4 Simple Tips for Hosting an Owl in Your Backyard

Be an owl landlord and roll out the welcome mat for these shadowy nighttime fliers.

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, and you might even be able to attract owls to your backyard if you follow these four tips.

1. Provide shelter.

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)

2. Offer nest sites.

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 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. (Read more: 8 Different Kinds of Bird Nests and How to Spot Them) You can also buy nest boxes designed for screech-owls or larger owls, or build your own. Check out theraptortrust.org for building plans, advice on placement and more.

photo credit: Gail Buquoi
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 your space, 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. (Read more: Owls of North America)

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)

Signs of Owls in Your Neighborhood

They’re masters of disguise, but look for these clues.

Sounds

Owls in towns and cities are often less vocal than those in wild country. But late at night, after traffic quiets down, listen for them calling.

Pellets

Owls often swallow their food whole, later coughing up the indigestible parts. You may find “owl pellets” of matted fur, tiny bones, and insect scales under dense evergreens where the owls have roosted.

Whitewash

When owls find a roosting spot, they may use it for several days. Their droppings accumulate as “whitewash” on the ground or ont he tree trunk below their perch.

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.