What Do Great Horned Owls Eat?

Written by Niccoy Walker
Published: June 19, 2022
© Imran Ashraf/Shutterstock.com
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The great horned owl is a powerful bird of prey with distinctive features, straight out of a children’s picture book. These wise old owls have long tufts of feathers on the sides of their heads, large yellow eyes, and deep voices for hooting. 

Great horned owls, or hoot owls, are distributed across North and South America. However, it’s rare to catch sight of them. Often, you will find them perched on a tree limb or hiding in a rocky cave. 

This owl species is highly adaptable and lives, hunts, and eats all over the Americas, including Alaska.  

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So, what do great horned owls eat? Find out below!

What Do Great Horned Owls Eat?

What Do Owls Eat image
Great horned owls eat small mammals, birds, insects, and reptiles.


Great horned owls eat small mammals, birds, insects, and reptiles. 

The great horned owl eats a varied diet depending on its location. However, small mammals make up most of these owls’ food sources. It will hunt for mice, rats, ground squirrels, and rabbits during winter. 

These fierce predators will often prey on birds, including smaller owls. You can expect to see great horned owls feasting on geese, hawks, and ducks, especially in the northern region of the Americas. 

While these owls rarely eat fish and amphibians, some may take advantage of the abundant and ready supply if it nests near water sources. 

Insects and reptiles complete this bird’s well-balanced meals. It is not uncommon for great horned owls to dine on snakes and scorpions.

A Complete List of Foods Great Horned Owls Eat

A list of the most common foods great horned owls eat:

  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Squirrels
  • Rabbits
  • Snowshoe hares
  • Opossums
  • Skunks
  • Hawks
  • crows
  • Small owls
  • Ducks
  • Geese
  • Snakes
  • Frogs
  • Lizards
  • Insects
  • Scorpions
  • Occasionally fish

While great horned owls stick with smaller prey, they can lift mammals and birds up to 15 pounds! 

These owls often have fewer food options during the winter and will hunt what is readily available, such as snowshoe hares and certain birds.

How Does a Great Horned Owl Hunt?

why do owls hoot at night
A great horned owl flies completely silent, swooping down to grab its prey.

©Imran Ashraf/Shutterstock.com

Great horned owls are birds of prey and are fierce and excellent hunters. These birds threaten many creatures in the animal kingdom and come equipped with specialized features for hunting. 

These birds are nocturnal and hunt mostly at night and during dusk. Its eyesight is superb in low-light conditions, and its hearing is sensitive to small prey. 

One of the essential advantages this predator has over other birds like hawks is that it flies completely silent. Its large, serrated wings don’t create noise and allow the owl to glide slow and free of sound. 

Its prey won’t know it’s coming until it’s too late. One undetected swoop and mammals are caught in the owl’s strong talons with no way to escape. A force of 28 pounds is needed to open the great horned owl’s claws. This death grip quickly severs the spine of its food. 

These predators watch for their dinner by sitting perched on tree limbs or fence posts and swooping down low over fields. With prey in sight, it reaches out with its talons and tightly grasps hold.

Who Competes with Great Horned Owls for Food?

A beautiful Ural Owl flying over snow.
Birds of prey compete for food and nesting spots.

©Wang LiQiang/Shutterstock.com

Great horned owls are near the top of the food chain, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to compete for their meals. 

Other owl species, hawks, and eagles eat a similar diet to great horned owls. Birds of prey compete for food and nesting spots frequently. However, the great horned owl employs various tactics to avoid competition.

Hunting at night makes it easier for great horned owls to obtain food and keep other birds from getting prey first. It will also eat its food whole and immediately (unless hunting for its young) to prevent others from stealing.

How Does Their Diet Impact Other Species?

Great horned owls help balance the ecosystem by eating rodents and other pests.

©Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock.com

The great horned owl is a predator and controls the population of small animals. These owls play an essential role in balancing the ecosystem by eating rodents and other pests. 

Rodents like mice and rats eat and spoil a staggering amount of crops throughout the United States and the world. Rodents can also cause structural damage to homes and other buildings. Great horned owls help keep rodent numbers down, which is incredibly beneficial to humans. 

Before you consider attracting these majestic predators to your property, you may want to reconsider if you have small animals like chickens, cats, and dogs. Remember, great horned owls hunt prey that weighs much more than they do.

What Do Different Types of Owls Eat?

Are Owls Mammals
Owls are opportunistic hunters and eat what is available in their geographic location.

©Richard Whitcombe/Shutterstock.com

Out of all the North American raptors, the great horned owl has the most diverse diet. Its favorite foods include snowshoe hares, mice, rabbits, squirrels, and other birds. But not all owls share the same diet. 

Screech owls (short, stalky birds) prefer insects, slugs, snails, and amphibians. In comparison, large species like the eagle owl will hunt foxes, ducks, and rabbits. 

Owl diets depend primarily on their location and the characteristics of their bodies. Owls are opportunistic hunters and will hunt for available food in their geographic location. Small domesticated animals like cats and dogs can even become prey if the opportunity arises.

What Do Baby Great Horned Owls Eat?

Baby great horned owls are carnivores like their parents and will eat whatever is provided. The adults (male and female) bring back different meat sources to the nests for their young. 

A baby’s diet typically includes small mammals, reptiles, birds, worms, insects, and fish. The babies can fly out of the nest around 9 to 10 weeks but will still be fed and cared for by the parents for several more months.

Do Great Horned Owls Have Any Predators?

Bobcats are a great horned owl's predator
Great horned owls can fall victim to foxes, coyotes, and bobcats.

©Jack Bell Photography/Shutterstock.com

Great horned owls have no severe predators, and it is rare for an adult to be attacked. But, there are instances where these owls may need to defend themselves over food and territory. 

Great horned owls can fall prey to animals like foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. Attacks from these predators often happen out in the open when the owl is mantling or covering its prey. Other birds of prey, like golden eagles and northern goshawks, can also pose a threat. 

The young of great horned owls is the most vulnerable. The babies can fall victim to other raptors and birds.

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The Featured Image

a great horned owl ,center frame, flying toward to camera. The owls massive wings are spread in flight. The bird is varying shades of brown, with a lighter face. Trees with fall foliage of red, gold and brown compete the background.
A flying Great Horned Owl. This is one of the most dangerous birds because of its talons, curved sharp beak, and its aggressive way of hunting.
© Imran Ashraf/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Niccoy is a professional writer and content creator focusing on nature, wildlife, food, and travel. She graduated Kappa Beta Delta from Florida State College with a business degree before realizing writing was her true passion. She lives in the Triangle area and enjoys hiking, reading, and cooking!

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