What Does Great Horned Owl Eat

Last Updated on April 22, 2023 by naime

Great horned owls have become one of the most recognizable birds in North America. These apex predators possess a unique set of characteristics that make them formidable hunters, from their large size to their impressive talons and sharp beaks. But what exactly do they eat?

Great horned owls are opportunistic hunters, meaning they will consume whatever prey is available to them. Their diet varies greatly depending on where they live, but generally includes small mammals such as rodents and rabbits, birds ranging from tiny songbirds to larger raptors like hawks and falcons, reptiles like snakes and lizards, and even amphibians such as frogs. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the great horned owl’s dietary habits and explore how these fascinating creatures adapt to different environments in order to survive.

An Overview Of Great Horned Owls

It is quite ironic that the great horned owl, despite its name, does not have actual horns. Instead, what it has are prominent ear tufts that give it an intimidating appearance. But these ear tufts serve a purpose other than just aesthetics; they help with communication and camouflage.

The great horned owl is one of the most widespread owls in North America, found from Alaska to South America. It can also be spotted in Europe and Asia, where it was introduced by humans. This bird of prey is adaptable to different habitats such as forests, deserts, grasslands and even urban areas.

Known as a top predator due to its size (up to 25 inches tall) and sharp talons, this carnivorous bird feeds on a variety of prey depending on their availability and location. Its diet includes mammals like rabbits, squirrels and skunks; birds such as ducks and grouse; reptiles like snakes and lizards; amphibians including frogs and salamanders; and even insects.

In addition to hunting at night using their keen sense of hearing and silent flight technique, great horned owls may also scavenge for food or steal from other predators’ kills. They are known for storing extra food in their nests which can come in handy during lean times or when raising young chicks. Overall, the great horned owl’s diverse diet makes it a formidable hunter in any ecosystem it inhabits.

The Importance Of Diet For Survival

As mentioned in the previous section, Great Horned Owls are one of the largest and most powerful owls found in North America. They have a wingspan of up to 5 feet and can weigh as much as 4 pounds. These fascinating creatures inhabit diverse habitats ranging from forests to deserts.

The diet of Great Horned Owls is equally diverse. They are carnivorous birds that prey on small mammals such as rabbits, hares, skunks, and rodents like rats and mice. They also eat birds of various sizes such as grouse, quail, ducks, and geese. Additionally, they feed on reptiles, amphibians, insects, and even fish when available.

Great Horned Owls use their strong talons to grasp their prey firmly before killing it with their sharp beaks. Unlike other bird species that swallow their prey whole or tear them into smaller pieces first, these owls consume their food in large chunks which they regurgitate later after digesting.

In summary, the diet of Great Horned Owls includes but is not limited to small mammals, birds of varying sizes, reptiles and amphibians, insects, and fish (when available). This dietary diversity makes them adaptable predators capable of thriving in different environments with varied food sources.

Small Mammals As Prey

Great horned owls are known for their versatile diet, which includes a wide variety of prey species. Among the small mammals that they commonly hunt and consume are rabbits, squirrels, mice, voles, shrews, and rats. Depending on the availability of these prey items in their habitat or range, great horned owls may specialize in one or more types of small mammals.

Rabbits are a particularly important food source for great horned owls. These birds can take down adult rabbits weighing up to four pounds with ease using their powerful talons and sharp beaks. Squirrels are also popular targets due to their abundance in many areas and relatively easy accessibility within trees. Great horned owls will even raid bird nests to feed on eggs or nestlings.

Mice and other rodents make up a significant portion of the great horned owl’s diet throughout much of its range. They have keen senses that allow them to locate these small prey animals even in complete darkness. In addition to traditional rodent hunting methods like swooping down from above or pouncing from below branches, great horned owls also use their hearing ability to pinpoint rustling noises made by potential meals.

Overall, it is clear that small mammals play an important role in the diet of great horned owls. The versatility and adaptability exhibited by this species when it comes to selecting prey ensures that they remain well-fed regardless of changes in environmental conditions or seasonal fluctuations in resource availability.

Birds As Prey

Great horned owls are known for their impressive hunting skills, and birds often form a significant portion of their diet. These majestic birds have an extensive range across North America and can be found in various habitats, including forests, grasslands, and urban areas.

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One of the primary reasons why great horned owls hunt birds is due to their abundance. Birds make up a vast majority of prey species available to these raptors, especially during breeding seasons when there is usually an influx of young fledglings that are easy targets for the owl’s sharp talons.

The types of birds that great horned owls prey on vary depending on factors such as size and habitat. Some common bird species consumed by these skilled hunters include ducks, pigeons, crows, quails, and even other raptor species like smaller hawks or falcons.

Interestingly enough, some studies suggest that great horned owls’ preference for certain bird species may also depend on geographic location. For instance, research has shown that populations living near coastal regions tend to feed more heavily on seabirds compared to those inhabiting inland areas.

In summary, great horned owls are opportunistic predators with an array of potential avian prey at their disposal. Their ability to adapt their diets based on regional differences further highlights their remarkable hunting prowess.

Reptiles And Amphibians As Prey

Reptiles and amphibians are an important part of the diet of many predators, including the great horned owl. They are adapted to hunt efficiently, often using stealth and ambush tactics to successfully capture their prey. This owl typically eats small rodents and mammals, as well as frogs, invertebrates, birds, fish, and insects. Understanding their diet can help us to better understand their hunting strategies and adaptations.


As a top predator, the great horned owl has a diverse and adaptable diet. While small mammals like rodents and rabbits make up the majority of their diet, they are also known to prey on reptiles such as snakes, lizards, and turtles.

Great horned owls have powerful talons that enable them to capture and kill even larger prey items such as snakes. They will often wait in trees or other elevated locations for unsuspecting reptiles to pass by before swooping down to seize their prey with lightning-fast reflexes.

Despite their reputation for being primarily nocturnal hunters, great horned owls can be active during both day and night hours when hunting for food. This flexibility allows them to take advantage of opportunities presented by diurnal reptilian species like lizards.

Interestingly enough, great horned owls have been observed consuming venomous snake species without suffering any ill effects from the toxins. Their digestive system is able to break down these dangerous compounds through specialized enzymes and acids found in their stomachs. Overall, it’s clear that while the great horned owl may prefer certain types of prey over others, its versatility makes it well-suited for thriving across various habitats throughout North America.


Now that we’ve discussed how great horned owls hunt reptiles, let’s shift our focus to their prey among amphibians. These birds of prey are known for preying on a wide variety of animals, including frogs, toads, and salamanders. Amphibians can make up a significant portion of the great horned owl’s diet in certain regions.

Frogs and toads are especially vulnerable to predation by great horned owls during their breeding season when they gather in large numbers near ponds or other water bodies. The owls will perch nearby and swoop down to grab unsuspecting individuals with their sharp talons. Salamanders also fall victim to these opportunistic hunters while moving through leaf litter or along stream banks.

One interesting aspect of great horned owls’ hunting behavior is that they may use sound cues from frog calls to locate potential prey items. This means that even if amphibians are not visible, the owls can still find them based on vocalizations alone. Additionally, some researchers have observed that juvenile great horned owls may preferentially target larger-bodied species like bullfrogs over smaller ones due to the higher caloric content.

Overall, it’s clear that great horned owls are skilled predators capable of capturing both reptilian and amphibian prey items. Their adaptability allows them to thrive across various habitats throughout North America, making them an important component of many ecosystems. As biologists continue studying these fascinating creatures, we’ll undoubtedly learn more about their role in balancing predator-prey relationships within natural communities.

Adaptations For Successful Hunting

As we discussed in the previous section, the great horned owl is a skilled predator that feeds on various types of prey. However, one group of animals that often finds themselves on the menu are reptiles and amphibians.

These creatures make up a significant portion of the great horned owl’s diet. In fact, some studies have shown that they can account for up to 13% of their overall food intake. This may not seem like much at first glance, but when you consider the sheer number of rodents and other small mammals that these birds consume, it becomes clear just how important reptiles and amphibians are to their survival.

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So what makes these creatures such attractive targets for great horned owls? For starters, they’re abundant in many areas where these birds live. Additionally, they tend to be more active during twilight hours – exactly when great horned owls are most active as well. And finally, their relatively slow movements and lack of defensive capabilities make them easy targets for this fearsome predator.

But despite being so successful at hunting these animals, great horned owls still face numerous challenges when it comes to finding enough food to survive. That’s why they’ve evolved an incredible array of adaptations designed specifically for successful hunting – which we’ll explore in depth in the next section.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Do Great Horned Owls Live?

Great horned owls are known for their impressive lifespan, with some individuals living up to 30 years in the wild. These nocturnal birds of prey have adapted well to a variety of environments and can be found across North America. They are apex predators, preying on a range of animals including rodents, rabbits, and even other birds. Their hunting abilities are aided by sharp talons and keen eyesight, allowing them to hunt efficiently at night. While they face threats from habitat loss and human interference, great horned owls remain an important species in many ecosystems.

Where Do Great Horned Owls Make Their Nests?

Great horned owls are known for their impressive nesting abilities. They typically nest in trees, but have been known to use a variety of other sites including cliffs and abandoned nests of other large birds. These nests can be found all over North America, from the forests of Alaska down to the deserts of Mexico. The great horned owl’s nesting season varies depending on location, with some beginning as early as December and others not until February or March. Once a suitable site is chosen, the female will lay her eggs and both parents will take turns incubating them until they hatch approximately 30 days later.

How Many Eggs Do Great Horned Owls Typically Lay?

Great horned owls are known for their impressive nesting abilities, often creating nests out of a variety of materials in various locations. These skilled birds typically lay between one and five eggs per clutch, with most clutches consisting of two or three eggs. While the number of eggs laid can vary depending on factors such as food availability and environmental conditions, great horned owls are well-equipped to care for their young once they hatch. From providing warmth and protection to hunting for food, these powerful predators use their skills to ensure the survival of their offspring.

Do Great Horned Owls Migrate During Certain Seasons?

Great horned owls are known for their ability to adapt to different environments, allowing them to thrive in various habitats throughout North and South America. While they typically stay within a specific territory all year round, some great horned owls may migrate during the winter months when food sources become scarce. However, this behavior is not consistent among all individuals and can vary depending on factors such as location and availability of prey. Overall, these majestic birds of prey are skilled hunters that feed on a variety of animals including rodents, rabbits, reptiles, and even other bird species.

How Do Great Horned Owls Communicate With Each Other?

Great horned owls are known for their distinctive hoots, which they use to communicate with each other. They also make a variety of other calls and sounds, including screeches and hisses. These vocalizations play an important role in establishing territories and attracting mates. Additionally, great horned owls use body language to communicate with each other, such as erecting their ear tufts or raising their wings to show aggression or submission. While these birds may be solitary hunters, communication is still critical for maintaining social bonds within the species.


So, what does the great horned owl eat? As a wildlife biologist, I can tell you that these majestic creatures are ferocious predators who have adapted to feed on a wide variety of prey. They are known to hunt rabbits, squirrels, skunks, and even larger animals like raccoons or small deer.

But one anecdote stands out in my mind. I once observed a great horned owl swooping down to capture a fish from a lake. The way it effortlessly glided through the air before plunging into the water reminded me of how we must adapt and be flexible in our approach towards achieving our goals. Just as this owl had evolved its hunting techniques to include aquatic prey, we too must learn to adjust our methods when faced with new challenges.

In conclusion, while studying the dietary habits of great horned owls may seem trivial at first glance, there is much we can learn from these magnificent creatures about resilience and adaptation. By observing their behaviors and strategies for survival, we can gain valuable insights into how we ourselves can thrive in an ever-changing world.

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