Photo: Mark Buckler
Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
Classification: Nongame Species
Great horned owlets (Chrissy McClarren/Andy Reaggo)
The great horned owl is the largest owl species in North Carolina. It is found in woodland habitats statewide, including suburbia. The barred owl is also found statewide, but is more typical of swamps, floodplains and moist woodlands. The great horned owl’s closest relative is the eagle owl (Bubo bubo) of Eurasia.
The two prominent ear tufts of feathers, resembling horns, give this owl its common name. In North Carolina, the plumage is generally dark reddish brown, heavily streaked or striped over its entire plumage. The wing has feathered edges (especially along the primary feather wind-trailing edges), which dampen sound as the bird flies or glides. Subspecies in the western and northern parts of North America have much grayer plumage. Characteristic of this raptor group, the females of the species are 25 to 30% bigger than the males. These owls have large glaring eyes that are brilliant yellow, giving the animal a cat-like appearance. Like other members of this family, the horned owl’s vision (particularly at night), is exceptional. The huge eyes face forward, giving the animal binocular vision and enabling it to pinpoint prey with deadly accuracy. Horned owls have an especially keen auditory sense, and the unique construc - tion of owl feathers also enables owls to fly with virtually no sound. This advantage permits owls to approach sharp-eared prey such as rodents and birds, and even small owl species, undetected. It is a myth that owls can turn their heads all the way around but they can turn their heads 180 degrees.
The great horned owl is a fairly common species in North Carolina. Mainly noc - turnal, great horned owls can occasionally be seen during the day roosting in tall trees. Many people may never have seen a horned owl; however, most have heard their staccato, morse-code hooting: “hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo” on cold nights. Most calling occurs when courtship begins in October, with peak calling in November and December, often at dusk and after dark. Calls slow a bit after eggs are in the nest and even more after young have hatched. This is generally the upland counterpart of the barred owl, which is found mostly in bottomland forests.
Learn more by reading the Great Horned Owl species profile.
The great horned owl is a nongame species with no open hunting season. Under federal and state law, it is illegal for anyone to injure, harass, kill or possess a bird of prey or any parts of a bird of prey. This includes harming or removing a nest. If you find an injured owl, contact a licensed wildlife rehabiliator.
Despised by rural residents because of their ability to prey successfully on domestic poultry and gamebirds, great horned owls are fully protected by law as are all birds of prey. Under federal and state law, it is illegal for anyone to injure, harass, kill or possess a bird of prey or any parts of a bird of prey. This includes harming or removing a nest. If you find an injured owl, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
Please contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services for any issues with this species. The toll free number is (866) 4USDA-WS (866-487-3297)
Great Horned Owl Species Profile (PDF)
Sandy Mush Game Land Birding Checklist (PDF)
Green River Game Land Birding Checklist (PDF)
Protected Wildlife Species of North Carolina (PDF)