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Gerry Wright, Founder and President

Telephone: 617-524-7070


TTY/MA RELAY 800-439-2370

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Frederick Law Olmsted a one-man play by Gerry Wright

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Frederick Law Olmsted

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Great Horned Owls

by Stephen Baird

Great Horned Owls are fairly common and can be heard and seen in Franklin Park, Forest Hills Cemetery, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Pond and some back yards.  They are hard to find because Great Horned Owls are nocturnal. Golf courses, meadows with old forest oaks and white pine groves are favorite habitats. Owls often sleep in pine trees during the day to stay hidden from crows and blue jays that will harrass them. So if you see and hear a group of crows and blue jays frantically calling... the crows and blue jays could be doing their best to scare off a hawk or a Great Horned Owl...

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus

Note 2020: Great Horned Owl Nesting at Arnold Arboretum Educational Blog by Brendan Keegan, Gardener  (Includes images by area nature photographers including some of mine). Enjoy! Click on this link for the complete photo blog details:

Note 2008:  A male owl which I nicknamed "Ben Franklin" had multiple nests in Franklin Park, Forest Hills Cemetery, and Arnold Arboretum for many years.  It was killed by a car, one of the leading causes for Great Horned Owl deaths, on December 26, 2008 on the Arborway near the Arboretum.   It was captured in Arnold Arboretum and brought to Tufts University Veterinary School, but died upon arrival from the injuries.  I had watched Ben mate with a new Ms. Franklin during my Christmas bird walk the day before in Franklin Park.  Ms. Franklin stayed in the area for a few weeks, but has not been seen since.  Will have to wait for a new male to claim the territory to hear the evening song "hooo hohoo hooo hooo."

2012-2014 Update: A one-eyed owl has nested in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain the past few years. Mass Audubon brought orphaned owlets for it to take care of in the past. Owls also nest in Franklin Park and Arnold Arboretum. One-eyed owls survive in the wild because they primarily hunt through sound and are released when found by Tufts Veterinary School.

Tufted head feathers that look like horns or cat ears easily identify Great Horned Owls.  A rusty colored eye patch surrounds the yellow eyes plus the white whisker feathers give it the classic owl look.  The rusty molted brown back and tail feathers camouflages the owl to blend into the bark of trees. Young owls are gray-white downey feather fluff balls with big eyes and big feat.

There were high wind storms in February 2007 that blew down several owl nests in Franklin Park and Forest Hills Cemetery.  I also photographed an owlet while it fledged and learned to fly during the winter of 2007.  The last photo shows an adult owl on watch in the background.  Great Horned Owls aggressively defend their young.  Click on images to see larger versions.

Adult birds grow to 18 inches to 28 inches in size with a 4-foot wingspan and weigh 2-3 pounds. The female is larger than the male.  Life span is 5-15 years in the wild.

The Great Horned Owl song is  "hooo hohoo hooo hooo."  The female has a higher pitch song.  Young owl calls are a "screech."

Great Horned Owls regularly nest in Arnold Arboretum, Forest Hills Cemetery and Franklin Park plus Cedar Grove Cemetery. They conduct courtship during November and December by exchanging songs. Owls usually lay 2 white eggs in former crow, jay, hawk or squirrel nests in January. The incubation by both male and female owls lasts around 30 days and eggs hatch in February. Young owls venture from the next in 4-5 weeks and can be seen branch hopping or even on the ground. Owlets will learn to fly from 6-10 weeks and may stay with adult owls till October.

Squirrels, rabbits, snakes, birds, insects, frogs, occasional cats and most anything that moves are food for Great Horned Owls. Majority of foods up to 95 percent are rodents - rats, mice, voles, moles. They hunt at night, but can be active at dusk or dawn.

Great Horned Owl wing feather above and Canada Goose wing feather below.

Secret to Great Horned Owls' silent flight: 

Notice the Great Horned Owl's wing feathers leading edge is fringed. See the close up photograph below. Compare that to the Canda Goose's wing feather which is not fringed.  The fringe on the owl's wing feathers disperses and softens the wind resistence to make the owl's flight silent as it glides.  Other bird's wing feathers which are not fringed will often whistle during rapid wing beats.

Fringed leading edge of a Great Horned Owl wing feather.

BBC Nature report on silent flight of owls here

Fun Facts:

  • Hunt and eat skunks, crows, ducks, geese, herons and hawks
  • Hunt raccoons and other prey 2-3 times its own size
  • Kills prey with powerful talon claws
  • Regurgitate bones, feathers, fur of their preys which are called pellets
  • The tufts are not ears, but feathers
  • Owl eyes do not move in the sockets so owls turn their heads 270 degrees in order to see in different directions.  BBC Nature report "How owls swivel their heads"
  • Owls ears are placed in two different locations on the skull so by tilting their heads owls can determine the exact location of the sound
  • "Hoot Owl," "Cat Owl," "Winged Tiger," and "Bubo virginianus"  are other names for Great Horned Owls given for its song, tufted head feathers, hunting ability and Latin named after the virgin Queen Elizabeth I  by the scientist who classified it in colonial Virginia.

Owl Pellets of fur and bones.

References and Links

  • USDA Forest Service web page with detailed Great Horned Owl research information HERE

  • USGS bird indentification and breeding atlas Great Horned Owl web page: HERE ( Gough, G.A., Sauer, J.R., Iliff, M. Patuxent Bird Identification Infocenter. 1998. Version 97.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD)

  • Cornell University's Ornithology Department on line field guide page on Great Horned Owls with sample song clip HERE

  • University of Michigan site on Great Horned Owl with sound clips HERE

  • John James Audubon's Birds of America, Great Horned Owl detailed original 1840 observation text and paintings on HERE
  • Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866-1954), Life Histories of North American Birds, Great Horned Owl life history published 1938 HERE
  • Owl Pellet Educational Lesson and Supples HERE
  • Idaho Public Television web site with educational materials on Owls HERE
  • Web cam of Great Horned Owl nesting in former eagle nest in upstate New York HERE
  • Owl Moon by Jane Yolen -  Great book for children and adults to share together
  • Great Horned Owl Native American Passamaquoddy story "The Owl Husband" HERE

  • Great Horned Owl Native American Iroquois story "Why The Owl Has Big Eyes" HERE

  • Owls in Mythology HERE
Contact and Email Information


36 Perkins St., PO Box 300040, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130-0030

Gerry Wright, Founder and President

Telephone: 617-524-7070


TTY/MA RELAY 800-439-2370

For translations into different languages -- Arabic, Chinese, Italian, French, German, Russian, Spanish or others visit the web site:

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