Alberta’s provincial bird, the Great Horned Owl, is one of the most widely distributed large birds of prey in Canada. Its range is so widespread because it can live in both deciduous and coniferous forests, and the forests can vary from isolated groves and woods of city parks to extensive, heavy forests.
The Great Horned Owl is most commonly recognized for its large size and for the distinct tufts of feathers above its head that inspire its common name.
The appearance of males and females is very similar, but the female is larger. A Great Horned Owl is approximately 60 cm (2 ft.) and has a wingspan of 1 to 1.45 m (40 to 57 in.). This means that the distance from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other wing is approximately the same length as a hockey stick! Their plumage is brown to brownish grey, with a conspicuous barring pattern that resembles the bark of trees.
These owls are excellent hunters. They usually hunt at night, and they have excellent night vision and acute hearing, which helps them to find prey. They also have specialized flight feathers that enable them to approach prey in almost complete silence, which increases their chances of surprising and catching the prey.
Because of its large size, the Great Horned Owl is capable of handling a variety of prey, ranging from small rodents to skunk-sized mammals. Like most owls, the Great Horned Owl swallows small prey whole, but it will use its sharp beak and talons to dismember larger preys before eating them. It cannot digest fur, teeth, feathers and bone, which are, instead, compacted in the owl’s stomach and later regurgitated as pellets.
The Great Horned Owl is found in North, Central and South America. They occupy areas from the northern limit of the trees (the treeline), south to Argentina, except for the West Indies and most of the Amazonian region.