Attract Great Horned Owls to your yard with a nest box

Last Updated on January 5, 2024 by Greg Gillson

This owl, the Great Horned Owl, is probably the most familiar of owls in North America. The deep resonant hooting on cold calm winter nights is familiar to many.

Great Horned Owls are widely distributed throughout North and South America. They are absent only from the Arctic tundra, parts of the Amazon Basin, and the pampas grasslands.

Nearly wherever you live in mainland United States you have Great Horned Owls near you.

Would you like to attract them to your yard more frequently? Read on!

     Great Horned Owl by Greg Hume

What makes your yard attractive to Great Horned Owls?

These large predators hunt by perching and waiting for prey to scurry by. Then they swoop in silently to attack. They thus need trees or poles for perching. They need some open rough grass or other open areas. They may be more common in second growth forests with edges and openings but they are common from forests to farmlands to cities.

To attract Great Horned Owls to your yard requires that your property is large and has big trees and open space. It should also abut similar properties or undeveloped areas, woods, farmlands, or grasslands.

There may be good reasons not to attract Great Horned Owls into your yard, though. They are fierce predators. They will hunt small prey such as squirrels and mice. They will hunt larger prey such as rabbits, grouse, and skunks. They hunt and eat all other owls! They will hunt housecats and even small dogs, up to about 15 pounds. So make sure that this large owl will be welcome on your property before enticing them into becoming full time residents.

You can provide nest boxes and platforms to attract Great Horned Owls. I’ll discuss that after discussing natural nests.

        Great Horned Owl by brendan.lally

Great Horned Owl nests in nature

Great Horned Owls use old hawk, magpie, and crow nests for their nests. They also nest in cliff crevices and derelict buildings and barns. Red-tailed Hawks, American Crows, and Common Ravens probably provide the most nests for Great Horned Owls. These widespread birds help the owl become equally widespread.

These owls may use an old nest as is, without adding anything. Or they may add bark, leaves, or down feathers. They may crush their own owl pellets to add material to the nest.

Courtship begins in winter. Pairs are often heard hooting in the night before the eggs are laid. Great Horned Owls nest from February to April in most places, to June in some locations.

The female lays 1-4 eggs. They take 30-37 days to incubate until they hatch. The young remain in the nest for another 42 days before they are ready to fledge, leaving the nest.

Old hawk and crow nests are rarely reused the next season. Raising young owls often damages the nest making it unusable the next season.

How do you find Great Horned Owl nests? In spring, before the leaves come out, check large trees along fence lines between agricultural fields. Check trees along creeks and rivers. Check trees at the edge of the woods. What do you look for? Old hawk and crow nests. Look for horns sticking up above old hawk nests, as in the photo above!

The Great Horned Owl nest box

You can create a nest for Great Horned Owls by building a wire cone lined with sticks to mimic the nest of a hawk. Here are the pdf nest plans from Nestwatch and the Cornell Lab.

You can also build a nest tray to attach to a tree trunk. Again, weave sticks together to imitate a crow or hawk nest. (Look at how the nest platform is made in the video below.) Add smaller twigs or straw and pack it down to make it firmer for the eggs.

I’ve even seen a Great Horned Owl using a large metal washtub in a tree as a nest!

These owls may nest in a very large box as long as the entrance “hole” is at least 12 inches high.

Great Horned Owl nest box dimensions

These owls usually use a nest with an open top. They may also nest in large boxes with one open side.

Great Horned Owl nest platform dimensions overview

  • Floor 22×22 inches
  • Side height 8 inches
  • No roof
  • 15-45 feet above the ground

Weave sticks and smaller twigs together to create a nest. You must fill in any larger holes or gaps between sticks. You don’t want the eggs to fall down too far. The mother owl must turn the eggs over while incubating.

      Great Horned Owl by Peter K                                  Burian

Great Horned Owl nest box placement

These owls like to have nest platforms in live trees from 15 to 45 feet above the ground. Place in hardwoods (not conifers) that are at least 12 inches in diameter.

You may also place nests in open-sided barns or under cover in similar buildings that aren’t used much in the spring. But such buildings are better for Barn Owls. [Great Horned Owls will prey upon Barn Owls (and all other owls), so don’t place nest boxes of Great Horned Owls together with any other owl houses.]

Great Horned Owls are used to nesting out in the open in late winter and early spring. Yes, even with snow on the nest! This means you don’t have to worry about which direction the nest faces, as with other owl nest boxes.

Nest box competitors and maintenance

Really, there aren’t many nest competitors for nest sites. Great Horned Owls are likely to be able to drive off any intruder to the nest.

The only animal that is likely to attack a Great Horned Owl is another Great Horned Owl! If they eggs are left unattended a Common Raven might eat them. Fledglings leave the nest before they can fly well. These may be preyed upon by foxes, coyotes, or bobcat.

Young owls are most likely to die from starvation if there isn’t enough food. Parents feed the largest and strongest baby first. Only if there is sufficient food and the parents are better hunters do all the young get fed and survive.

You may need to repair and weave the sticks of the nest every year. Or perhaps just add a few new sticks. Do this in early fall when the nest is not in use. As you can see from the above video, it’s no work of art! A layer of wood chips underneath may provide some insulation from the cold that may penetrate up through the floor.

            Great Horned Owl by Anton Bielousovsell

Wrapping Up

Great Horned Owls, those impressive aerial predators, are incredibly flexible when it comes to nesting, showcasing their adaptability in the animal kingdom. Their choice of nest sites varies depending on factors like location, availability, and personal preference. Here’s a glimpse into their nesting havens out in the wild:

Prime Choices:

  • Abandoned Raptor Nests: These large, sturdy platforms built by hawks, eagles, or even ospreys provide ideal homes for great horned owls. They readily take over these existing structures, saving themselves the effort of building their own nests.
  • Broken Treetops: Sturdy branches and crooks high in mature trees offer open platforms with expansive views, perfect for surveillance and protecting their young. They readily adapt natural tree features to create suitable nesting sites.
  • Cliffs and Ledges: These naturally formed structures provide secluded, secure nesting spots, especially in areas with limited tree cover. The elevated and often inaccessible locations offer protection from predators and intruders.
  • Caves and Hollows: Large, sheltered cavities in trees or cliffs offer secure nesting chambers, particularly in colder regions. These enclosed spaces provide insulation and protection from harsh weather conditions.

Less Conventional Options:

  • Barn roofs and lofts: In agricultural areas, these human-made structures sometimes provide suitable nesting platforms if they offer easy access and enough space.
  • Abandoned buildings and towers: In rare cases, abandoned structures with open spaces might be utilized, although competition with other birds and potential disturbances can deter them.

Important Points:

  • While great horned owls don’t typically build their own nests, they might add some lining materials like feathers, leaves, or prey remains to existing sites.
  • They fiercely defend their chosen nesting territory and readily drive out other birds that attempt to nest nearby.
  • Their adaptability allows them to thrive in diverse habitats, from dense forests to open deserts, as long as suitable nesting sites are available.
Great Horned Owl by Jessie Eastland

Frequently Asked Questions

How rare is it to see a great horned owl?

The rarity of seeing a great horned owl depends on several factors. Here’s a breakdown to help you understand their elusiveness:

Global Population:

  • Relatively widespread: They have a vast range across North and South America, found in various habitats from forests to deserts.
  • Not endangered: Their population is considered stable and widespread, though local numbers can vary.

Factors Affecting Sightings:

  • Nocturnal Habits: They are primarily active at night, significantly reducing the chance of seeing them during daytime hours.
  • Camouflage: Their mottled plumage provides excellent camouflage, allowing them to blend seamlessly into their surroundings.
  • Solitary Nature: They are generally solitary birds, except during breeding season, further decreasing the chances of encountering them.
  • Habitat Preference: While adaptable, they often favor secluded areas like dense forests or remote cliffs, adding to their perceived rarity.

Seeing vs. Hearing:

  • More likely to hear them: Their distinctive hooting call, especially during breeding season, is more likely to be encountered than a visual sighting.
  • Spotting opportunities: Early mornings or dusk might offer increased chances of seeing them returning to or leaving their nest.


  • Not universally rare: While not as common as many other birds, seeing a great horned owl is certainly possible, especially if you visit their preferred habitats at strategic times.
  • Patience and observation: With some dedication and awareness, you might be rewarded with a glimpse of this majestic predator.

How big is a great horned owls territory?

Great horned owls are majestic aerial predators known for their expansive territories, reflecting their need for ample space to hunt and raise their young. The size of their territory can vary considerably depending on several factors, but here’s a general guide:

Average Size:

  • 1.5 square miles (4 square kilometers): This is the typical estimate for a great horned owl territory in many regions.
  • Factors affecting size: Prey availability, habitat quality, competition levels, and breeding status all play a role in determining territory size.


  • Larger territories: In areas with scarce prey or high competition, owls might maintain territories as large as 10 square miles (26 square kilometers) to ensure enough resources for themselves and their offspring.
  • Smaller territories: In abundant prey areas with low competition, territories can be as small as 0.5 square miles (1.3 square kilometers).

Territory Use:

  • Home range: The core area within the territory where the owls spend most of their time, including their nest site and preferred hunting grounds.
  • Hunting range: The broader area they utilize for hunting beyond their core home range.

Importance of Territory:

  • Resource control: Territories allow owls to secure sufficient food and nesting sites for their survival and breeding success.
  • Defense against intruders: They fiercely defend their territory against other owls and potential predators, ensuring their young’s safety.
            Great Horned Owl by Peter K Burian

When do great horned owls nest?

The nesting season for great horned owls varies depending on location and weather conditions, but there’s a general timeframe you can keep in mind:

General Nesting Timeframe:

  • North America: Late winter to early spring (February to April)
  • Southern regions: Nesting can start earlier, even as early as November in certain areas like Florida.

Factors Affecting Timing:

  • Prey availability: Owls typically initiate nesting when prey populations are abundant, ensuring sufficient food for themselves and their growing chicks.
  • Weather conditions: Milder winters in southern regions allow for earlier nesting, while harsh winters in the north might delay the process.
  • Daylight hours: Increasing daylight hours provide longer hunting periods, prompting some populations to nest earlier.

Nesting Stages:

  • Courtship: During late winter or early spring, pairs engage in elaborate courtship displays involving hooting, aerial chases, and food offerings.
  • Nest preparation: The chosen site (abandoned raptor nests, broken treetops, cliffs) is refurbished with feathers, leaves, and prey remains.
  • Egg laying: Females typically lay 2-4 eggs, incubating them for around 30-35 days.
  • Chick rearing: Both parents actively hunt and feed the chicks, who remain in the nest for about 6-8 weeks before fledging.


You may also like: 5 common backyard owls

Comments 43
  1. Thank you so much for this information! I've spotted a great horned owl and an owlet in my backyard this spring I love it when I catch glimpses of them. You're welcome video melted my heart! I'm going to build one of these owl boxes in hopes that they use it for next year. I was wondering… The tree that they reside in now has a lot of horizontal branches, but isn't in my yard. The tree that I'd like to use for the box is in my yard but it's much more vertical. It's a very large, sturdy cottonwood. Should I build anything below the nest box so that the outlets would have a branch/buffer below them in case they fall out while still very young? Or do I not need to worry about that?

  2. Some kind of horizontal branch or even a wide shelf around the front of the nest box might be appreciated. But I'm not sure it is absolutely necessary. Build the box. See if they use it. If they mother chooses the box then it is probably good as is.

  3. That information is very helpful! However, my neighborhood doesn’t have any open grassy areas, but lots of tall trees. My friend who lives two blocks away from me said that he saw an owl flying over the summer. He also said that sometimes he hears them at about one in the morning. He thinks this is because the owls aren’t as active here because my neighborhood doesn’t have any open grassy areas but lots of tall trees. Is my friend right? Also, I have only heard an owl in my neighborhood once. Is it possible the owls in my neighborhood left or died because of my neighborhood’s lack of undeveloped land? Also, don’t great horned owls attack people that get too close to the tree they are nesting in during nesting season? Also, if I put a really tall pole on my roof, and at the top is a nesting platform, might a raptor or owl use it as a nest? Especially a peregrine falcon? Also, can you make one of these nesting platform advice articles, but for peregrine falcons? Thanks!

  4. JBird, thanks for your note.

    From what you describe it sounds like the habitat is a bit to wooded for Great Horned Owl. They do roam over a large area. Perhaps there are more open areas nearby?

    Peregrine Falcons nest primarily on ledges on cliffs well away from people. They need a good supply of ducks or flocking shorebirds to feed upon. Again, their food source requires extensively open lands (tundra, beaches, prairies, or marshes).

    Some do, however, nest on bridges and skyscrapers where they have plenty of pigeons for food, and no direct human disturbance.

    I don't think there are any man-made nesting platforms devised for them.

  5. But your land may be right for Barred Owls if you live anywhere but the Great Basin, California, or the SW.

  6. thank you! And to clear some stuff up, and some follow up questions. First, I live in LA. Also, there are LOTS of squirrels, crows, and songbirds. Also, the tall trees in my neighborhood are spread apart. Also, can great horned owls snatch sleeping animals from branches like a harpy eagle? Also, I live right by the LA River, where Peregrines are spotted. I also live close to Griffith Park, which is pretty big, and as I think I said previously, I also live close to a park where I’ve seen an owl. What other owls do you think could live in my neighborhood? Thanks!

  7. JBird, that helps!

    So the tall trees are likely to be eucalyptus, and not a conifer forest. So there will be Great Horned Owls and Barn Owls. If there is a creek with oaks nearby you should expect Western Screech-Owls.

    The owls are likely to eat mostly rabbits, rats and mice, and squirrels in your area.

  8. greg, thanks for your informative notes.

    I, too, live in an urban area – the southside of Chicago. It 's an old neighborhood, with homes having large yards, and one that is amply supplied with 100 + years-old oaks trees ( many varieties.)

    And, I too have heard owls calling to each other, though not every year. After listening to internet "recordings", think they are / have been Great Horned Owls.

    My question: Does the mere act I periodically hear these wonderful creatures mean that I have a reasonable expectation of successfully inducing one to call my backyard home?

    In advance, thank you.


  9. Interesting question, Michael.

    Certainly, since you hear owls hooting, they are nesting somewhere nearby. They have a very large territory. But, yes, you may be able to entice owls to nest, if you have some habitat (large trees and open spaces).

  10. Thank you! And I DO have a lot of eucalyptus in my neighborhood! But I have never heard a barn owl in my neighborhood and have only heard a great horned owl once in my neighborhood. And about that creak thing, I live VERY close to the LA river. There are also other tall trees in my neighborhood. And I am a little worried about the owls in my neighborhood. If they are still alive. But due to the lack of evidence of an owl in my neighborhood, there might just be one. I am worried because in order to have a substantial food supply, it would need to be active during the day. Is it possible that a great horned owl can pluck sleeping animals from branches like a harpy eagle? Also? I read the barn owl nest box article, and it said that barn owls can’t live near a freeway. I live VERY close to a freeway. I’ve also never heard female great horned owl calls. Could it be possible I have saw whet owls in my neighborhood? Thanks! And sorry for all the questions.

  11. Your questions are great, JBird!

    Owls use keen hearing to find prey rustling as they run through the grass or leaf litter. There is no shortage of nighttime mice, rats and other creatures. They may stay up hunting until it dawn, to hunt rabbits and ground squirrels.

    But they won't normally hunt after sunrise. They get mobbed by crows–which may be the best way for you to know an owl is about. A hundred screaming crows dive-bombing a tree is a pretty good sign, though they sometimes get upset by hawks, too.

    The biggest problem is probably the freeway noise at night.

    Still, this is the time of year to listen after midnight and hear Great Horned Owl calling, It is the courtship season for them. I often hear them when my window was cracked open a bit. The owl hooting wakes me, but I am more attuned to bird noises than most–especially in my sleep!

    Barn Owls fly down the street clicking their bills. I think it is almost an echo-location thing. Very rarely will you hear a raspy barking call as they fly past. No courtship "song" as other owls.

    Saw-whet Owls are birds of northern and mountain boreal forests. They probably nest above 5000 feet in southern California mountains. You need to get up to the incense cedar and Coulter pines. Places like Big Bear or other snow play areas.

  12. Thank you so much! But I have never heard a great horned owl calls recently, and I stay up after midnight. Is it possible that the owls in my neighborhood stay in the park by my house, and periodically stray into my neighborhood? I also don’t have rabbits in my neighborhood. And the crow in my neighborhood only mob the hawk. Also, if there is no nesting platforms or pre built bird of prey nests, will the great horned owls just not nest? Also, is it possible that I have long rated owls in my neighborhood? I may have heard them before, but I have a lot of dogs in my neighborhood that sound exactly like that long eared owl’s dog like sounds so I really don’t know. Also, could a great horned owl attack me if I make their sounds? Also, in Arizona, at like 5:00 PM, I heard a great horned owl, I found it in a tree and stood under it and kept hooting at it. Even though it knew I was a human it still was hooting, though not at me. It would also look down at me and hoot every now and again. Eventually, there were like five people staring at it from right next to the trunk. Was this owl getting overwhelmed? Also, right next to a busy street in my neighborhood on the side walk, there was a squirrel without a face and crows were surrounding it. The squirrel didn’t look like it was hit by a car, and other that having no face, it showed no signs of injury. Could an owl have done that? Or a hawk?

  13. That sounds more like a suburban area. I live in the suburbs, and from how you described where you live, it sounds much more rural than an urban area let alone a lot of suburbs. It sounds like you live in a place WAY better than mine for owls. Sorry for being knit picky. Have a nice day!

  14. I know I already posted this, but ignore that one I meant to have it posted down here. Thank you so much! But I have never heard a great horned owl calls recently, and I stay up after midnight. Is it possible that the owls in my neighborhood stay in the park by my house, and periodically stray into my neighborhood? I also don’t have rabbits in my neighborhood. And the crow in my neighborhood only mob the hawk. Also, if there is no nesting platforms or pre built bird of prey nests, will the great horned owls just not nest? Also, is it possible that I have long rated owls in my neighborhood? I may have heard them before, but I have a lot of dogs in my neighborhood that sound exactly like that long eared owl’s dog like sounds so I really don’t know. Also, could a great horned owl attack me if I make their sounds? Also, in Arizona, at like 5:00 PM, I heard a great horned owl, I found it in a tree and stood under it and kept hooting at it. Even though it knew I was a human it still was hooting, though not at me. It would also look down at me and hoot every now and again. Eventually, there were like five people staring at it from right next to the trunk. Was this owl getting overwhelmed? Also, right next to a busy street in my neighborhood on the side walk, there was a squirrel without a face and crows were surrounding it. The squirrel didn’t look like it was hit by a car, and other that having no face, it showed no signs of injury. Could an owl have done that? Or a hawk?

  15. Thank you! I have eBird and I have an app called Birds Near Me, and the closest owl to me on the app is a great horned owl a few miles away. I am asking a lot of questions because I am worried that the owls in my neighborhood were stuck with this as their territory, and are struggling, and I would like to learn more about if they are adapting to my neighborhood, if they can’t survive here, or if they don’t need to adapt and are perfectly fine.

  16. Owls have large territories. Great Horned Owls are quite successful and live near people or in wilderness. It sounds like owls are only an occasional visitor to your neighborhood, probably from better habitat nearby.

  17. I had three owls in my hard last night. They were so loud they work me up. Normal hooting but every once and a while one sounded like a howler monkey. It was a sound I never heard in person and was like what type of wild beast is out there. Is it the male that calls out for the female when its time to mate or the female that calls out to the male to start the mating?

  18. Wow, Tracy, what an adventure you've had with the owls.

    It is possible that the owls will use some kind of shelf down lower next year. Or, they may try again from the spot they selected this year. Younger parent owls sometimes fail at their first nest.

  19. Hi Greg – Thaks so much for your wonderarful, ehlpful articles. It is obvious how much you love birds!

    I realize owls can be quite territorial to their own species, but can they co-exist with other owl species? I am considering putting up a Barn owl box, a Screech Owl box, AND a Great Horned nest all on my property. The boxes/nests would all be 100-200 feet from each other…not too close, but also not a great distance. Thanks!

  20. With Great Horned Owl, Steviemac, I think it's either/or. They usually don't get along with other owls.

    I would try Barn Owl and Screech Owl boxes, though.

    Barn Owls are highly beneficial, eating a rat a day, according to one study. They also are limited by nesting places.

    Great Horned Owls nest in old crow and hawk nests, so usually are more plentiful.

    Barn Owls eat primarily rodents. Screech Owls eat larger insects, earthworms, smaller rodents. Great Horned Owls eat anything up to the size of skunks!

    That said, most owls killing owls are attacks, not eating.

  21. Great article. I am curious why you do not recommend putting a box in a conifer? I live 30 minutes south of San Francisco, in a rural/suburb setting, with a lot of trees and the tall ones are mostly redwoods now (many tall eucalyptus have/are being removed).I hear the hooters making their rounds most evenings and have seen them on occasion. I have a few redwoods on my small property and would consider putting up a platform in one of them, if suitable?

  22. For the person asking about nest boxes for Great Horned Owls in conifers.

    You can certainly try that. It's just that these owls naturally use old crow or hawk nests. These birds build their nests primarily in deciduous trees.

  23. Thanks Greg. Since the article specifically mentioned not to use conifers I was worried that there may be some sort health/environmental issue that conifers pose to my hooting friends.

  24. Hello,

    Thank you for this information. I've been super successful attracting Barn Owls. I'd like to try my hand at the Great Horned Owl. I understand that they should not (and will not) cohabitate. I do have a question. My best location is a super large/tall Douglass Fir on my property. I read that conifers aren't preferred. Is that a "hard no," meaning the Great Horned Owls won't nest there, or is it simply less attractive but still possible? Thank you. David

  25. Here in the Lake Tahoe area, great horned owls and ravens regularly drive each other from their nests in ponderosa pine trees. No love lost between these two big birds, but they both have no problem nesting in conifers. An abandoned bald eagle nest seems to be the most popular real estate, but a poolside towel rack at a local hotel became a successful nest site for a horned owl during the 2020 pandemic shutdown.

  26. Thank you for your comments. I'll head to the hardware store and pickup supplies. Very exciting!

  27. David,

    Great Horned Owls nest most often in old hawk and crow or raven nests. Those are most frequently in deciduous trees. So the owls will look first in deciduous trees.

    But it is still possible.

  28. I've never heard of a towel rack as a nest site, but whatever works! That's funny! Thanks for sharing.

  29. Thanks so much, Greg. I'll keep you posted! You certainly seem to be inspiring a lot of new owl hosts! LOL

  30. Hi all. What a great report and interaction Greg. Thank you. I also live in CA (LA Area) and want to put a nesting box in a Eucalyptus. Can get over 15' high by putting a ladder in the bed of a truck. Cannot find a bigger box on Amazon that will accommodate a 2-3 foot nesting female GH Owl. Because of the hoards/murders of crows that have invaded, it must have some sort of roof and sides. Any luck out there with a true 'box' in a tree? Thank you owl-lovers!

  31. We have been enjoying evening entertainment provided by a mother and her two fledglings. Mostly dining on grasshoppers or crickets. Not sure how long it will last but we are thrilled.

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