The great horned owl is the largest owl in Southwest Michigan, standing at one-and-a-half to two feet, with a wingspan of approximately three feet. Their so-called horns are nothing more than tufts of feathers, which can be raised or lowered at will.
The great horned owl readily feeds on mammals and birds, and in the warm months may occasionally take a reptile or amphibian. In our region, the eastern cottontail rabbit falls prey to this owl, as does the striped skunk. The great horned owl is not bothered by the skunk’s offensive odor as the owl has no sense of smell.
Other owls native to Southwest Michigan may fall prey to the great horned owl, such as the barred owl and eastern screech-owl. The great horned owl has also been known to kill the larger great gray owl, native to Canada south to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The great horned owl is fond of forests and woodlots, but utilizes open areas next to the forests where it hunts. The species avoids large tracts of continuous forests, which was the dominant ecosystem across most of the state prior to European settlement. Thus, up until the 1830s, the great horned owl was much less abundant in Michigan then than it is today.
Perhaps the first of our native birds to nest each year is the great horned owl, and many lay eggs as early as late January or early February.
The adult owls pair bond for life, and often reuse the same nest site for several years in a row. The great horned owl does not build its own nest but reuses nests made by hawks, particularly the Cooper’s hawk.
Sarett Nature Center has two injured great horned owls in captivity, which are shown to groups of schoolchildren and adults when visiting the center. Sometimes the owls accompany the naturalists when they visit schools and other organizations in the area.
One of Sarett’s great horned owls has just one eye, and is a female named Virginia.
The other owl, a male, is named Pops. Both owls can never be returned to the wild because they have injured wings, preventing them from flying.