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Wild About Utah: Great Horned Owls

No, I did not hear the owl call my name—meaning my number is up and death is imminent according to some native tribes. But I do hear them call. The great horned owl is also referred to as the “hoot owl.” There are few owl species that hoot in our area, and those who do so are extremely rare.

Great horned owls are great in stature, second only to great grays among northern American owls. Further, they are fierce predators and valiant protectors of their young. Don’t mess with their nest!

Due to its ferocious nature, it is often referred to as the "Tiger of the Air.” When established in a territory, the great horned owls drive other owls away and may eat a few for good measure. 

They are both nocturnal and diurnal hunters, especially during the breeding season and when they are raising their young. They have a large variety of prey including insects, most small mammals including skunks, foxes, domestic cats, and birds up to the size of herons and redtail hawks. Its prey can often weigh up to three times the weight of the bird itself.

The great horned owl is found throughout the Americans, from Alaska and northern Canada down to the southernmost tip of South America. It’s found in woodlands, mountains, deserts, coastal swamps, and urban areas which make it unique amongst owls. There was a pair nesting near the Logan Tabernacle for many years. There is only a single species of great horned owl, though there are a large number of subspecies.

Great horned owls are often monogamous. They usually nest in old nests made by other raptors, often by red-tailed hawks. They have been known to nest in caves, on cliff ledges, rocky outcrops and in cactuses. They usually start breeding very early in comparison to most owls, often from December to March when hooting reaches its peak.

In the wild, the life expectancy of great horned owl is from 15 to 20 years. In captivity, their lifespan is usually from 25 to 30 years, with the oldest recorded individual reaching 42 years. The Ogden Nature Center had an owl named Chitters, who was near 40 years before its spirit flew off. During its long life as an educational bird, Chitters entertained thousands of students in the Ogden, Davis, and Weber school districts.

Several American Indian tribes believe owls are associated with the souls of the dead. When a virtuous person died, they would become a great horned owl. If wicked, they would become a barn owl. The Hopis Indians believed that the great horned owl helped their peaches grow. They were believed to be a symbol of divine wisdom by Creek Indians.

I’m sure glad to have these divine, wise birds in my neighborhood!