Great Horned Owl

Natural History

There are 420 birds of prey found worldwide. These include eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, condors, kites and ospreys. Some scientists also include vultures. Maymont is home to several birds of prey, including the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and barred owl (Strix varia), both of which can be found in Raptor Valley.

Owls are nocturnal (active at night), while other birds of prey are diurnal (active during the daytime). Common characteristics among birds of prey include large, bright eyes, sharp curved beaks, and strong talons. Owls, in particular, have very sensitive hearing and can hear a mouse heartbeat in the opposite corner of a room. Owls cannot move their eyes like humans; therefore, in order to see all around, they must move their heads. There are 14 vertebrae in their necks (opposed to seven in humans), which allow them to turn their head approximately 270 degrees! Although owls are excellent hunters, their attacks on live prey are unsuccessful nine out of 10 times.

The great horned owl is the largest owl species found in Virginia, with a wingspan of 4.5 feet and standing 25 inches tall. The great horned owl is also one of the largest “eared” owls in America, and it is one of the first birds to nest, laying its eggs as early as late January, when there is still snow on the ground. This owl is highly adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats including forests, deserts, swamps, and even urban areas. A series of low, sonorous, far-carrying “hoots” can be heard from this owl.

Barred owls regularly call during the daytime, but are most often seen by those who seek them out in their dark retreat, which is usually a thick grove of trees in a lowland forest. These owls can also be found near swamps, lakeshores, or ravines, as they prefer to live near a water source. The barred owl lays two to four eggs in an unlined cavity of a hollow tree or in an old crow’s nest. Adults grow to a height of 20 inches and can weigh 1.5 to 2 pounds, which makes them a smaller breed of an owl.

Bubo virginianus, Strix varia



Small mammals, lizards, frogs, birds, insects

1-2 lbs, 1.5-2 ft tall, 3.5-4.5 ft wingspan

Forests, grasslands, mountains, urban and rural areas, swamps and marshes of the U.S.

Fun Facts

  • Owls have excellent night vision—10 to 100 times better than humans!
  • The great horned owl is one of the most aggressive breeds.
  • Owls are the only birds with “fluffy-edged” flight feathers. The fringed edge enables them to fly silently at night to catch prey.
  • Birds of prey have three eyelids. Hawks close the lower eyelid up, while owls close the upper eyelid down, looking more human-like. The third eyelid, called a nictitating membrane, closes side-to-side and is used to clean and moisten the eye.
  • Owls have ears located in a groove where the facial plate starts (where the feathers change on the face), which acts as a funnel for sound. One ear is located up high and the other is located down low, allowing the owl to easily triangulate sounds.
  • Owls can’t turn their heads all the way around; however, they can turn their heads about 270°. They are able to do so because they have 14 vertebrae in their necks. By comparison, humans have seven.
  • Maymont is home to a great horned owl. She was found as an orphaned chick and accidently imprinted on humans at a rehabilitation facility.
  • Maymont is home to two barred owls. One came to Maymont from the Area Rehabbers Klub, after being rehabilitated from a car accident. Unfortunately, the accident resulted in the loss of one of her eyes. The other came to Maymont from the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center.

Adopt an Animal

Did you know it takes $500,000 each year to feed and care for the animals at Maymont? Your support of the Maymont Adopt an Animal Program helps provide food, care and enrichment to keep the rescued animals active, healthy and engaged.