What Do Great Horned Owls Eat | Great Horned Owls Diet and Feeding Behavior

The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is a large species of owl. It is typically found in the forests of America. The owl is the most widespread of the true owls in America. It is an opportunistic hunter and it loves to eat a wide variety of animals—from small rodents to the medium-sized mammals as well as insects, invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians. ‘Tiger owl’ is the other name of the great horned owl.

What Do Great Horned Owls Eat

  • Great horned owls are most likely to be active at night. That is not to say that they remain alert all night. Owls are thought to spend 3 – 4 hours hunting insects and rodents after which they go back to their roosting place. They will fly again minutes after the sunrise. This is a routine in summer.
  • During winter, great horned owl will spend many hours hunting because in winter the prey animals are scarce.
  • Sometimes they also hunt during the daylight hours. The horned owl preys on the eastern fox squirrels and chuckawallas as these animals build leaf nests during daytime.

See also: Great Horned Owl Facts For Kids

what do great horned owls eat
Great Horned Owl eating a mouse ©flickr/Buffett Jr

Great Horned Owls Food Web

  • There is no limit to the number of animals great horned owl consumes. It doesn’t matter how fast the animal swims or moves on land; so long as the prey is smaller than the great horned owl the bird will hunt it and eat it. Unlike any other raptor in the world, the horned owl feeds on a wide variety of animals. Except for large mammals, the owl consumes reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, insects, rodents, and birds.
  • The owl is thought to feed on more than 200 species of mammals and 300 species of birds. Owls living in the North America rely on mammals while reptiles, amphibians, insects, and fish make up only 10% of the bird’s diet.
  • In Alaska and Canada great horned owls feed on eastern cottontail, white-footed mouse, woodland voles, snowshoe hare, North American deermouse, and New World mice. Rodents make up the essential part of the owl’s diet. One reason might be that rodents are found in large numbers in wooded edge habitats. It typically hunts mammals weighing about 14 to 31 kilograms.
  • During winter the land is covered with heavy snow. While voles begin to make tunnels underground, mice come to the snowy surface. As it turns out, the owl’s diet in winter consists of Peromyscus mice.
  • The hearing sense of great horned owls is probably not as sharp as that of great grey owl. The great grey owl is able to hear the movement of voles underground.
  • In the northern Mexico and southwestern United States the owl feeds on northern pocket gopher, house mouse, Great Basin pocket mouse, hispid cotton rat, kangaroo rats, Merriam’s kangaroo rat, giant kangaroo rat, woodrats, and Allegheny woodrat. It also eats other small mammals such as prairie dogs, chipmunks, squirrels, marmots, tree squirrels, ground squirrels, hoary marmot, North American porcupine, golden mouse, northern grasshopper mouse, jumping mice, northern pygmy mouse, flying squirrels, muskrat, gray-collard chipmunk, red-backed voles, web-footed marsh-rat.
  • The North American owls often hunt hares and rabbits. Prominent among rabbits are black-tailed jackrabbit which makes up much of the western great horned owl’s diet. The owl is capable to kill large jackrabbits weighing 2,700 grams.
  • The great horned owl’s diet also consists dwarf fat-tailed mouse opossum, Virginia opossum, masked shrew, northern short-tailed shrew, white-eared opossum, Mexican free-tailed bats, American mink, black-footed ferret, weasels, foxes, coyotes, armadillo, raccoons, moles, bobcat, and striped skunks.
  • The owl eats many native birds of the United States including ring-necked pheasant, northern bobwhite, grouse, greater prairie chicken, ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, common peafowl, wild turkey, guineafowl, plovers, gulls, alcids, herons, jacanas, grebes, ducks, American coot, shorebirds, avocets, passerines, least terns, American herring gulls, common eiders, sandhill cranes, American white pelicans, brown pelicans, mute swans, northern pintails, rock pigeons, greater roadrunner, downy woodpecker, ivory-billed woodpecker, kingfisher, chickadees, wrens, cardinals, ravens, and thrushes.
  • Alongside birds and mammals, the great horned owl also feeds on reptiles and fish such as prairie rattlesnakes, common king snake, loggerhead turtle, American alligator, black rat snake, night snake, salamander, toad, frogs, goldfish, catfish, eels, crabs, worms, crayfish, scorpions, spiders, grasshoppers, katydids, water bugs, cricket, Jerusalem cricket, and beetle.

How Do Great Horned Owls Hunt

  • Great horned owls perch in open areas so that they can have a good look at the prey. Owls hunt from high perch in wooded areas as well as in agricultural landscapes. The perching sites of great horned owls include fence posts, rock outcrops, telephone poles, tall shrubs, and cliff ledges.
  • When the hunt is on, the owl will fly from one perch to the other with a distance of about 50 meters. By doing so it searches the prey on the ground. It can also chase its prey on the ground but only sometimes. The owl is less likely to hunt in the air. Thanks to its broad wings the great horned owl is able to maneuver its body quite easily. The great horned owl goes on foot to hunt rodents and invertebrates.
  • If the prey is too large to be eaten at once the owl takes it to a perch where it tears the prey into pieces. The great horned owl is also thought to crush the bones of its prey. It does so in order to make the prey handy to carry it to the perch.
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