How to Attract Owls to Nest in Your Backyard

Where do owls live? Roll out the welcome mat for these shadowy nighttime fliers. Experts reveal how to attract owls: provide shelter and offer nest sites.

Owls are both popular and mysterious. They’re so obscure, in fact, that most people report they’ve never seen one in real life, let alone a backyard owl. But some kinds of owls come into suburban neighborhoods and city parks. Learn how to attract owls to nest and live in your backyard by following these four tips.

how to attract owls to nest boxesJohann Schumacher Design
Barn owls may raise their young inside man-made structures, like nest boxes, barns and even homes.

1. How to Attract Owls

Native plants are the best bet if you want to know how to attract owls. Trees provide nesting places and shelter, and herbaceous plants offer habitat for prey. 

Most kinds of owls like to hide inside dense cover during the day and venture out only at night. Evergreen trees provide this kind of shelter year-round. Depending on where you live, ideal choices include pine, spruce or juniper; check with a local native plant nursery to find out which grows best in your region. Eventually you may find long-eared owls, Northern saw-whet owls, great horned owls or other species nestled away among the branches, sleeping the day away. Read more: Spot the owl in your backyard trees.

2. Offer Nest Boxes for Cavity-Nesting Owls

Go a step further and install boxes for cavity-nesting species, like screech-owls and barred owls. Eastern screech-owls are common and widespread east of the Rockies, with western screech-owls replacing them farther west, and both often lurk in towns and cities. However, to nest and raise young, they need cavities such as woodpecker holes or natural hollows in trees. If you can safely leave dead trees or large dead limbs standing, these often have holes that owls use. Otherwise, screech-owls use nest boxes designed for wood ducks or American kestrels, with an entrance hole at least 3 inches in diameter. In cooler climates, the Northern saw-whet owl also adopts nest boxes, although it favors a 2-inch entrance hole.

Some larger owls also nest in cavities, including barn owls and barred owls. If you live in farm country, you may be able to place a barn owl box at the edge of open fields or in a barn loft. Barred owls favor dense, swampy woods, and they like boxes that are high in trees.

You can also buy nest boxes for screech-owls or larger owls, or build your own. Check out theraptortrust.org for building plans, advice on placement and more.

Learn about 8 different kinds of bird nests and how to spot them.

photo credit: Gail Buquoi
To lure eastern screech-owls, hang a nest box in February.

3. Say No to Insecticides

To successfully lure owls to nest and make a home on your property, you have to also attract the creatures they hunt. Screech-owls feed on large insects, such as moths and beetles, and small animals such as mice. If you use insecticides or rodenticides around your garden, those poisons may wipe out the prey before the owls find them. Worse, the poisons may be passed along directly to the owls. Check out 15 outstanding pictures of owls.

baby owlsCourtesy Brent Barnes
Great horned owls built a nest and raised these four owlets in a neighborhood tree.

4. Keep Cats Indoors

Even if they’re well-fed, prowling house cats kill many small wild animals. Wiping out populations of mice, voles, lizards and other creatures may not leave enough to support a family of screech-owls or other small owls. On the flip side, a cat that wanders outside at night might become a meal for a large species like a great horned owl. It’s better for everyone to keep house cats inside houses where they belong! Read more: 5 ways to create a bird-safe backyard.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.