Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus

DIET: Rodents and other small animals, including skunks.


HABITAT: Areas with trees.


WHERE TO OBSERVE IN SB:  Arroyo Burro Open Space, La Mesa Park

It's easy to recognize a great horned owl when you see one.  These birds have distinctive tufts of feathers on their heads that resemble horns or cat ears. They feed on rodents and other small mammals and can be found in trees at the edges of clearings.


Great horned owls are large raptors with neutral colored feathers.  They are often seen silhouetted in trees at dusk.  They fly very silently due to specialized feathers on their wings.  Like most owl species, the females are larger than the males.

Role in Food Chain

Great horned owls feed mostly on small animals, including lizards, birds, fish, and especially rodents.  They also are the only natural predators of the striped skunk, since they are immune to the smell of its musk.  It's common for a great horned owl to perch in a tree overlooking an open area, because it can easily hunt rodents from there. 

At the top of the food chain, the great horned owl has no natural predators.

Habitat and Range

Great horned owls are found in much of North America.  They are very adaptable with regard to habitat, and can live in many types of habitats that include trees.  They do not build their own nests, but nest in tree cavities or reuse vacant nests. 


Great horned owls are nocturnal.  They commonly start hunting at dusk, and stay out all night.  Typically, an owl will start off by perching in a tree or other tall object at the edge of a clearing, scanning the ground for prey.  Although they cannot move their eyes, great horned owls can rotate their heads all the way around to watch for movement.  When an owl sees prey, it will fly silently down and attempt to grab the animal with its talons.  Owls swallow their food whole, and regurgitate the bones and other inedible parts as pellets.

Great horned owls usually mate for life, and it is not uncommon for them to keep the same territory for the rest of their lives.  Mother owls typically stay with their young several months after fledging to teach them the skills they need to survive.

Relationship with Humans

Owls have been part of superstitions, myths, and traditions for a long time.  Some people admire them for their strength and hunting ability, while many others believe that they are evil omen. 

While some people enjoy observing owls, since they are elusive and interesting animals that often live near urban areas, others antagonize them either because of superstition or due to the perceived risks to pets.  Owls are capable of preying on housecats, and sometimes small dogs, but they prefer other foods such as rodents. The best way to keep your small pets safe from owls and other predators is to keep them in at night.  Owls do not normally hunt in the daytime.


How to Observe Great Horned Owls

Great horned owls are often heard before they are seen.  Listen for their hoots at night, and look for the silhouette of an owl in a tree.  Imitating the call of the great horned owl will sometimes attract an answer, enabling you to more easily locate the bird.  In Santa Barbara, owls (and other raptors) are often seen perching in eucalyptus trees, since these tend to provide open branches with good views.  Look at the Arroyo Burro Open Space or La Mesa Park.  In the daytime, owl droppings, pellets, and feathers are good indicators that an owl frequents an area.  Sometimes, you can identify a raptor feather as being from a great horned owl if it smells skunky, because great horned owls are the only raptors that prey on skunks (being unaffected by their musk).



Image credits: Great horned owl- DickDaniels, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0,