Spot the Owl in Your Backyard Trees

Be a bird sleuth and discover who's flying through the neighborhood. Here are the telltale signs you should look for if you want to spot owls in the trees.

If you’ve never seen an owl in your backyard, that doesn’t mean one isn’t there. These mysterious birds are nocturnal predators, so they hunt in the darkness after you’ve gone to bed. Their special feathers allow them to fly in complete silence, making owls even more difficult to hear than they are to spot in trees. Put on your detective’s cap and become a sharp-eyed owl observer.

How to Spot Owls in Trees

barred owlsCourtesy Robert Strickland
A pair of barred owls in a tree

To spot an owl, stay up late and do some nocturnal wildlife-watching from the comfort of your deck or on your next camping trip. As human activity dies down for the evening and the smaller animals that owls prey on become active, you are more likely to spot one of these nighttime birds. Binoculars are a must for owl observation, and if you’re a birder, you probably have a set handy. If you don’t own a pair yet, there are plenty of high-quality, beginner binoculars to get you started.

Thanks to excellent camouflage, owls are still able to fly under the radar once the sun comes up. If you move quietly and scan patiently, you may be able to spot an owl on its daytime roost. Owls often roost in dense evergreens. They’ll also perch close to the trunk in other kinds of trees, where they’re easier to spot once autumn leaves fall. Some species roost inside tree cavities, and you may be able to spot them looking out of the holes on warm days.

Learn more about the owls of North America, your noctural neighbors.

Listen for Owl Sounds

great horned owlCourtesy Laura Palmer
A great horned owl perches on a branch

Even though it’s unlikely you’ll hear one of these birds of prey flapping its wings because of the silencing flight feathers, your ears are still some of your best tools for discovery. Owls can be quite vocal, and like other bird groups, different species have different calls. 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. Whether it’s the who-cooks-for-you of the barred owl, the ghostlike trilling of a screech-owl or the bold, classic hooting of a great horned owl, learning owl sounds and calls is one of the best things you can do to find more species in your neighborhood. Get your owl know-how rolling with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, allaboutbirds.org, which includes calls for each species and is a great educational resource for all types of identification.

Don’t miss these outstanding pictures of owls.

How to Find Owl Pellets and Feathers

saw whet owlCourtesy Colleen Guthery (B&B reader)
A young saw-whet owl sitting in an aspen tree.

Beyond sight and sound, there are plenty of other ways to notice when an owl might be nearby. Like all birds, they molt their feathers and grow a new set every year. Be on the lookout for large feathers on the ground, and have a field guide handy to match your find with the correct species.

Owls also produce pellets—little balls of hair and bone that they regurgitate. 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. These remainders are sure signs that owls are around. Scour the ground beneath trees for owl pellets, and if you’re really feeling adventurous, take one apart to learn what the owls in your neighborhood have been eating for dinner.

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

Check out 4 simple tips for hosting an owl in your backyard

David Mizejewski
David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, as well as a nationally recognized media personality and speaker. He hosted and co-produced Backyard Habitat, a series on Animal Planet that showed people how to transform their yards and gardens into thriving habitats for birds and other local wildlife. He has also appeared in the Animal Planet mini-series Springwatch U.S.A., as well as Nat Geo WILD on series such as Are You Smarter Than, How Human Are You, and Unlikely Animal Friends. He co-hosted Nat Geo’s prime time television series Pet Talk. In addition to writing for Birds & Blooms, he is the author of the book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife.
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.