How to Attract Owls to Nest in Your Backyard

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

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 come into suburban neighborhoods and city parks. Learn about where owls live and find out how to attract owls to nest and live in your yard by following these four tips.

Discover 13 facts about owls you should know.

1. Attract Owls With Trees and Plants

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.

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

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

Go a step further and install birdhouses 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. (Bookmark this handy birdhouse hole size chart)

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 nest boxes that are high in trees.

screech owl nest box, how to attract owlsVia Etsy.com
Screech owl nest box

You can buy nest boxes for screech-owls or larger owls. We like this one available on Etsy, which is handcrafted out of red cedar wood.

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You can also build your own owl nest boxes. Check out theraptortrust.org for building plans, advice on placement and more.

Will hummingbirds use a birdhouse?

3. 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.

Check out 15 outstanding pictures of owls.

4. Keep Cats Indoors

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

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.

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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.