Owls: North American Birds of Prey

Learn how different regions offer diverse habitats for these fascinating North American birds of prey.

It’s no secret that owls are a hot topic in the bird world. These North American birds of prey are fascinating, unique and rarely seen due to their nocturnal tendencies. Owls aren’t clamoring for a spot at feeders like other birds, and that’s why everyone jumps at the chance to see one. So if owls aren’t visiting your backyard, where are they? Many of the most interesting species can only be found in certain areas of the continent. Think Rocky Mountains, deserts of the southwest, conifer woods in the northwest and spruce forests of the eastern U.S. into Canada. Nearly 20 species of owls live in North America. Let’s find out where these amazing and uncommon birds can be spotted.

Owls of the East

Unfortunately, the eastern part of our continent has the short end of the stick when it comes to owls. Though several species can be seen in the region, only two are largely restricted to the east: the eastern screech-owl and the barred owl. The first is a small, eared, cavity-nesting owl.

North American Birds of Prey: Barred owlRoland Jordahl
Roland Jordahl Barred owl

The second is a large, aggressive species that over the past century has gradually pushed its range farther into the northwestern part of the continent.

The eastern screech-owl may be partly responsible for my infatuation with birds. As a kid, I lived in southern Pennsylvania, where our house was located within a ribbon of hardwood forest along a small stream. A few tattered and ancient oaks grew along the creek.

One such tree, broken by years of wind, floods and lightning strikes, survived on the creek’s bank a short walk from our house. A dozen feet up the torn trunk was a knothole that I’d never paid any attention to, until one day when I was walking to school, a bird flew from the hole and swept down in a flurry of gray feathers and wicked talons. Hands over my young head, I fled until the owl gave up the chase and returned to its hole. There, the eastern screech-owl eyed my retreat with sharp yellow eyes.

Over the next month I watched as the pair of adult owls brought dead mice and voles, and occasional small birds to their growing chicks, which poked their fluffy, down-covered heads out into the open air. Birds, I knew then, were awesome.

The barred owl and I have a more complicated relationship. Despite the core of its range lying in the east, the barred owl has, to my mind, encroached into the forests of the Pacific Northwest. As the ancient forests were cut down for lumber, the clearings and young trees that replaced them provided excellent habitat for this big species. As their numbers have increased, barred owls now compete with the similarly sized and closely related spotted owl, which depends on the disappearing old-growth forest. The situation is a major conservation challenge.

Owls of the Border

It’s in the southwest that owl diversity really soars, thanks to four species that we share with Mexico. The elf owl and ferruginous pygmy-owl make their homes in the desert. These are tiny little things, none larger than an American robin. As cavity nesters, they often use holes in giant cactus. Canyons and foothills near the border are home to the whiskered screech-owl, while the petite, brown-eyed flammulated owl spends the summer in mountain pine forest.

North American Birds of PreyAnthony Mercieca
Anthony Mercieca Great gray owl and owlet

Owls of the Pacific Northwest

One species in particular represents the Pacific Northwest: the spotted owl. While a subspecies of spotted owl also lives in the mountains of the southwest, the heart of the species’ range is within the ancient conifer forests of the coast.

The spotted owl of the north is lovely, large and rarely seen. It relies exclusively on ancient forests for its survival. This dependency has put it at the center of the debate over logging and has made it both the poster child for conservation and a scapegoat for the loss of logging jobs. Like most such tales, the truth is murkier.

Controversy aside, the spotted owl is beautiful, and I sincerely hope it persists in the dark forests of the northwest.

Owls of the North

The northern boreal forest rivals the dry desert southwest for its variety of owls. Among them are big, charismatic species like the hulking great gray owl and the odd, long-tailed northern hawk owl, but also the diminutive boreal owl. These species are cryptic and much sought after by birders. Not a summer goes by that I don’t receive a half-dozen emails from birders who want to see one, or all, of these during a trip to Alaska.

All three species, despite their massive size differences, rely on small mammals for food, but the great gray has the most compelling hunting strategy. This owl has dish-shaped feathers that surround its face, funneling sound to its ears. Its sense of hearing is so acute that the great gray owl can hunt by sound alone, hearing the motion of voles and lemmings beneath the surface of the snow.

One final species deserving recognition is from the Arctic. North of the great swath of boreal forest lies the treeless expanse of tundra where the stunning snowy owl lives year-round.

Large and powerful, the snowy owl subsists mostly on small mammals. Every few years the population of their prey (voles and lemmings) collapses, forcing large numbers of snowies out of the Arctic. They move south by the hundreds or thousands and appear in many states of the Lower 48. The winter of 2013-’14 was one such occasion, and snowy owl sightings were reported across the country.

The way that birds are distributed across our continent and the world is, to me, an endlessly engaging jigsaw puzzle. Regardless of where you live, there are species unique to your region, and north american birds of prey (like the owl) is likely among them. Go explore.

Boreal owl: North American Birds of Prey
Boreal owl


Here’s how to make your backyard owl-friendly.

Shelter. The more dense trees and brush piles around, the more natural food there will be for owls. Plus, owls need mature trees to roost on during the day.

Perches. Leave large branches and dead trees in place for owls to perch on while hunting for mice, voles and other rodents.

Nest boxes. You’re most likely to attract a screech-owl. Place an owl box 15 to 20 feet from the ground. Patience is key—it might take two years for an owl to use it.

Photo: Michal Ninger/Shutterstock.com

Popular Videos

David Shaw
David Shaw is a science writer, conservation photographer and photo educator living in the heart of Alaska's boreal forest. He is passionate about the world's remaining wild places and creatures. David leads wilderness trips in Alaska for Arctic Wild.