If ever there were an owl that resembled Superman, it would be the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus). Apex predators, these huge owls dive silently and relentlessly toward their prey. They’re guided by remarkable vision and by hearing so acute, they can identify the precise location of a rodent rustling among fallen leaves looking for dinner.
Great horned owls, which go by the nickname “tigers of the sky,” swoop down and grasp their victims — often small mammals; skunks are a favorite — with their razor-sharp talons. With a pressure of 200 to 500 PSI, their talons can easily crush or sever a small animal’s spine.
As in all species of owls, a short, curved beak is sharp enough to easily tear apart any prey they find. Prey includes rabbits, skunks, squirrels, rats, opossums, gophers and even other birds.
The great horned owl’s ears are keenly attuned to high-frequency sounds, such as those made by squeaky-voiced rodents. It makes sense to think that the tufts of feathers on top of the owl’s head are covering its ears, but the ears actually sit on each side of its head. The tufts are merely showy plumes. Having protruding ears like mammals would decrease their flight speed and balance.
A great horned owl’s face offers a permanent look of outrage. It features a “V” shape running from just below the ear tufts to the top of the beak, bringing to mind a knight’s helmet. The yellowish/amber eyes indicate a crepuscular hunter, seeking prey during dawn and twilight hours.
These owls are the nation’s largest owl species and can be found throughout Texas, Adaptable to many climates, the species can be found from the Arctic to South America.
They have an average length of 23 inches, a weight of 3 to 4 pounds and an awesome wingspan of 45 inches.
The great horned owl’s nest may be the abandoned nest of a red-tailed hawk or other large bird, or it may settle in a tree cavity, in a cave or even on the ground.
The bird’s vocalization is deep but surprisingly gentle for such a formidable-looking creature. In a deep bass, the great horned owl says whoo who who whooo whoo.
Great horned owls are formidable hunters, and they could be capable of carrying off pets such as small dogs and cats. These attacks are uncommon.
However, smaller prey in the forest or the prairie should be afraid. Very afraid.
This originally appeared in Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine.