The great horned owl is the best-known and most common species of owl found in this area.

Species: Great horned owl

Scientific name: Bubo virgianus

Nicknames: Hoot owl

Claim to fame: The great horned owl is the best-known and most common species of owl found in this area. This species has feathered tufts on its head, a flecked brownish color, the large head and all the other characteristics people associate with owls. In late November and December is when males begin to hoot, signaling that courtship and mating for these birds have begun.

Species status: Of the eight species of owls that either are year-round residents of Missouri or seasonal visitors to this state, the great horned owl is species whose population is most stable in this region. These owls can be found in both rural and urban environments.

First discovered: The first scientific description of the great horned owl was written by the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1788.

Family matters: Great horned owls belong to the bird family Strigidae, a group of species commonly known as the typical owls. This family includes virtually all types of owls except for barn owls and bay owls.

Length: 20-25 inches (wingspan 36-60 inches)

Diet: The great horned owl does an important service to humans by helping control rodent populations. Included on a great horned owl’s diet are rats, mice, rabbits, squirrels, skunks, muskrats, gophers, birds and house cats. Like other owls, owl pellets are by-products of a great-horned owl’s food consumption. Large prey items are torn apart with talons and beak while smaller food items such as mice are swallowed whole. Hours later, indigestible bones, fur and feathers are coughed up in firm, cylindrical one-inch to two-inch pellets. Sometimes dozens of these pellets can be found under a favorite perch or nesting site.

Weight: two to five pounds

Distinguishing characteristics: The great horned owl’s muffled resonant six-noted “hoot” is well-known to many people, even if they’ve never heard this call in the wild. Like other owls, short-eared owls have excellent hearing and vision. Another characteristic that aids owls in hunting is the tiny serrations along the leading edge of the flight feathers. These serrations reduce the sound of air flowing over the wings and result in virtually noiseless flight. Contrary to an old belief, an owl cannot turn its head in a complete 360-degree circle. However, its range of head motion is greater than most vertebrates (approximately 270 degrees). The reason for this is that, unlike humans, an owl’s eyes are fixed in their sockets. They can’t move their eyes from side-to-side and, as a result, they must turn their heads..

Life span: Great horned owls have been known to live up to 12 years in the wild and almost 30 years in captivity.

Habitat: Great horned owls have diverse habitats. They can be found in woodland areas and in relatively open areas. They inhabit both rural and urban areas.

Life cycle: Great horned owls are one of this region’s earliest nesting birds. Eggs are laid in January and February. Owls usually take the unused nests of hawks, herons or crows; but occasionally select a ledge or a hollow tree to build a new nest. Both males and females sit on eggs, which usually hatch in 30 to 35 days. The young are fed by both parents. Young owls fledge at 45 to 55 days old.