Great Horned Owl

Shot of the Month – September 2017

Great Horned Owl (0854)Despite all my early morning gallivanting in the woods over the years I had never seen a Great Horned Owl (GHO).  I find this even more astounding having recently learned that the GHO is THE most common owl in America.  If you live in North America then there is probably a Great Horned Owl family living in a tree not far from your house.  These owls are incredibly adaptable and can live just about anywhere and can be found from the Arctic to South America.

The GHO is a big bird – it is the second heaviest owl in North America and as such is a fierce predator and can take prey much larger than itself.  These owls normally begin nesting weeks or even months before other raptors – here in Washington State GHO chicks typically appear in February!  Keeping eggs warm during the winter is very difficult and challenging.  Why take such a risk and not just wait till later in the spring like most birds?  Well, given the large size of the species, the chicks need more time to grow and develop into young adults.  Also, young GHO’s must master complex hunting maneuvers.  By hatching early in the spring they maximize the time available to practice flying and improve their hunting skills while the weather is mild and prey is abundant (source).

GHOs typically nest in trees such as cottonwood, juniper, beech, pine, and others.  They usually adopt a nest that was abandoned by another large bird, but they also use cavities in live trees, dead snags, deserted buildings, cliff ledges, and human-made platforms.

Fun fact: As a rule, no owl species builds its own nests.  I didn’t know that, either. (source)

This year I went from never seeing a GHO owl to having the good fortune of finding not one, but two GHO nests.Great Horned Owl (7420)  In Nisqually NWR (an hour south of Seattle) I found an owl family with three chicks.  As you can see, in their youth they are adorable fluff balls.  The Nisqually family was raised in a cavity in the tree though from time to time the chicks would come out and stand on this fork in the trunk and give us a view.  Here to the right you can see one of the rare moments where all three chicks can be seen at once.

Great Horned Owl (3155)In the Skagit Wildlife Area (about an hour north of Seattle) I  found this family on the left with two chicks.

Despite the wide distribution of these wonderful owls, we rarely see these denizens of the night.  Many people do hear their classic owl Hoots either early in the morning or at night.

If you are fortunate enough to find a GHO nest do take care.  GHO adults, monogamous for life, are dedicated parents and both male and female will stand guard over the chicks. The male typically roosts nearby, out of sight, but from a location where he can watch over the nest.  The female alone incubates the eggs  while the male will go off to hunt and bring food back for his mate.  GHOs will defend their nest with great vigor and they have been known to attack humans that wander too close to a nest.

You’ve been warned…


Great Horned Owl Range (Source)



Until next month



Nikon D500, Nikon 600 mm f/4, 1/500 sec, ISO 2200, +2 EV