5 Fascinating Facts About Great Horned Owls

When you think of owls, it is probably the great horned owl that you first think of. It is the owl most familiar to many people.

A family of great horned owls. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Great horned owls are among the most common owls in North America, and their range covers almost the entire continent. The hoot of the great horned owl is the call that most likely comes to mind when we think of the sound an owl makes. They call out hoo-h-hoo-hoo-hoo into the night. Sometimes, the males and females sing back and forth to one another.


Great horned owls are one of the eight owls that live in Will County. Their closest relative is the snowy owl. Here are five other things that make great horned owls so impressive.


They don't really have horns


Great horned owls don’t actually have horns. Those horn-like protrusions aren't ears either. The "horns," which are called plumicorns, are just tufts of feathers.


Plumicorns aren't unique to great horned owls. Feather tufts are quite common in owls. Eastern screech owls have small ear tufts. The long-eared owl and short-eared owl are both named for feather tufts that look like ears.


Owls do have ears, but not where those tufts would have you believe. Owls' ears are hidden under feathers behind their eyes.


Their neck structure is unique


Have you heard that owls can turn their heads all the way around? That’s not exactly true, but great horned owls — and other owls — can rotate their necks 270 degrees in either direction. That means they can see behind them simply by turning their heads. This skill is impressive, but owls are not the only birds with this ability. Red-tailed hawks can do it too. In fact, it's quite common among birds of prey to have excellent range of motion.


Owls have this head-spinning ability thanks to their neck structure. They have 14 bones in their necks, compared to just seven bones in the human neck. Owls also have only one socket pivot connecting their heads to their bodies. Humans have two socket pivots, which restricts movement.


They have excellent vision and hearing


The eyes of great horned owls and other owls are fixed in place, so they can't move them around in the sockets. This is one reason the ability to turn their heads from side to side is so useful. But their inability to move their eyes around isn't too much of a deficit, because they have excellent vision.


A great horned owl's eyeballs are about the same size as a human's eyes. They only see in black and white, but their eyes are 35 times more sensitive than ours. They can see objects with only 5 percent of the light that a human needs to see them.

In addition to excellent vision, these owls have exceptional hearing as well. They can hear sounds from as far as 10 miles away. However, not all their senses are heightened. Great horned owls do not have a very good sense of smell.


They aren't picky eaters


Great horned owls eat other animals, and they have the most diverse diet of all the raptors in North America. Their preferred food is small mammals, but they also eat birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects. They are one of the few animals that will regularly eat skunks.

While they eat a lot of small rodents, they can hunt animals similar in size to them. They are even able to prey on animals that weigh more than them.


They aren't dainty eaters either. Some prey, like small rodents, they swallow whole. With larger prey, they will rip it into large chunks before swallowing it. Not everything they eat can be digested, so they regurgitate pellets of the indigestible pieces. Have you ever dissected one of these pellets?


They are almost silent in flight


Great horned owls have very soft feathers to insulate them against the cold. These feathers also stifle the sounds their wings make when flying. Their feathers aren't the only thing that make them so quiet in flight, though.


Normally, the bigger the bird, the louder they are in flight. However, this isn't the case for great horned owls and many other owls. Owls' wings are large compared to their bodies, and this lets them fly more slowly and with little flapping. The structure of their feathers also helps deaden sound.


Most birds' feathers have comb-like edges, which creates a swooshing sound. However, owl feathers have velvety fringe on the trailing edge. This fringe streamlines airflow and absorbs the sound that is produced.

____________


Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.