17 Outstanding Owls

Use this handy guide to identify hoots hanging around your garden.
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Photo By: Image courtesy of National Wildlife Federation, photo by Dennis von Linden

Photo By: Image courtesy of National Wildlife Federation, photo by Tianne Strombeck

Photo By: Image courtesy of Owl Research Institute

Photo By: Image courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, photo by Anna Martineau

Photo By: Image courtesy of National Wildlife Federation, photo by Barbara L. Fleming

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Photo By: Image courtesy of Owl Research Institute

Photo By: Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

Photo By: Image courtesy of Owl Research Institute

Photo By: Image courtesy of Owl Research Institute

Photo By: Image courtesy of National Wildlife Federation, photo by Amy Marques

Photo By: Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

Photo By: Image courtesy of National Wildlife Federation, photo by Susan Lander

Photo By: Image courtesy of Owl Research Institute

Photo By: Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

Photo By: Image courtesy of National Wildlife Federation, photo by Richard Schaaf

Photo By: Image courtesy of National Wildlife Federation, photo by David L. Brislance

Sideway Glances

Burrowing owls were once visible throughout the western U.S. but in recent years their number has started to decline drastically in Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona, Montana, Utah, Florida and other states. They like to burrow in a hole in the ground and are often found in dry, open areas with short grass.

The Great Horned Owl

Owls always make a great photographic subject because of their striking appearance and almost human-like facial features. It's quite likely you have seen one or more of their species in your backyard or neighborhood like the Great Horned Owl. One of the most commonly sighted owls in North America, this bird is distinguished by its unnerving stare, long, feather tufts that resemble a cat's ears and a call which is a series of deep, stuttering hoots.

Baby Barn Owls

Distinguished by a heart-shaped whitish face, small eyes, a short tail and long, rounded wings, the Barn Owl stands apart from most North American owl species (grouped together in a family called Strigidae) in a classification of its own called Tytonidae (which means "night owl"). Although most owls are nocturnal, barn owls are diurnal and will roost in barns, trees or landscape cavities by day and hunt in open habitats by night.

The Shy One

A shy, secretive creature that is found in subalpine forests in mountain ranges like the Rockies, the Boreal Owl is a bit of a mystery to even scientists. In appearance, they are small with a white face outlined in black, no ear tufts and their underside is dirty white with brown streaks.

Arctic Visitors

Although Snowy Owls are native to the Arctic region, they have been known to winter as far south as Florida, Texas and central California. Their yearly behavior is often tied to the abundance of lemmings in the frozen arctic tundra. When lemmings are scarce, Snowy Owls may not even attempt to breed. It is estimated that it takes about 2,000 lemmings to feed a dozen nestlings. 

A Bird with Many Nicknames

Tree holes, caves, the abandoned nests of other birds and stumps often serve as homes for the Great Horned Owl. This nocturnal hunter is particularly remarkable for its digestive system which allows it to swallow its prey whole and later regurgitate fur, bone and other discarded bits of their meal.

Identify This Fledging

The Long-Eared Owl can be found in most areas of the U.S. and southern Canada. The northern populations may migrate seasonally and it is not uncommon for Long-Eared Owls to roost together communally in the winter. Their preferred habitats can range from dense vegetation to forests near meadows or open fields. 

The Screecher

Screech Owls are prevalent throughout the U.S. but there are two species, the Eastern and Western Screech Owl, and the Rocky Mountains appear to be the loose dividing line between them. Their haunting low-pitched trill is often used in movies to create a mood but besides "screeching," they also hoot, rasp and whinny. 

Northern Pygmy Owl

A small, plump owl with yellow eyes, short wings and no ear tufts, the Northern Pygmy Owl likes to inhabit open coniferous forests from valley bottoms up to the treeline. They are most often found in the Western U.S, ranging from southeastern Alaska to California, Arizona and further south to northern Mexico. The Northern Pygmy Owl is an unsociable bird and lives a solitary life most of the year. Despite its small size, it is known to be quite fierce and will attack intruders or prey that are much larger.

Predatory Tottlers

A bird that mostly resides in western North America, the Flammulated Owl prefers open coniferous forests in mountainous regions and is known to winter in Guatemala and southern and central Mexico. Unlike other owls, they don't eat many vertebrates but feed mostly on insects such as crickets, beetles and moths. These owls tend to be small and—depending on which region they inhabit—their coloring can be either flame-colored or ash-colored.

Night Flight

Originally an inhabitant of the Eastern U.S., the Barred Owl has expanded its territory to include the Pacific Northwest and parts of California. These are large stocky creatures with rounded heads, no ear tufts and a color pattern of mottled brown and white. If you should ever come across an injured owl, you should wrap it in a blanket or coat and contact your local Audubon Society or Fish and Game department for assistance.

Salton Sea Sightings

The Burrowing Owl has the distinctive habit of collecting mammal dung and scattering it around its burrow in order to attract dung beetles for food. In recent years, one of the key places where you can spot this species is at the Salton Sea in southern California where Burrowing Owls like to make their homes alongside the cement agriculture irrigation ditches.

Rodent Harvester

The Northern Saw-whet Owl is considered a forest bird and not easily seen by day as they often roost in dense vegetation until nightfall when they hunt for food. This is a relatively small bird with a large, rounded head and no ear tufts. It feeds primarily on small mammals such as deer mice and when food is abundant, it may kill as many as six rodents in succession and store them in a safe place to be eaten later.

The Long Eared Owl

The Long-Eared Owl is often confused with the Great-Horned Owl because the two share similar physical characteristics but the Long-Eared Owl is smaller and has asymmetrical ear tufts that stand upright and close together. They do not make nests but tend to take over the abandoned nests of other birds or roost in tree cavities. The Long-Eared Owl is usually silent, except during breeding season.

The Nimble Hunter

The Barred Owl enjoys a diverse diet of small mammals like chipmunks, moles and rabbits as well as fish, amphibians and birds. They are capable of dragging prey from slow moving water or catching a bat in flight. The biggest predator threatening the Barred Owl is the Great-Horned Owl.

Growing Pains

Owl chicks are blind when they first hatch and have a thin coat of natal down. Within one to two weeks, they will develop a heavier coat called the mesoptile. The species of some owl chicks may leave the nest within the first three to four weeks to roam about and are called Branchers. After this phase they become fledgings and learn to fly. This process could take anywhere from four to ten weeks depending on the owl species.

Gray Greatness

The Great Gray Owl inhabits the northern U.S. Rockies, Alaska, Canada and a few locations further south such as the Sierra Nevada range in California. It is considered the tallest owl in North America with the largest wingspan (up to sixty inches) and has extremely acute hearing that can detect prey underneath the snow at a distance of a hundred meters.