Department of Environmental Conservation

D E C banner

Great Horned Owl - Watchable Wildlife

Did You Know?

Upper body and head of a great horned owl
Great horned owl - Bubo virginianus
Photo: Susan L. Shafer
  • Great horned owls are fierce predators with an appetite for skunks (an unusual yet regular part of their diet), birds (hawks and waterfowl), and mammals (usually mouse to rabbit-sized).
  • They use their sharp eyesight, acute hearing, and specially edged feathers for nearly silent flight to hunt and capture prey stealthily at night.
  • They are permanent residents year-round in the U.S. and do not migrate like many other bird species.
  • Adult great horned owls lack predators, though they are sometimes harassed while at roosts or nests by crows calling loudly from branch to branch.
Watchable wildlife binoculars icon

What to Watch for:

Size:

18-25 inches in length with a 4-5 foot wingspan and weigh about 3 pounds.

Appearance:

Great horned owls are very large with conspicuous ear tufts on the head; their overall body color is mottled with reddish brown to gray or black and lighter streaked undersides; they have large yellow eyes with a reddish brown face bordered by black and a white throat.

Nest:

They nest in hollow cavities, broken parts, or stumps of trees and in abandoned nests of squirrels, hawks, herons, and crows. They are also found on rocky ledges, caves, barns, and on artificial platforms.

Other Signs to Look for:

  • Gray cylindrical pellets, which are clusters of indigestible, regurgitated parts of prey, such as bones, feathers, and fur.
  • Whitewash or liquid droppings.

Where to Watch:

Great horned owls are quite common statewide and are found in a wide variety of habitats including open and secondary growth forests and agricultural and open fields. They also can be found around cliffs and suburban or urban areas.

What to Listen for:

Three to six noted hoots that are loud, consistent, and perceptible. Calling can begin in late summer and continue throughout winter. In the summer, the young fledglings cry loudly for food, which is often mistaken for the cry from a bobcat or fox.

When to Watch:

They are usually most active at night, but also may hunt during the day. They can be seen perched in their nests starting as early as January or February.

More Information about Great Horned Owls:

The Best Places to See a Great Horned Owl:

Braddock Bay Wildlife Management Area, Monroe County
Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, Tonawanda and Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Area, Genesee to Niagara County
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, Seneca County
Letchworth State Park, Genesee County (leaves DEC website)
Cold Spring Harbor State Park, Suffolk County (leaves DEC website)

Return to the Watchable Wildlife main page.