Grays Harbor Birds - Great Horned Owl

I think everyone knows what a Great Horned Owl (GHO) is, as most of us grew up with this bird somewhere nearby.

When we think of the sound an owl makes, it is usually the call of the GHO we think of or imitate. Many of us grew up reading Winnie the Pooh, and knew Pooh’s friend Owl, a Great Horned Owl.

This owl is found throughout the Americas, hunts at night, and is a force to be reckoned with during the breeding and nesting season. It’s a big owl, not afraid to take on the bigger prey, including other owls, osprey and peregrine chicks, even skunk. Crows will let you know if they find a GHO roosting during the day by “mobbing” the owl … for hours if it chooses to stay and take the verbal abuse.

The first published description of a Great Horned Owl was made in 1788 in the Virginia Colonies, so its species name was created from the Latin for the colony named for Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Here are some facts:

Size: The female is the larger of the two measurements; 18 to 25 inches in length, with a 40 to 60 inch wingspan, and weighing 32 to a whopping 88 ounces.

General Description: A large, powerful bird with prominent ear tufts, a large facial disk, and big yellow eyes. The colors on the back are mottled browns, and on the front a mix of mottled brown with black and white barring, and some white at the throat. Their feet are heavily feathered with powerful legs and big talons. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we see a darker-colored bird than in other parts of their territory.

Habitat: GHO’s are found in more varied habitats than any other North American owl. Their choice of a day roost is deep within a heavily wooded area, but they also prefer open or fragmented woodland with open fields nearby. For those owls living in treeless areas, they make do with cliffs.

Behavior: These powerful hunters use the “sit and wait” technique for hunting at night; they see well in low light, and hear quite well with their asymmetrical ears. The sounds of prey reach their ears in a small fraction of difference, enough to help pinpoint and locate where the sound originates. The forward edge of the first primary feather on each wing is serrated (jagged) rather than smooth, which disrupts the flow of air over the wing in flight. That eliminates the vortex noise created by airflow over a smooth surface, so the owl is able to fly silently.

Diet: GHO’s take whatever prey is available, from mammals such as rabbits, skunks, and large rodents, to birds such as grouse, coots, ducks, and other species of owls. They will even take reptiles, amphibians, and fish.

Nesting: GHO’s are monogamous, forming long-term pair bonds. They begin calling to one another in early winter, and there is much billing, bobbing, and clicking of beaks by both, and aerial displays by the male. They most often use nests already built in previous years by hawks, crows, herons, or other large birds. They nest before other birds, so they have their pick, and they don’t add to the nest materials. Since nesting begins in January or February before the deciduous trees begin to leaf out, they can often be easily seen on the nest. The female incubates one to four eggs for 30 to 37 days, while the male brings her food. The young remain on the nest for about six weeks, then begin to climb out onto nearby limbs, called “branching”. Short flights begin at about seven weeks, and they can fly well at 9-10 weeks. Often they wind up on the ground in these early stages of fledging, but they are usually able to climb back up into the trees by themselves. Both parents continue to feed and tend the youngsters for several months, and often until fall. The photo above was taken in mid-February; one week later these two were branching and making short flights, a bit early this year.

Migration Status: GHO’s in Grays Harbor are not migratory, but owls in the far northern part of their range may wander long distances in the fall and winter.

Conservation Status: These owls are increasing in population in Washington, thanks to forests fragmented by logging and encroaching population centers. They easily adapt to change, and are tolerant of our city life.

Where to Find in Grays Harbor: With all the timber we have, and the open spaces in between tracts of timber, GHO’s can be found in most of our neighborhoods. Just be aware they can inflict pretty serious thumps on the back of the head if you intrude into their space during breeding/nesting season. Keep your distance!