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.
All owl species in North Carolina are protected by federal and state law. It is illegal to kill, injure, or harass native owls. It is also illegal to harm or destroy active owl nests (eggs and/or nestlings present). Possession of live native owls or any of their parts requires both state and federal permits.
Young owlets that have recently left the nest sometimes spend a few days on the ground before they learn to fly. These young owls can still appear downy, and may hiss or spread their wings if approached. Unless there is a clear sign of injury (blood, mangled wing, etc.) or sickness, or they are in immediate danger, do not intervene. These birds are learning to fly and care for themselves, and are still being fed by their parents. Only licensed raptor rehabilitators can take in and care for orphaned or injured birds of prey, including owls, hawks, falcons, eagles, and vultures. If you feel an owl needs human help, or need advice, contact a licensed raptor rehabilitator first.
Owls (usually Great Horned Owls) sometimes take chickens when they are not kept in a secure coop and run with overhead protection from aerial predators. Signs of owl depredation include missing chickens or carcasses found out in the open with only the head missing, usually overnight. Providing overhead protection is the best way to protect your chickens from aerial predators; bright orange poultry netting, chicken tractors, and covered runs are all effective methods. Learn more about protecting backyard flocks from predators.
Owls are devoted parents and can be protective of their young. On rare occasion, individual owls have been known to swoop at people passing too close to the nest or owlets that are still learning to fly. In these situations, avoiding the immediate area for a few weeks, (or in the case of owlets outside the nest, 24 hours), can prevent issues. If the area must be approached during this time, an open umbrella or bike helmet can be used to provide head protection and avoid any possibility of injury.
Due to having hollow bones, birds are far lighter than they appear; the largest owls in North Carolina only weigh about 5 pounds. While an owl is unlikely to fly away with a pet, on very rare occasion they may dive after small dogs or cats. The best way to protect small pets from a variety of outdoor dangers is to keep them on a leash and supervise them closely whenever they are outside, especially at night and near dawn and dusk.
If you feel a problem situation involving an owl justifies its physical removal and you have already tried the strategies listed above, please contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services to learn about federal depredation permit options. Federal permits are issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but Wildlife Services can provide guidance on the application process. Be aware, these permits are issued under very limited circumstances. Because owls can fly, relocation is almost never effective; these permits involve allowing lethal removal of the birds. USDA Wildlife Services' 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)