficient nighttime hunters, though they are known to hunt in the daytime as well. Horned owls are non-migratory, remaining within the same area throughout the year. Some individuals may become "territorial floaters", not having a certain territory and constantly travelling through territories of other owls. These birds use hooting as a form of communication. Through hooting, they can search for mates during the mating season as well as set up territorial dominance.
Great horned owls are carnivorous, feeding mainly upon terrestrial vertebrates. Typically, their preferred prey is cottontail rabbit. However, their diet consists of a wide variety of animal species, including shrews, jackrabbits, squirrels, muskrats, mice, domestic cats, scorpions, frogs, snakes, weasels, skunks, pocket gophers, bats, beetles and grasshoppers. They will also consume both small and large birds such as sparrows, juncos, grouse, wild ducks and pheasants. In addition, great horned owls can even eat other owls on occasion.
They have monogamous mating system. Typically, the owl pairs are territorial, driving away other pairs from their territory in order to have full access to prey. By the mating season, the birds begin hooting with increased intensity, looking for mates. Female owls hoot only at this period while males normally hoot all year round. Breeding season takes place from November to April. The mating pair finds a nest, which is usually one, abandoned by a squirrel or another bird, including great horned owl. The female may lay up to 6 eggs with an average of 2-3. Both parents take part in the incubation for 30-35 days. After hatching, both male and the female provide the chicks with food. Young fledge by 6-9 weeks old, becoming independent at the age of 5-10 weeks. Sexual maturity is achieved at 1-3 years old.
One of the major concerns is poisoning from pesticides and rodenticides, which farmers usually use in agricultural areas. Also, Great horned owls occasionally collide with electric wires as well as get into road accidents.
Currently, these birds are fairly widespread all over the area of their habitat. The overall estimated population of these owls in North and South America is about 5,300,000 individuals. Great horned owls are classified on the IUCN Red List as a species of Least Concern (LC) with a stable population.
Due to preying upon various small mammals, Great horned owls control the populations of these species, thus preventing possible spread of disease or excessive grazing throughout the range, and maintaining the health of the ecosystem.