A Field Guide to Common Owl Species
Learn How to Identify Barn Owls and Other Owls on Your Homestead
Many of us have resident owls on our farm and wonder what kind of owl species we are hosting. This field guide shows identifying features and behaviors so we know who’s who and how to attract owls by making our homesteads owl-friendly.
Owls are primarily nocturnal birds of prey meaning they hunt at night. They are perfectly adapted to this task. They have disk-like faces that are large and flattened with close together eyes that face forward giving them binocular vision. Their eyes are large giving them a “wise” appearance and efficient at collecting and processing light. This allows owls to enjoy good night vision but does not prohibit them from seeing well in the daytime either.
Owls cannot turn their head fully around as many people believe, but they can turn 270 degrees allowing for a wide range of sight. Some species of owls have ear tufts or “horns” as they are sometimes called. These tufts are decorative only. An owl’s ear openings are located on the sides of the head behind the eyes. An owl’s hearing is fine-tuned allowing it to detect the small movements of prey below the trees. Owls have large wings and specialized fringed feathers that absorb sound and allow them to fly silently without being detected by their prey. Owls are found nearly worldwide with many species calling the United States home.
Owls are notoriously difficult to spot. In most areas, you’re more likely to hear owls than to see them at night. If they learn no other bird songs, most birders will learn the calls of common owls since that’s their best shot at identification. Owls spend their days resting in trees. Their brown coloring provides camouflage and allows them to blend in seamlessly even on bare limbs. During the day, one of the best ways to spot owls is by looking to the ground for owl pellets scattered around a tree trunk. Owls will regurgitate undigested bones, fur, and feathers in these pellets. So if you find pellets, look up, there may be an owl sitting above you and you don’t even know it. During the day, you may also find smaller birds harassing a resting owl. Crows and jays are the most likely candidates for this behavior and they are quite loud in their attempts to move a potential predator from the area.
Great Horned Owl
The great horned owl is the most widespread and well-known of the North American owls. This is one tough customer! Great horned owls have the most diverse diet of all the owl species. They will eat mammals and birds, including water birds and other birds of prey. They are equally comfortable dining on small game including mice and frogs and will take down birds and mammals that are even bigger than themselves. They hunt at night but will hunt throughout the day if given the right opportunity. You can protect your chickens from owls, such as the great horned owl, in much the way you know how to protect chickens from hawks. Great horned owls have a deep, resonant hoot that’s staggered Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo.
You may not even see the ear tufts on the short-eared owl, hence the name. This medium-sized owl breaks the rule of a nighttime hunter. It hunts during the day flying low over grasslands and open areas. Look for the short-eared owl mainly in winter throughout the United States. Their prey includes small mammals and small birds. In the open areas they inhabit, they will perch in low trees and on the ground. The sound of the short-eared owl is described as an emphatic, sneeze-like bark: kee-yow!, wow! or waow!.
Ear tufts are easily seen on this lanky owl species that’s about the size of a crow. Long-eared owls like grassy open areas where they can hunt small mammals at night. Long-eared owls can be found hunting on the ground but do like some taller trees or vegetation as a shelterbelt surrounding their hunting grounds so they can perch during the day. For most of the United States, this is an owl you’ll see only during the winter as they roost together in large numbers. A good way to find this owl is to listen for one or two long hoos or a catlike whine or doglike bark.
Eastern Screech Owl
If you’ve ever seen the movie, My Cousin Vinny, then you know what a screech owl sounds like. Remember the scene where Vinny and Mona Lisa are staying in a cabin in the woods because their prior lodgings have been noisy? They are woken by a horrible screech outside and Vinny runs out and shoots his gun into the woods. Meanwhile, the offending owl looks on from a tree branch above. That’s a screech owl. While known for that screech, these owls will also give a mournful whinny that descends in pitch.
This is the smallest of the tufted owl species and can be found in both gray and red individuals. This is a tree-dwelling owl that eats small mammals and birds. Surprisingly it can eat larger birds such as jays, swallows, flycatchers, and finches. It also eats insects, earthworms, and lizards. If you live in the west, there is a Western screech owl. Their habitats don’t overlap, so identification can be made based on your location.
Large Owls (Without Tufts)
This beautiful owl species can be hard to spot because it’s perfectly camouflaged. But at night its call is distinctive and easy to identify even for a novice birder. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” lets everyone know a barred owl is in the area. On a personal note, we have barred owls living on our property and frequently hear them calling to each other. If I imitate their call well, I can sometimes get them to respond back to me.
Barred owls are large and stocky birds that eat small mammals and birds up to the size of a grouse. They don’t migrate and are homebodies as they stay in a relatively small territory. Their range overlaps with the great horned owl, which can become a predator of the barred owl by eating its eggs, young and even the adults. Barred owls are primarily nighttime hunters but have been known to hunt during the day.
Barn owls are solely nighttime hunters that frequent open fields and meadows. They search for prey by flying low and listening for sounds. In fact, their hearing is some of the best of any animal that’s been tested. They do have good low-light vision making this owl a double threat to its prey. Barn owls eat small mammals that are active at night including mice, rabbits, and voles. They will eat songbirds if given the chance. Barn owls do not hoot like other owls, instead, they vocalize with a shrill rasping hiss or snore. Barn owl species numbers are declining in some areas because of habitat loss. If you have large trees and structures on your homestead, barn owls appreciate the housing opportunity.
Best known as Hedwig in Harry Potter, this is not an owl species that is commonly seen in most of the United States since it’s primarily an Arctic dweller. However, it is an irruptive species. In some winters, snowy owls will fly south then not be seen again in the area for years. There’s no mistaking this large white owl with dark brown flecking. This daytime hunter prefers large, treeless open areas where it can hunt mammals and birds. In the Arctic circle, snowy owls have the luxury of 24-hour daylight where they can hunt lemmings, ptarmigan, and waterfowl at all hours of the day. With thick feathers for insulation, this is North America’s heaviest owl weighing in at four pounds.
Great Gray Owl
No list of owl species would be complete without the great gray owl which is North America’s tallest owl, sometimes reaching 2 1/2 feet. They are owls of the boreal forest with small populations found in the western mountains. Like the snowy owl, this is an irruptive species that can sometimes be found in the south. These are quiet giants that don’t call attention to themselves and are not often found near humans. They spend most of their time in evergreen forests hunting in openings and nearby meadows. These owls eat small mammals including lemmings. They are particularly good at listening to animals under the snow, then diving talon first into the snow and grabbing their prey.
*Please note this is not an exhaustive list of North American owls, but it does include the more common year-round inhabitants and some unique visitors that may be encountered.
- Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, Sixth Edition
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology