Bird Break! Great Horned Owls


Great Horned Owls are an exceptionally widely distributed, highly variable species of owl, and one of the largest owls in the Western Hemisphere. Currently, ornithology thinks there are some 15 subspecies, and countless color morphs.

Great Horned Owl, Interior Alaska

Great Horned Owl, Interior Alaska

This handsome lady (judging by size; females are noticeably larger) has very little brown coloration. She’s mostly grey and white, with quite a dramatic white “bow tie” collar. Remember the “ears” are really feather tufts, not ears at all.

Compare that Alaska female with this smaller, darker male, Mrs. WC spotted off the road in Central Idaho.

Male Great Horned Owl, Lick Creek Road, Idaho

Male Great Horned Owl, Lick Creek Road, Idaho

You can see why coloration of Great Horneds is called “highly variable.” Much browner and greyer, with very little white, and hardly any white neck collar at all.

Great Horned Owl, gender uncertain, Swan Falls, Snake River Canyon

Great Horned Owl, gender uncertain, Swan Falls, Snake River Canyon

Generally, desert birds seem to be a little paler. By behavior – this bird was pretty klunky flying around – this was likely a hatch year bird. But adult plumages are indistinguishable from earlier plumages unless you can spot some juvenile feathers. None are obvious here.

WC has seen and heard Great Horned Owls in the Brooks Range, in Florida, in California, in Mexico and in Tierra del Fuego, on the southern tip of South America. They are pretty common around WC’s house in the North End of Boise, too.

Generally, this is a nighttime hunter, but its not uncommon to see them out in daylight. Their prey is anything they can catch, including cats and small dogs. Whatever the color variation, they are large and powerful and long-lived. The record for survival in the wild is more than 28 years. It’s always a treat to see and photograph a Great Horned Owl.

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