Owls of North America: Meet Your Nocturnal Neighbors

Step outside after dark and watch your backyard come to life as owls swoop through the night skies.

When the sun goes down and the streetlights turn on, most owls’ days are just getting started with their day. These mysterious birds like to keep a low profile, so although there’s probably at least one living in your neighborhood, chances are you’ve never seen it. (Read more: The Secret to Spotting the Owl in Your Backyard!)

Owls are among the most specialized and highly adapted bird groups. With their keen vision and hearing, they hunt at night for small prey (think mice, voles and toads). Fringed feathers ensure silent flight, while sharp beaks and talons allow them to grasp and eat their prey.

And owls come in all sizes, too! The largest owl out there is the great gray owl, which can reach up to 2-1/2 feet in length! The heaviest owl is the snowy owl, which weighs somewhere between 3 and 5 pounds. Compare both of those owl species to the smallest owl around: the elf owl. These owls are sparrow-sized at just about 5-1/2 inches long, and they weight about as much as a golf ball. Now that’s tiny!

These birds rest during the day, and they can be difficult to see due to their camouflaged feathers. One of the best ways to spot an owl is to pay close attention to other birds, such as crows and jays. These smaller birds mob an owl by harassing it with loud calls and betraying its hiding spot in the process. The jury is still out on why birds do this, but one theory is that it is an attempt to drive the owl, a predator, away from the area.

The next time you suspect an owl may have moved in down the street, check out this roundup of the most common owl varieties in North America to figure out who might be your new nocturnal neighbor.

photo credit: Sean Wuensch (B&B reader)

Burrowing Owls

An oddity in the owl world, burrowing owls are among the few species to nest underground. The southern Florida populations dig their own chambers, while burrowing owls in the Southwest rely on holes dug by other animals, including prairie dogs, badgers and ground squirrels. Look for burrowing owls perched on fence posts or other low perches, swiveling their heads from side to side.

photo credit: Ronald S Phillips/Image Finders

Barn Owls

Although barn owls are found worldwide, there’s no one place where they’re particularly abundant. There are over 40 different races of barn owls, but the North American variety is the largest and makes up approximately 9 percent of the world’s barn owl population. True to their name, barn owls nest and roost in barns, silos and other human-made structures. They can also be found living in large nest boxes, tree cavities and caves. These skilled rodent-slayers have heart-shaped faces and are ghostly white with warm brown coloration on their backs and wings.

photo credit: Laurie Painter (B&B reader)

Barred Owls

Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you allll? This is the eerie-sounding call of the barred owl, heard throughout forests in the eastern United States, southern Canada and increasingly the Pacific Northwest. The expansion of barred owls into Washington and Oregon is a threat to spotted owls, because the larger and more aggressive barred owls displace the spotted species. Meanwhile, barred owls have a threat of their own to fear, as nearby great horned owls are among their major predators.

Although barred owls have moved into other states, these birds are homebodies. They don’t migrate, and of 158 banded barred owls who were found later, none had moved farther than 6 miles away.

photo credit: Marie Read

Eared Owls

Long-eared owls are slim doppelgängers of great horned owls. But take a closer look at their markings. Intersecting vertical and horizontal barring creates a checkerboard-like pattern on their chests, while great horneds only have horizontal barring. Long-eareds roost in thick foliage near open areas where they hunt for prey, which include voles, mice and young rabbits. Long-eared owls don’t typically construct their own nests, instead moving into abandoned ones built by other birds such as ravens, crows and hawks.

Short-eared owls (pictured) live in open areas, preferring to hunt and roost in grasslands, marshes and tundra. As you might have guessed from their name, their “ears” are so short, they are difficult to see at all. One of the most common owl species in the United States, the short-eared is also one of the few owl species that build their nests themselves. The female of a short-eared pair scrapes a bowl-shaped nest into the ground and lines it with materials like grass and soft feathers.

photo credit: Dave Welling

Screech-Owls

There are three species of screech-owls in the United States: eastern in the East, western in the West and whiskered along the southern borders of Arizona and New Mexico. Screech-owls are cavity-nesters and are enticed into wooded backyards with nest boxes. Location aside, one of the best ways to distinguish between them is by their calls. Eastern screech-owls can be heard giving their best whinnying horse impersonations. Western and whiskered screech-owls call out with hoots, toots and doots. Screech-owls eat a variety of things, from insects to small mammals. (Get a full species profile of screech-owls here!)

photo credit: Alan St. John (B&B reader)

Great Horned Owls

Equally comfortable nesting in the cactuses of the Desert Southwest as  in the forests of the far north, the great horned is one of the most widespread owl species in North America. Great horned owls are tough, taking down other large predators like ospreys and falcons with their strong talons. These birds of prey have one of the most diverse diets among owl species and are capable of eating porcupines, scorpions, bats, skunks and even other owls. They are early-season nesters and have been known to take over prefab nests built by other birds. (Read more about how great-horned owls raise their young!) Despite their name, these owls don’t actually have horns—the two telltale points at the tops of their heads are feather tufts.

Ken Keffer
Nature writer Ken Keffer fondly remembers the spring duck migration in his native Wyoming, but now he gets most excited when irruptive finches, siskins and redpolls visit his feeders in Iowa.