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The Great Horned Owl - Lord of the Night

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sketch by Mike Turnlund sketch by Mike Turnlund

A Bird in Hand


Our area is rich in owls, which makes for interesting birding opportunities. And due to their nocturnal habits—most species, anyhow—we rarely see them, although they are commonly heard once the sun goes down and night settles in. Perhaps this explains why owls seem to stir our imagination more than other birds species. Their calls are strange, normally a series of hoots and eerie screeches. And when we do happen upon them at night it is often because we just scared the bejeebers out of them, rousting them from their perch and sending them off madly in search of escape, their wings fluttering past our faces while we see nothing more than a passing shadow. Mysterious animals! 

Well, not really. Cool, but nothing is mysterious once you understand it. And owls are consummately knowable. The problem for most of us is that owls and humans work different shifts. We tend to work days or swing, owls tend to work graveyard.  We sleep at night; they work. We work during the day; they sleep. But it is when our paths cross during those crepuscular moments—those late evening walks in the twilight, for example—that we enter their world. This is the time when the owls are out. And one specie you will probably chance upon more than any other is the Great Horned owl. 

Think about it: a horned owl. A bird with horns. Sort of like a jack-a-lope. You’ve seen a jack-a-lope: those stuffed rabbit heads sporting a set of deer antlers. I remember as a child spotting my first jack-a-lope at our local feed store, which had one mounted above their sales counter. This triggered my curiosity and I poured over countless animal books trying to get more information about this strange beast. Alas! I was gravely disappointed to learn that the jack-a-lope was only the sick joke of a demented taxidermist! 

But not the Great Horned owl. Nope, those horns are genuine! The only problem is that they are not really horns. They are not even ears. They are just feathers. Feathers that look like horns, and which only suggest ears. Why do they have these strange little tuffs? Ask God. But they are stylish and help us to separate the Great Horned from similar sized birds. 

The Great Horned owl is a large fowl, approximately the size of a big raven, but heavier and fuller in build. You will normally only see the bird in silhouette, as against a fading evening sky, therefore this is what I have limited my illustration to. Note the large head relative to the body and the definitive ‘horns.’ These birds boast of a broad range of colors though some shade of brown is the most common. What is notable is not the overall coloration, but the intense flecking of a lighter complimentary shade that creates a uniform pattern about the bird. It appears to be finely molted, especially the breast. But concern over color may be a moot point as you will probably only see them at night. 

Here are some interesting facts about the Great Horned owl. It is the most widely distributed owl in the Americas and covers both North and South America. There are many subspecies, a subject I won’t even begin to try to address. Their eyes are as large as a human’s, though—in common with all other owl species—they cannot rotate them in their sockets, hence the need for the owls’ ability to practically turn their heads complete around. They have acute vision. Their hearing is equally up to task and, again as is typical with owls, their ears are not aligned in the skull on the same plane. One is lower than the other, allowing the bird to triangulate with great precision the location of prey. They can hunt by sound alone! 

The Great Horned owl will eat animals that can be twice as heavy as themselves. They thoroughly enjoy rabbits and skunks (they do not have a sense of smell), but will just as readily make a meal out of a house cat or Chihuahua. Or, for that matter, your Pekinese, or Maltese, or any other innumerable type of yippee little dogs. Personally, I consider this proclivity of the Great Horned owl for small domestic dogs to be a great service to humanity (I get in trouble when I write this stuff, but doggone it, freedom of the press!). I remember watching a Great Horned owl eye my own little cocker spaniel one evening while out for a walk. I am sure that if I wasn’t around it would have had my dog for dinner. 

Owls are more commonly heard than seen and the call of the Great Horned is distinctive, usually a series of hoots in a grouping of four. But your best bet is to try to view the bird by positioning it against a lighter background. Then you’ll see the horns. If you need any other ideas, send me an email, and happy birding! 


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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

A Bird in Hand, Great Horned Owl, owls

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