Great Horned Owl
by Abbie Krause
A Native American myth about the creation of the owl tells the story of how it was not always so “wise as an owl”. As the Everything-Maker was busy creating other animals, the owl kept pestering him about the physical characteristics he desired. Finally, the Maker got fed up with his insistence and interruptions. He shook the Owl which made his eyes widen in fright. “I have made your eyes big, the better to see,” the Creator said. He pulled Owl's ears until they stuck out from his head. ”I have made your ears big, the better to listen.” He then shoved Owl's head down into his body, making Owl's neck disappear. “I have made your neck short, the better to hold up your head (Owl had wanted a long swan’s neck). The Everything-Maker then also packed Owl’s head with wisdom as he had asked and sent him on his way telling him to make good use of it.
Are owls actually wise? There are differing opinions about that. What is certain is that the physical characteristics of owls are exquisitely designed resulting in one of the most efficient, successful hunters adapted to their surroundings. Their large eyes may not be proof of wisdom but they are extremely effective at enabling the owl to see prey at night. Their eyes occupy up to 70% of the skull (vs. 5% in humans) allowing in as much light as possible to enable them to see in the dark. While the ornamental ear tufts are beautiful, they are not actually responsible for the owl’s keen sense of hearing. Its entire head is engineered for optimal hearing. Their true ears are asymmetrically placed on each side of the head. Stiff facial feathers help channel sound while the ears' uneven placement helps them pinpoint height and direction of the sound. Their round face is shaped like a satellite to better funnel sound. And finally, what about that squished in neck. While it is a misconception that the owl can rotate its head completely around in a full circle, the great horned owl can rotate up to 180 degrees to provide this species with almost all-round vision. So is its watchful stillness mistaken for wisdom? Perhaps. Paired with finely tuned physical attributes does it make it one of the most effective hunters in the animal kingdom? Definitely.
Already home to two types of owls – the Eurasian eagle owl and the Barn owl – the Pueblo Zoo’s newest owl resident is Galileo – a great horned owl. Galileo was transferred to Pueblo in 2015 from an animal care control center in Kansas after it had injured itself falling out of a nest as a juvenile. Due to his injury, Galileo was no longer able to survive in the wild so, as with several other birds at our zoo, including the bald eagles, he came to live here in a safe environment. His current roommate is Igloo, a North American porcupine – also a rehabilitated, injured animal. While in the wild these two may potentially have a predatory relationship, porcupines are a prey of last resort as an attack will as often as not end worse for the owl than the porcupine. Since zookeepers keep their bellies full, Galileo and Igloo are quite content to share their space – one from on high and one from below. You can see (and hear) them in the “Woods” section at the entrance of the zoo.
FACT BOX by Greg Rohr
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
Common name: Great horned owl
Description: Being the second largest owl in North America, the great horned owl stands between 1.5 and 2 feet tall. They have two tufts of feathers on top of their head, which give rise to their name. Great horned owls also have a distinctive white ‘bib’, or throat patch, as well as extraordinarily large yellow eyes and powerful, fully feathered talons. These talons allow these predatory birds to catch and kill their prey effectively and efficiently. Females tend to be much larger and heavier than males. Being a fairly territorial species, great horned owls have a distinct hooting noise that can travel great distances. The male’s call tends to be longer, deeper, and more elaborate than the female’s call. Breeding pairs typically occupy the same territory, which they protect from intruders, becoming especially aggressive and territorial during the breeding season. The pair establishes and maintains their territory through vocalizing. Being nocturnal, great horned owls usually hunt during the night and roost during the day.
Diet: The great horned owl has a necessarily varied diet that includes insects, rabbits, hares, opossums, skunks, ducks, geese, herons, reptiles, frogs, fish and occasionally domestic cats. Although it can be risky for the owl, they have also been known to hunt large, defensively equipped prey such as porcupines and skunks.
Range: The vast range of the great horned owl extends from the Arctic treeline in Canada and Alaska, south through the USA and Central America, and into South America. They are not a migratory species, although they will move locations when food is scarce.
Habitat: Secondary-growth woodlands, swamps, orchards, and agricultural areas, but they are found in a wide variety of deciduous, coniferous or mixed forests.
Reproduction and rearing: The great horned owl begins breeding in late January making it one of the earliest species to begin nesting. The male and female vocalize together prior to mating, after which a nest is chosen at a suitable site. The nest may often be the former nest of another large bird. Other habitats include cavities in trees, cliffs and deserted buildings and even the ground. The eggs of the great horned owl are dull and white with a slightly rough surface, and are incubated by the female for between 30 and 37 days. Young usually weigh 75 percent of adult mass once they leave the nest. The young will stay in the area until fall.
Lifespan: In the wild great horned owls live up to 27 years. In captivity, they can live up to 30 years or more.
Predators: There are no major natural predators to the great horned owl.
Conservation Status: Least concern, as classified by the IUCN Red List. During the twentieth century, the owl suffered a significant decline due to human persecution (pesticide use, mercury poisoning, and collisions with man-made objects), however their numbers have since rebounded and they are no longer considered globally threatened.