January 27th, 2016
Although we’re not certain what happened to her, Aztec, the Great Horned Owl was brought to Hawks Aloft with some permanent injuries most likely caused by a collision with a car. She earned her name because she came to us from Aztec, New Mexico, in the Four Corners region, a small city near the Animas River, bordered by the ancient ruins at Aztec Ruins National Monument.
Aztec is a striking bird. One of the largest tufted owls in North America, Great Horned Owls like Aztec always attract attention. Aztec has fostered orphaned Great Horned Owlets in the past, and also has also provided Hawks Aloft educators with an opportunity to talk about raptor adaptations, owls in general, and the unique features of Great Horned Owls in particular.
Great Horned Owls are one of the most common owls in the United States. They are highly adaptable and make their homes in diverse landscapes—deserts, wetlands, grasslands, and urban environments—anywhere that there is some forested areas with semi-open spaces interspersed throughout.
This common and easily identifiable species of owl is noted for its long, earlike tufts, the white patch on its throat, its heavily barred underbelly, and distinctive hoot. Below you can listen to the typical call of a Great Horned Owl.
The tone of the Great Horned Owl’s various calls can vary by region, but the deep series of 4-5 hoots is never so different that it can’t be readily identified. However, males and females are known to perform a call-and-response duet, wherein the sex of the birds are distinguished by their variation.
Great Horned Owls, like all raptors, are carnivores. Built for secrecy and stealth, these birds can take down birds and mammals that are larger than themselves. They’re not picky eaters and have one of the most diverse diets of raptors in the United States. They’ll feed on small mammals and rodents, as well as scorpions, snakes, loons, ravens, doves, insects, fish, other invertebrate and even cats and carrion—whatever is readily available. They are one of the only birds known to prey on skunks—they have a weak sense of smell—and the Executive Director of Hawks Aloft has even observed a Great Horned Owl that managed to snag a Red-tailed Hawk. It’s Great Horned Owl’s incredible adaptability that has made them one of the most successful predators in North America. Typically, these owls spot their prey from a perch and descend for the kill. Yet, illustrating their versatility, Great Horned Owls have even been observed stalking prey on the ground too.
Owls like Aztec are sometimes migratory, although most populations show fidelity to a single site year-round, where they remain in their monogamous pair—though outside of breeding season, the male and female often roost separately.
If you’ve fallen in love with Great Horned Owls and Aztec, consider supporting her as she lives out her remaining years with Hawks Aloft. Aztec’s injuries make her permanently non-releasable, so she requires care from our staff. If you’d like to support her by providing food, housing, and veterinary care check out our Adopt-A-Raptor Program.
Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft