Great Horned Owl Vs. Bald Eagle: How Do These Iconic Birds Of Prey Compare?

The great horned owl and the bald eagle are two of the most iconic birds of prey in North America. Recognizable for their large, powerful forms and association with wilderness, these apex predators have an undeniable visual impact and symbolic importance.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: While the bald eagle is larger and more powerful overall, the great horned owl has greater grip strength in its talons, better night vision, and a more diverse diet.

The two species differ significantly in habitat, distribution, flight capabilities, and conservation status.

In this in-depth comparison, we will examine the key similarities and differences between the great horned owl and the bald eagle. We will look at their physical characteristics, hunting strategies, habitat ranges, reproduction, conservation status, and cultural symbolism to see how these apex avian predators stack up.

Physical Characteristics and Markings

Size and Weight

The Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle are both majestic birds of prey, each with their own unique physical characteristics. The Great Horned Owl is generally smaller in size compared to the Bald Eagle. On average, the Great Horned Owl stands about 20-25 inches tall and weighs between 2-5 pounds.

In contrast, the Bald Eagle is much larger, with an average height of 30-40 inches and a weight ranging from 6-14 pounds. It’s safe to say that the Bald Eagle definitely has the advantage when it comes to size and weight.


When it comes to wingspan, the Bald Eagle takes the lead once again. With an average wingspan of 6-7 feet, the Bald Eagle possesses one of the largest wingspans of any bird in North America. On the other hand, the Great Horned Owl has a wingspan of around 3-5 feet, making it significantly smaller in comparison.

The impressive wingspan of the Bald Eagle allows it to soar through the sky with great ease and agility.

Color Patterns

Both the Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle have distinctive color patterns that help them blend into their surroundings and aid in hunting. The Great Horned Owl is known for its mottled brown and white feathers, which provide excellent camouflage in wooded areas.

In contrast, the Bald Eagle boasts a striking combination of dark brown body feathers, a white head, and a bright yellow beak. These unique color patterns make the Bald Eagle easily recognizable and have earned it the title of the national bird and symbol of the United States.

Hunting and Diet

Hunting Strategies

The Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle are both formidable predators, but they employ different hunting strategies. The Great Horned Owl is known for its stealth and silent flight, allowing it to swoop down on unsuspecting prey.

It has incredibly sharp talons and a powerful beak, which it uses to catch and kill its prey. On the other hand, the Bald Eagle relies more on its exceptional eyesight and powerful wings to hunt. It soars high above its hunting grounds, scanning the area for potential prey before diving down to snatch it up.

Both birds are highly skilled hunters, but they utilize different techniques to capture their meals.

Prey Animals

The Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle have slightly different preferences when it comes to their prey animals. The Great Horned Owl is an opportunistic hunter and has a diverse diet. It preys on a wide range of animals, including rodents, rabbits, birds, reptiles, and even other raptors.

In contrast, the Bald Eagle primarily feeds on fish. They are often found near bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes, and coastal areas, where they can easily swoop down and snatch fish from the surface. However, Bald Eagles are known to also feed on waterfowl, small mammals, and carrion.

Feeding Habits

Both the Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle have distinct feeding habits. The Great Horned Owl is a nocturnal hunter, meaning it is most active during the night. It uses its excellent hearing and night vision to locate and capture prey in the darkness.

After catching its prey, the owl will typically consume it immediately or bring it back to its nest to feed its young. On the other hand, the Bald Eagle is diurnal, meaning it is active during the day.

It will often perch on a high vantage point, such as a tree or rock, and patiently wait for an opportunity to strike. Once it catches its prey, the eagle will either consume it on the spot or carry it back to its nest to share with its mate and offspring.

For more information about the hunting and diet of the Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle, you can visit the following websites:

Habitat Range and Distribution

Great Horned Owl Habitat

The Great Horned Owl is a highly adaptable species known for its wide range of habitats. These owls can be found across North and South America, from the Arctic tundra to the deserts of the Southwest. They are also present in urban areas, such as parks and suburbs.

Great Horned Owls prefer to nest in large trees, but they can also utilize abandoned nests of other birds or even nest on the ground.

Bald Eagle Habitat

The Bald Eagle, on the other hand, has a more specific habitat requirement. These majestic birds are primarily found in North America, with the largest population residing in Alaska and Canada. They prefer to nest near large bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes, and coastlines.

Bald Eagles build massive nests in tall trees, close to the water source where they can easily find fish, their primary food source.

Overlap Between Species

While the Great Horned Owl and Bald Eagle have distinct habitat preferences, there is some overlap between their ranges. Both species can be found in forested areas, where they hunt for prey and establish their territories.

In some cases, Great Horned Owls may even take over abandoned Bald Eagle nests. This is possible because the owls are larger and more aggressive, allowing them to dominate the territory and claim the nest as their own.

It is important to note that the overlap between these two species is not extensive. Each bird has its own niche and preferred hunting grounds, so direct competition for resources is minimal.

For more information on the habitat range and distribution of these iconic birds of prey, you can visit the Audubon Society website, a reputable source for bird conservation and research.

Breeding and Reproduction

Mating Season

The Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle have distinct mating seasons. The Great Horned Owl typically mates during the winter months, between December and February, while the Bald Eagle’s mating season begins in late fall and extends into early spring.

During these seasons, both birds engage in elaborate courtship rituals to attract a mate.

The Great Horned Owl’s courtship display involves hooting calls and aerial displays, where the male will dive and soar in the sky to impress the female. On the other hand, the Bald Eagle engages in a magnificent aerial display, where the male and female lock talons and spiral down towards the ground, only to release at the last moment.

This behavior is known as the “cartwheel display” and is a breathtaking sight to behold.


When it comes to nesting, the Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle have different preferences. The Great Horned Owl often takes over abandoned nests of other large birds, such as hawks or crows, or even uses tree cavities. They do not construct their own nests.

In contrast, the Bald Eagle builds large and sturdy nests, known as “aeries,” on tall trees near bodies of water.

Great Horned Owls are known to be opportunistic nesters, taking advantage of existing structures rather than creating their own. This behavior allows them to focus on raising their chicks rather than spending time constructing a nest.

On the other hand, Bald Eagles invest a significant amount of time and effort in building and maintaining their nests, which can reach sizes of up to 10 feet in diameter and weigh over a ton.

Chick Rearing

Both the Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle are dedicated parents when it comes to raising their chicks. Once the eggs hatch, the parents take turns hunting for food and caring for their offspring. However, there are some differences in their chick-rearing behaviors.

The Great Horned Owl chicks, also known as owlets, stay in the nest for a longer period compared to the Bald Eagle chicks. They are dependent on their parents for up to 10 weeks, during which time they learn essential survival skills like hunting and flying.

In contrast, Bald Eagle chicks leave the nest, known as fledging, at around 10 to 12 weeks of age.

It’s fascinating to observe how these iconic birds of prey go through the various stages of breeding and reproduction. Their unique mating rituals, nest-building techniques, and dedication to raising their chicks make them truly remarkable creatures.

Conservation Status

Both the Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle have faced challenges in the past that have affected their conservation status. However, thanks to conservation efforts, their populations have seen significant improvements.

Previous Endangerment

The Great Horned Owl was never listed as endangered, but it did face threats due to habitat loss and the use of pesticides. These factors caused declines in some populations, particularly in urban areas where their natural habitats were being destroyed.

However, the adaptability of the Great Horned Owl allowed it to survive and even thrive in various environments, which helped stabilize its population.

The Bald Eagle, on the other hand, was once on the brink of extinction. The use of pesticides, specifically DDT, led to thinning eggshells, resulting in failed reproduction. This, combined with habitat loss and hunting, caused a significant decline in their numbers.

By 1963, there were only 417 known breeding pairs left in the United States. However, with the ban on DDT and the implementation of conservation programs, the Bald Eagle population has made a remarkable recovery and was removed from the endangered species list in 2007.

Current Protection Laws

Both the Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle are protected by various laws and regulations to ensure their continued survival.

The Great Horned Owl is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to harm, capture, or kill these birds without a permit. This act also protects their nests and eggs. Additionally, the Great Horned Owl is listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), indicating that its population is stable.

The Bald Eagle is protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits the possession, sale, and transport of these birds, as well as their parts and feathers, without a permit. It is also listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN.

In the United States, the Bald Eagle is further protected under the Endangered Species Act, which provides additional safeguards to ensure their survival.

Cultural Symbolism and Significance

The Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle are both iconic birds of prey that hold significant cultural symbolism in various societies around the world. These majestic creatures have captured the imagination of humans for centuries and have been associated with various meanings and beliefs.

Native American Culture

In Native American culture, both the Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle hold special significance. The Great Horned Owl is often seen as a symbol of wisdom and intuition. Its ability to navigate through the darkness of the night is seen as a metaphor for finding clarity and understanding in difficult times.

The owl is also believed to possess a connection to the spirit world, making it a revered creature in many Native American tribes.

The Bald Eagle, on the other hand, is considered a symbol of strength, courage, and freedom. It is often associated with leadership and is seen as a representation of the divine. The eagle’s majestic flight and keen eyesight are admired characteristics that have made it a powerful symbol in Native American mythology and folklore.

National Symbols

Both the Great Horned Owl and the Bald Eagle hold official status as national symbols in different countries. In the United States, the Bald Eagle has been the national bird and symbol since 1782. It is often depicted on the country’s currency, government seals, and official emblems.

The eagle’s association with freedom and patriotism has made it a beloved national symbol in the United States.

While not an official national symbol, the Great Horned Owl is considered the provincial bird of Alberta, Canada. It was chosen to represent the province due to its widespread presence and significance in the region.

The owl’s resilience and adaptability in different habitats make it a fitting symbol for the diverse landscapes of Alberta.

Mythology and Folklore

Both birds have also played important roles in mythology and folklore around the world. In ancient Greek mythology, the Great Horned Owl was associated with the goddess Athena, who was revered as the goddess of wisdom and knowledge.

The owl’s presence was considered a sign of good fortune and protection.

The Bald Eagle, on the other hand, has been revered in various Native American tribes as a powerful spiritual symbol. It is often seen as a messenger between humans and the divine, carrying prayers to the heavens. The eagle’s feathers are considered sacred and are used in many ceremonial rituals.


In conclusion, while the bald eagle and great horned owl overlap in some respects as apex avian predators, they differ significantly in their physical builds, hunting strategies, habitats, and cultural symbolism.

The bald eagle represents a powerful diurnal hunter associated with waterways and coasts, while the great horned owl is a consummate nocturnal ambush predator of wooded inland areas. Their unique qualities and adaptations allow these iconic birds to thrive as kings of the sky and forest within their respective domains.

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