- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
Permanent, year-round resident; uncommon in abundance during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
The Great Horned Owl is widely distributed across North America, from the tree line south to the Gulf Coast and even further south into Central and South America. Its sparse distribution across the southern two-thirds of the continent, from southern Canada across the United States, is illustrated in Figure 1.
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 8/20 by Partners in Flight.
Primarily non-migratory, but occasionally there are irruptions of northern birds into Minnesota during the winter months when there are food shortages in Canada.
Considered a “perch and pounce” predator, this species has one of the most diverse diets of any raptor but feeds largely on mammals and birds.
Primarily abandoned platform nests of hawks and crows; also nests in tree cavities, the hollows of standing stumps, and on human-built structures.
The versatile Great Horned Owl occurs in open woodlands throughout Minnesota. Roberts (1932) described it as a common, permanent resident throughout the forested regions of the state, even occurring in riparian woodlands scattered across the prairie landscape. At the time of his writing, the Great Horned Owl was “much more common” than the Barred Owl, its population size augmented in part by an influx of northern migrants during the winter months. Confirmed nesting reports (nests with eggs) were available from seven counties stretching from the southeast corner of the state to the far northwest, including Hennepin, Houston, Isanti, Meeker, Roseau, Sherburne, and Wabasha.
This widely distributed owl, considered by some as royalty among birds of prey, is a complex species. Not only does it demonstrate significant geographical variation in its plumage, but its nomadic and “migratory” movements vary as well. Attempts to define subpopulations have confused the best of taxonomists over the years (Dickerman 1993). In the early 1900s, Roberts delineated three subspecies that occurred in Minnesota: 1) the eastern Great Horned Owl (B.v. virginianus), which was found throughout the eastern United States, 2) the western Great Horned Owl (B.v. occidentalis), which was restricted largely to the northern Great Plains, and 3) the Arctic Great Horned Owl (B.v. subarcticus), which occurred in the central Canadian provinces. The eastern subspecies was the most common breeding resident in Minnesota, while the paler, western subspecies was less abundant. The arctic subspecies, a winter visitant to the state, was readily distinguished by its very pale, grayish-white plumage.
Since then, B.v. occidentalis and B.v. subarcticus have been combined into one subspecies, B.v. subarcticus. B.v. virginianus remains the primary breeding resident in the state (Artuso et al. 2013). As Dickerman (1993) points out, however, the regional boundaries of B.v. subarcticus still require closer examination, including in western Minnesota.
Forty years later, Green and Janssen (1975) noted that banding studies suggested that horned owls residing in central and southern Minnesota were more sedentary then those residing further north: some banded in the northern counties were recovered 805 km away. Janssen (1987) would later refer to the northern residents as partially migratory. Both accounts note the influx of the Arctic Horned Owl, B.v. subarcticus, during the winter months. Although most of these birds were seen in northern Minnesota, they occasionally ranged much further south.
Many early accounts use the term migratory to describe the movements of some Great Horned Owl populations, including the Arctic Horned Owl. A more recent review by Artuso and his colleagues (2013) concluded that most birds are permanent residents and not migrants. Dispersals, they note, are more accurately considered irruptions in response to declines in prey populations, particularly in boreal snowshoe hare populations. Once the owls move, it is unclear if the dispersing birds return the following spring. At least one study showed that territorial owls were less likely to respond to food shortages than nonbreeding birds, or floaters (Rohner 1997).
Much remains to be learned about the true nature of Minnesota’s Great Horned Owl population. Nevertheless, by 1987 it had been confirmed nesting in 39 counties across the state since 1970 (Janssen 1987). By 1998, an additional 15 counties were added to the list (Hertzel and Janssen 1998). In a review of the status and distribution of all Minnesota raptors, Johnson (1982) concluded that although the species was uncommon in the northeastern forest region, it was still the most common breeding owl in the state. Since Johnson’s report, field biologists with the Minnesota Biological Survey have documented a total of 73 breeding season locations for the species, widely dispersed across all but the far northeastern counties (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2017). They did not, however, conduct surveys that specifically targeted nocturnal raptors.
During the MNBBA, observers tallied a total of 750 Great Horned Owl records in 12.2% (585/4,811) of the atlas blocks that were surveyed and in 12.2% (286/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding was documented in 4.2% (202) of the surveyed blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). Owls were observed in all but 3 of Minnesota’s 87 counties (Mahnomen, Mille Lacs, and Renville) and were confirmed breeding in 61 counties. Included were 18 counties not previously identified by Hertzel and Janssen (1998). Although they are widely dispersed across Minnesota, the Great Horned Owl was least abundant in far north-central Minnesota and was most commonly reported in the larger Twin Cities metropolitan corridor, from Anoka and Washington Counties south through Rice and Goodhue Counties. Its abundance in this region may more accurately reflect a greater number of observers than a greater number of owls. Also, the species is more easily detected in open habitats of residential areas compared to more closed forest habitats in northern Minnesota.
Although considered the most abundant owl in the state nearly 100 years ago, during the MNBBA the Great Horned Owl and Barred Owl were nearly identical in abundance. A total of 750 records were reported for the Great Horned Owl and 756 for the Barred Owl. The Great Horned Owl was reported from 585 atlas blocks, and the Barred Owl from 558. It was easier, however, for observers to confirm nesting for the Great Horned Owl and nesting was confirmed in a total of 202 blocks compared to only 59 for the Barred Owl. The open platform nest of the Great Horned Owl is certainly easier to locate than the nesting cavities of the Barred Owl. Although both species are relatively common in the Twin Cities region, the Barred Owl is clearly more abundant in Minnesota’s northern forest landscape, while the Great Horned Owl is more frequently encountered in the western agricultural landscape.
Elsewhere within its breeding range, the species’ distribution has changed little overall. Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, which have each conducted two atlases, all documented fewer Great Horned Owl reports during their second atlas. The factors responsible for these declines were invariably due to large-scale habitat changes and/or less intensive efforts to survey nocturnal species during the second atlas (Iowa Ornithologists’ Union 2017; Chartier et al. 2013; Rodewald et al. 2016; Cadman et al. 2007).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.