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Art Lander’s Outdoors: With striking looks and eerie sounds, the Great Horned Owl is a Halloween icon

A night hunter with a striking appearance and eerie vocalizations, this owl is a Halloween icon.

The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is a large, powerful bird with bright yellow eyes, brown, tan and whitish/gray plumage that provides good camouflage in forests, and distinctive “horns,” tufts of feathers called plumicorns.

The Great Horned Owl is one of five owl species that nests in Kentucky. (Photo by Greg Hume photo, Wikipedia Commons)

“Great Horned Owls begin hooting in the fall when they establish pair bounds prior to nesting in January,” said Kate Slankard, an avian biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “Their hooting is associated with Halloween.”

It’s an eerie call not soon forgotten, a series of deep, low hoots that carry a great distance in the clear fall air: hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo, with second and third notes noticeably shorter.

Range and Distribution

Common, permanent and widely distributed throughout the state, the Great Horned Owl is one of five owl species that nests in Kentucky.

According to The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, by Brainard Palmer Ball, Jr., breeding populations of this owl are most numerous in the western and central two-thirds of Kentucky, with a lower density in the far eastern Kentucky counties.

Although their habitat preferences range from extensive tracks of mature forest to woodlots in cleared, or cultivated areas, they are drawn to typical upland areas.

The range of the Great Horned Owl in North America extends from central Alaska, throughout most of Canada, and all of the Lower 48 states.

The Great Horned Owl is a member of family Strigiformes, and there are about 12 subspecies worldwide.

Size and Coloration

This owl has a barrel-shaped body, a large head, and broad wings. Adults average about 22 inches in length, with a wingspan of about 48 inches.

Females are somewhat larger than males, with body weights ranging from about three and a half pounds for females to about two and three-quarter pounds for males.

Great Horned Owls have a barrel-shaped body, large head, and broad wings. (Photo by Arthur Morris, Audubon Society)

Its tail is short, and its legs, feet and talons are powerful. Big females can apply about 300 pounds per inch of crushing power in their talons, a pressure considerably greater than the human hand is capable of exerting and comparable to much larger raptor species such as the Golden Eagle.

The Great Horned Owl has a hard, inflexible bill about two inches long that is set in the middle of a distinctive facial disk.

The ear openings, which are concealed by feathers on the sides of the head, are relatively small, but this owl has acute hearing.

It’s eyes are slightly smaller than the eyes of a human, but rank proportionately among the largest eyes of all terrestrial vertebrates, adapted to nocturnal hunting and providing a wide, almost binocular field of view.

Instead of moving its eyes left or right, the Great Horned Owl turns its whole head, and is capable of rotating its neck 270 degrees.

Feeding Behavior and Diet

They are often observed in trees beside rural roads just before sunrise.

“They hunt at night and spend the day sleeping in the cavity of a (hardwood) tree, or sheltered evergreen,” said Slankard.

Great Horned Owls hunt at night and spend the day sleeping. (Photo from Wikipedia)

These owls dive from a perch and kill their prey on the ground with their sharp talons. They feed mostly on mammals, such as rats, mice, rabbits, squirrels, opossums. They also eat snakes and birds, including the young of other raptors.

Great Horned Owls are one of the few animals that will kill and eat skunks. “When we pick one up for rehab that is injured they usually smell like a skunk,” said Slankard.

Reproduction and Nesting

In courtship, the male performs displays of flight, and feeds the female.

Great Horned Owls begin nesting earlier than all other species of breeding birds in Kentucky. Eggs are typically laid before the end of January.

They use old nests of other large birds, such as hawks, eagles, or crows. Little additional nest material is added, just occasionally feathers.

In Kentucky, clutch sizes are two to three dull, whitish eggs.

Incubation is mostly by the female and lasts 28 to 35 days. Both parents provide food for their young, who leave nest and climb on nearby branches at about five weeks, but can’t fly until about 10 weeks. After several months of parental care, the young owlets are on their own.

An icon of Halloween, the lovable Great Horned Owl is distinctive in its quirky appearance and vocalizations. But don’t be fooled, this owl is a serious, powerful raptor that kills other animals to survive.

Vintage postcard featuring a Great Horned Owl. (Graphic Fairy Image)

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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