How to Attract Owls to Nest in Your Backyard

Where do owls live? Welcome these nighttime fliers to your yard. Experts reveal how to attract owls and provide shelter in nest boxes.

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baby owls, how to attract owlsCourtesy Brent Barnes
Great horned owlets in a suburban neighborhood tree

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 types of owls live in suburban neighborhoods, backyards and city parks. Learn more about where owls live and find out how to attract owls to nest and live in your yard by following these expert tips.

Discover 13 fun facts about owls you should know.

1. Attract Owls With Trees and Plants

251462727 1 Melissa Davis Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Melissa Davis
Barred owl

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 trees grow 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.

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.

Read more: Spot the owl in your backyard trees.

2. Offer Nest Boxes for Cavity-Nesting Owls

photo credit: Gail Buquoi
Screech-owls will use nest boxes

Go a step further and install birdhouses for cavity-nesting species, like screech-owls and barred owls. Screech-owls may use nest boxes designed for wood ducks or American kestrels, with an entrance hole at least 3 inches in diameter. They rest near their nests during the day, so adding a nest box to your backyard gives you a chance to see them more often.

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.

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.

You can buy pre-made owl nest boxes (bookmark this handy birdhouse hole size chart) or you can also build your own. Check out theraptortrust.org for building plans.

Owl Nesting Box Placement

baby screech owlCourtesy Gail Hall
Baby screech owls in a nest box

“What is the ideal location and height for an owl box? asks reader Kathy Lorigan of Easton, Pennsylvania.

Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman say, “In your area, the owls most likely to move into a nest box are eastern screech owls. They’ll use boxes similar to ones preferred by wood ducks, at least 16 inches deep and with an entrance hole of about 3 inches by 4 inches.

The box should be in a shady spot, and about 10 feet above the ground. Fastening it to the trunk of a large tree may work, but in an area with many predators, it’s best to place it on a tall pole that’s protected with a baffle or predator guard.

Backyard Tip: 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 nest boxes that are high in trees.

Do owl sightings have special meaning?

4. Say No to Insecticides and Poisons

Barn owl with a dead mouse, Indiana, USAjanbecke1/Getty Images
Barn owl with a mouse

To successfully lure owls to nest, raise babies 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.

Don’t miss these outstanding pictures of owls.

5. 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.

Next, discover fascinating facts about burrowing owls.

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. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.
Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten has more than 15 years of experience writing and editing birding and gardening content. As content director of Birds & Blooms, she leads the team of editors and freelance writers sharing tried-and-true advice for nature enthusiasts who love to garden and feed birds in their backyards. Since joining Birds & Blooms 17 years ago, Kirsten has held roles in digital and print, editing direct-to-consumer books, running as many as five magazines at a time, and managing special interest publications. Kirsten has traveled to see amazing North American birds and attended various festivals, including the Sedona Hummingbird Festival, the Rio Grande Bird Festival, The Biggest Week in American Birding Festival, and the Cape May Spring Festival. She has also witnessed the epic sandhill crane migration while on a photography workshop trip to Colorado. Kirsten has participated in several GardenComm and Outdoor Writers Association of America annual conferences and is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. When she's not researching, writing, and editing all things birding and gardening, Kirsten is enjoying the outdoors with her nature-loving family. She and her husband are slowly chipping away at making their small acreage the backyard of their dreams.