Wild Profile: meet the great horned owl

By Lisa Hagan/Shutterstock

What has two horns, big yellow eyes, and flies? The great horned owl, of course—the second-largest owl in North America (only snowy owls are bigger). But those pointy ear tufts aren’t horns. They’re not even ears: they’re groupings of feathers that some ornithologists believe may help the owl with camouflage and (non-vocal) communication. When threatened, an owl can raise its tufts to make itself appear larger.

Great horned owls have a more diverse diet than any other raptor—they’ll even go after prey that others avoid, including porcupines and skunks, and large birds such as peregrine falcons or great blue herons. An owl spots its target from as far away as 90 metres, swoops down, and uses sharp curved talons to sever the spine of the unfortunate catch.

Late fall and early winter means breeding time for these big birds. If you’re in cottage country, listen up for the distinct call-and-answer duets between mates: hoo-hoo-ho-o-o! Can’t tell who is hooting? Even though female great horned owls are about a third larger than males, they have higher-pitched cries.

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