Mini Spotlight: Great Horned Owl

You’ve probably heard of Great Horned Owl, also called a Hoot Owl, but have you heard of Nimbus? He is an ambassador animal at The Reid Park Zoo who was rescued from the desert as an abandoned, injured chick. The Tucson Wildlife Center revived him, and began his rehabilitation. Because of his difficult start, it was unlikely that he would ever be able to survive in the wild, but fortunately, he was adopted by the Reid Park Zoo in 2016. Since then he has delighted Zoo guests, often appearing on the grounds on the arm of a member of the Zoo’s education staff, and he has also traveled with staff out into the Tucson community to help everyone from schoolchildren to senior citizens learn about and appreciate his amazing species.

The Great Horned owl lives in countries all over the globe, and is native to most of North and South America. In our Sonoran Desert, they can be found in both natural and urban areas, and are happy to co-op the nests of other large birds of prey, like hawks. They have fascinated humans for as long as we have interacted with them, and play important roles in ancient Greek Mythology as well as Native American folklore. And because of their fierce and mysterious nocturnal hunting activity and haunting calls, through the years they have gained nicknames such as the “winged tiger.” They’re perceived as wise, fierce (could it be the horns?), beautiful, and of course famous for hooting. They’re easily recognizable by their size – usually between 17 and 25 inches in length, with a wingspan of 35-50 inches.

What about those distinctive “horns” on top of their heads? These are actually just tufts of feathers called plumicorns, and scientists aren’t completely sure what function they serve – speculation is that they help with camouflage. They are often mistaken for ears, but the owls’ ears are on the sides of their heads, at two different heights in order to help with their “radar” when locating prey. They can actually determine the exact position of their prey, as well as the direction and speed that it’s moving. They are silent when hunting, waiting from a high perch to locate a tasty rodent or even a small reptile. They swoop down and grab the unwitting creatures in their talons, then carry them to safe feeding sites.

Their plumage varies according to their habitat. Their famous eyes – huge, round, and bright yellow – provide amazing visual acuity, especially for hunting at night. These fierce predators have a softer side, though. They mate for life, and during breeding season (and usually in the wee hours of the morning) you may hear the males and females calling to one another from some distance. You can tell who’s who by the higher pitch of the female’s call.

Nimbus and the other Ambassador Animals at the Reid Park Zoo help spread the message of conservation and protection of biodiversity. When the Reid Park Zoo expansion is completed, even more amazing species will help us all learn to love and protect nature.


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