Bird Spotlight: Great Horned Owl

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Those of you who follow our Facebook page probably saw the July 1st release of the Great Horned Owl we rehabilitated. This Great Horned Owl came to us with a fractured left wing. After several months of rehab to heal the wing and regain flight strength, this majestic animal was sent back into the wild. Now that the owl’s back in its natural environmental, you may ponder, as I often do, the places it’ll go, the things it’ll eat, and how it catches it’s prey. Perhaps you just want to know more about these unique creatures.

Great Horned Owls are named from the conspicuous ear-shaped tufts jetting out from the top of their heads. These tufts aren’t ears, but they do help these owls to intimidate other animals around them. They’re fierce nocturnal predators, and the largest and most powerful owl species found in Florida. The only owl in North America that’s larger is the Snowy Owl, occurring in the northern range of the continent. As the most widespread owl and one of the most common owls in North America, the Great Horned Owl is capable of living in a wide range of developed and undeveloped habitats from the artic to the tropics (i). Its far-reaching range can be attributed to its keen ability to adapt to habitat change. As long as nesting sites are available, the Great Horned Owl can thrive in almost any semi-open terrestrial environment (i).

Most owls hunt at night, and the Great Horned Owl is no exception. They’re most active at dusk, and just before dawn. Perched on a branch or fence post at a forest edge, they listen for their prey. Despite large eyes that assist with navigating the night skies, owls hunt primarily by sound. Their exceptional hearing is partly due to asymmetrical ears that allows them to pinpoint the exact location of their prey in complete darkness. Facial disc feathers also help direct sound waves to their ears (i). Once a Great Horned Owl locates prey, they fly silently through the air toward their target. This silent flying is due to another remarkable adaptation unique to owls. The long, curved, and well-spaced barbs on the leading edge of its primary feathers reduces air disturbance and eliminates the typical flapping sounds that are heard with most birds (ii). The resulting silent flight allows Great Horned Owls, and all owls, to sneak up on their prey. Their powerful talons are then used to latch onto and kill prey by rupturing vital intern organs and structures.

At this point, you may be wondering: What do owls hunt? It’s likely your answer was correct because Great Horned Owls have the most diverse diet of all North American raptors. Their favorite food consists of medium sized mammals and birds. This includes skunks, rabbits, mice, and American Coots. They also eat scorpions, frogs, reptiles, and insects. Great Horned Owls can even take down prey larger than themselves including other raptors and owls! (i)

Those that have dissected owl pellets know that owls don’t digest everything they eat. Owls have a specialized digestive system that allows them to digest soft tissues and organs while regurgitating harder tissues. The hard tissues of their prey get regurgitated as an owl pellet; a spherical ball of bone, fur, and other non-digestible tissues. These pellets provide insight into the diet of different species of owls, and they serve as a valuable tool for ornithologists.

Not only are Great Horned Owls amazing animals, they are essential to the health of all the ecosystems in which they reside. If you haven’t been lucky enough to see a Great Horned Owl in the wild, you can always visit our three resident Great Horned Owls at the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary. Delilah, Samson, and Junior are always willing to spend time with visitors from near and afar.

Steven Warchocki, FKWBC Intern, 2016.

(i) The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Great Horned Owl

(ii) Gill, F. B. (2007). Ornithology (3rd ed). New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

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