Backyard Wildlife: Owls

Most animals bear their young in spring, when food is more readily available and temperatures are more hospitable for their vulnerable offspring. But great horned owls aren’t like most animals.

Great horned owls have evolved to employ a winter breeding strategy that limits competition for nesting sites with other raptors, such as red-tailed hawks. In fact, this very winter, great horned owls will be sitting on eggs and caring for their hatchlings, possibly in or near your backyard. You just have to listen and look for clues.

Large but visually elusive
Great horned owls are big—the second largest owl species in North America—at 18 to 24 inches tall with wing spans up to 5 feet. Only the great gray owl is larger in size (but not in weight). The great horned owl is also one of the most adaptable bird species and can be found across the continent, from coastal areas to mountains, forests and deserts—anywhere they can find trees large enough in which to nest.

They’re one of the owl species you’re most likely to observe (along with screech owls and barred owls), and they’re easy to identify with their signature ear tufts of feathers, which resemble horns or catlike ears. Just keep in mind that “observe” means more than just seeing with your eyes.

Seeing a great horned owl is actually pretty difficult. Like most owls, they’re nocturnal. We humans don’t see well in the dark, and we’re typically asleep when owls are active. Great horned owls are also exceedingly well-camouflaged and can sit incredibly still, not even twitching a feather.

Listen and look for signs
To find a great horned owl, use your ears. They have a classic “hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo” call. Visit allaboutbirds.org to hear their songs and calls.

You can also look for feathers and owl pellets. Owls swallow their prey whole or in large chunks and regurgitate the indigestible fur, feathers and bones in a grayish-white pellet. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot pellets under an owl’s favorite roost. They’re large, up to 2 inches across—not surprising given their size. To find out what the owl’s been eating, gently tear the pellet open and look for bones, especially skulls.

Great horned owls have huge talons and they use them to capture their food, including rodents, rabbits, birds and even smaller owl species. They’re one of the only regular predators of skunks; the skunk’s natural defense—its offensive musk—is of little use against great horned owls’ weak sense of smell.

Leave large trees intact for habitat
If you want to attract great horned owls, you need to do one thing: Preserve mature trees, which support the owls’ prey and provide owls with nesting sites. Take care of the trees on your property. And get involved in your community to keep it tree-filled. Your reward will be the knowledge that great horned owls might move in as your neighbors, and you might just get lucky enough to hear a nocturnal serenade from these beautiful creatures.