Sarah– Sarah is a northwestern great horned owl (Buteo virginianus lagophonus). Her original home was Wasilla, Alaska but she has lived at the ABEF since 2010. Sarah enjoys flying around her home finding bits of rat, tearing apart phonebooks, and kong balls filled with fur. While Sarah isn’t a picky about her food, she particularly enjoys fresh rat and will always hop down for a leg of rabbit.
Sarah’s sponsors are: Dawn Engler & Amy Baird, Ruth Stubba, James Keck, Richard & Gerri Vollmer, Barbara Weaver
Great Horned Owl Natural History
Identification: Great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) get their name from the distinctive feather tufts that are on their head. Great horned owls are one of the most common owls in North American and occupy almost every type of habitat. Because of this, there are 13 recorded sub-species and a vast amount of plumage variation. Some individuals can be so pale they almost look white and some individuals can be very dark. A good way to identify great horned owls are by their bright yellow eyes and their white throat patch. Great horned owls have stout and bulky bodies with relatively short tails and long, broad wings. They fly with stiff, steady movements and have been recorded reaching speeds of 40 m.p.h.
Hunting & diet: Great horned owls are mostly night time hunters though they have been recorded hunting during the day and at dusk. Their most commonly recorded hunting method is to perch on a high (about 300 feet) rocky crevice, tree, pole, tall bush, etc, near an open area (such as a meadow, field, bog) and glide down to catch their prey when they hear or see it. They have also been seen stalking prey on the ground. Again, because the great horned owl has such a large geographic range, their prey items also vary by region. In most parts of the continent, the majority of a great horned owl’s prey basis is mammals such as rabbits and hares, rats, squirrels, prairie dogs, etc. However they are known to take birds (sometimes as large as a great blue heron) and occasionally reptiles, amphibians and insects. In some regions of the country, they are well known for taking skunks. In Alaska, snowshoe hares are the most common prey item.
Size: Great horned owls vary between 18-25 inches in height, with a wingspan between 40-57 inches and weighing between one and a half and five and a half pounds.
Habitat: These birds are adapted to most every habitat and climate up to the Arctic Circle in North America. They have been recorded living in old growth forests, second growth forests, riparian woodlands, prairies, savannas, tundras, cities and deserts. Most of the areas they are found in have some type of open country where they can hunt and an area (like a forest’s edge) where they can camouflage themselves.
Nesting and breeding: Great horned owls are thought to be monogamous. Though the pair does not stay together throughout the year, they are thought to stay in the same territory year round. Pair bonding begins with a male bowing and hooting to the female. He will begin bobbing his tail and rocking from side to side while calling to her. If interested, the female will call back and the two will “duet” together. Great horned owls do not build a nest, but will reuse a nest from another species (usually hawks or corvids), or lay their eggs in snags, buildings, rocky crevices, tree cavities, any type of ledge, and even on the ground. Some populations of great horned owls will line their nest site with mosses, lichens, feathers, fur or leaves, however other populations do not alter their nesting site at all. Egg laying can begin as early as December in the south and as late as March in the north. Between one and four eggs are laid between one and seven days apart. Only the female will incubate the eggs. Owls will begin leaving the nest about six weeks from hatching, but will stay in their parents territory (sometimes begging for food) for up to five months after they have left the nest.
Other facts: Great horned owls are often referred to as the “tiger of the sky” because of their power and ability to surprise prey. Predator-prey population studies in Kulane National Park in Yukon Territory, Canada suggests that great horned owls are more likely to cause the snowshoe hare population to fall rather than Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) or red fox (Vulpes vulpes). One nest site in Kluane had a dozen snowshoe hares stored in it. Some populations of great horned owls have also been found to be indirect seed distributors through eating rodents. Great horned owls are well known for taking other raptors such as barred owls, spotted owls, peregrine falcons, and nestling eagles. If a great horned owl is spotted by smaller birds (such as ravens, crows and song birds) they will be harassed by large populations of these small birds. Although great horned owls are known to be highly territorial (especially females) they are known to co-exist in the same territories as red-tailed hawks (which are typically thought of as their daytime counterpart)
Most common problems: Common causes of injury or death for great horned owls include gunshot, rodenticide (rat/mouse) poisoning, electrocution, leg hold traps, collision with vehicle. Other causes of injury include porcupine quills, and blindness from skunk spray.