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There are 19 species of owl in North America, 20 if you count the northern pygmy owl and the mountain pygmy owl as two separate species.
These magnificent birds showcase an extraordinary range of colors, sizes, and interesting behaviors. Beyond their striking appearances, owls have long captivated our imaginations, revered as symbols of wisdom throughout centuries of folklore.
Benefits of Owls in North American Ecosystems
Owls are not just beautiful; they’re beneficial to the ecosystem. Without them, there would be a good chance of being overrun by pests, and some plant species would struggle to survive. Let’s find out more!
Natural Pest Control
Owls prey on a variety of animals, including insects and small mammals. One of their main food choices are rodents which can be a pest to farmers when they cause damage to crops. Even in domestic gardens, they’re considered a nuisance; without owls, these species would likely breed out of control.
What’s more, since owls are effective pest controllers, they reduce the need to use chemical rodenticides and pesticides. This natural approach is something that many businesses are trying out, including many wineries in the California area.
Not only do owls ensure that pest populations are kept under control, which reduces crop damage and problems in homes, but this activity also prevents the spread of disease.
Indicator species give scientists the chance to assess the health of an ecosystem, and owls fall into the category as they are sensitive to changes in food and habitat quality. The threatened northern spotted owl is an essential indicator species, which has made it one of the most studied owl species in the world, a benefit to the bird as well as for humans.
Where there is a large presence of owls, this suggests that an area has good biodiversity. If scientists notice a lack of owls, this tells them that the biodiversity is not as great, and this could be down to an unhealthy ecosystem; they can then take action to amend this and protect the habitat.
Helps with Seed Dispersal
Many of the prey species that owls eat feed on things like fruits or seeds. When the owls eat them, they also take in any undigested seeds which are then passed through their digestive systems. When the owl defecates, the seeds come out and are spread, allowing new plants to grow.
One of the main benefits of this is improved plant diversity within the owl’s habitat. The burrowing owl digs holes that provide the perfect environment for plant seeds to germinate. It’s been noticed that in areas which are usually arid, small pockets of plant life are popping up, and this is likely down to the inadvertent work of these helpful little owls.
The great horned owl is another example of a seed disperser, although this species is spreading knapweed seeds eaten by its deer mice prey. Studies have shown that 1% of all spotted knapweed seeds ingested by both species will germinate.
Common Owl Species in North America
There are lots of owl species native to North America. From the tiny burrowing owl to the majestic great horned owl; let’s get to know these beautiful creatures a little better.
1. Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
The barn owl is found all over the world apart from on the continent of Antarctica. In North America, they are widespread from the very south to British Columbia in the north. While most species are sedentary, some northern barn owls may migrate. They can be found nesting in cavities in trees and generally prefer open spaces and grasslands.
Barn owls have large heads and long legs. Unlike a lot of owl species, the ears lack tufts. The feathers are pale in color, ranging from gray to brown, and the heart-shaped face is white.
Extremely efficient hunters, barn owls feed on a diet of mice, rats, voles, rabbits, and other small mammals. They are nocturnal and hunt at night and have a very good sense of hearing which allows them to accurately locate prey.
2. Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
The great horned owl is one of the largest owl species in North America and can grow up to 25 inches (64 cm) with a wing span of more than 59 inches (150 cm). The color of these owls means that they can easily camouflage, and their plumage is a mottled brown shade with slightly lighter parts on the underside of the bird.
Great horned owls are found all over North America, and their range extends into South America. They live in various habitats, including woods, fields, and even urban areas. These are non-migratory birds.
For the most part, they feed on small vertebrates like voles and rabbits. However, those that live near water may be able to hunt for fish. They are solitary birds that hunt alone but will become more social when nesting.
3. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
With beautiful white plumage flecked with brown markings, the snowy owl is one of the most stunning owl species in North America. It’s also one of the largest owls on the planet and can grow up to 29 inches (74 cm) with a wingspan of 65 inches (165 cm) during its 10 – 17 year lifespan.
Snowy owls, unlike other species, are diurnal, so they hunt during the day. Found across the North American Arctic Tundra, the species mainly prey on lemmings and can eat up to 1500 in one year. Males will even present the female with a lemming during their courtship flight.
These owls are extremely territorial and are known to migrate around the Arctic. Sometimes they are even found far south of their natural range.
4. Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula)
The northern hawk owl is found in northern Alaska as well as central and southern Canada. While native to North America, some populations are now found across Russia. These birds prefer dense coniferous forests and mountainous regions where they prey on small mammals. During winter, they are known to prey on birds.
Northern hawk owls have a chocolate brown plumage flecked with white markings. The front of the bird is mainly white with cinnamon-colored bands. This is an owl species without ear tufts which is why it’s sometimes called the earless owl.
They weigh up to 10.6 ounces (300 grams) and usually grow to between 14 inches and 16 inches (36 cm and 41 cm), so are a smaller species. However, females tend to be bigger and may grow up to 17 inches (44 cm). Breeding season begins in March, and these owls can be found nesting in the hollows of old spruce trees.
5. Mountain Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium gnoma)
Mountain pygmy owls are a small species that grows to no more than 7 inches (18 cm) as an adult. They have brown feathers with white markings, which help them to camouflage in their forest habitats. However, they tend to prefer forests with some open spaces which allow them to dive down to catch their prey.
For the most part, this species feeds on other birds but will sometimes target small mammals. They are diurnal hunters and will sit and wait for prey to pass by, relying on their good vision to spot it. Once they catch prey, if they’re not ready to eat it, they will hang it on the thorns of a tree.
Interestingly, the mountain pygmy owl has markings on the back of its head that look like a second set of eyes.
6. Barred Owl (Strix varia)
The barred owl can be found throughout the northern parts of the United States and southern Canada. They always live near a water source and can be found in coniferous forests as well as swamp woods.
This species has a round head with a large facial disk that is gray to white in color. Their feathers are gray to brown with white markings in a bar-like pattern which is what earns them their name. The barred owl is a medium-sized species that generally grows to around 20 inches (51 cm).
A monogamous bird, barred owl pairs mate for life and usually start breeding around March, although courtship rituals can begin as early as February. While they can live past 20 years in captivity, they normally live for around 10 years in the wild.
7. Long-Eared Owl (Asio otus)
The long-eared owl, as its name suggests, has long ears and is sometimes called the cat owl or the lesser horned owl because of its appearance. The feathers are gray to brown in color and have a streaked pattern. Mid-sized owls, they grow to around 16 inches (41 cm) in height, although females tend to be much bigger.
Long-eared owls can be found all over North America as well as the rest of the northern hemisphere and live in grasslands and open forests up to an elevation of 6,652 feet (2000 meters). Some of these owls will migrate during winter, while others will remain in their breeding grounds.
The species is nocturnal and usually lives in pairs, although they can sometimes be found roosting in larger groups of up to 20 individuals.
8. Short-Eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Short-eared owls typically live in open areas around marshes and bogs and can be found all over North America; they’re one of the most widespread species in the world. The only places they aren’t found are Australia and Antarctica.
The short-eared owl has a sharp beak and long talons that allow it to swoop down and pick up small mammals. They also use their talons as a defense mechanism along with screeching if they are attacked by a predator.
These owls do migrate but will move between very similar habitats. They’re a nocturnal species that can live up to 21 years in the wild.
9. Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)
The name elf owl comes from the fact that this is a small species that doesn’t typically grow much bigger than a sparrow. They have gray to brown feathers with white markings, a round head, and no ear tufts.
Elf owls are a desert bird species that are found in southern parts of the United States, including Arizona and down into Mexico. They can be found nesting in abandoned woodpecker holes in cacti; those that live in urban areas may nest in fence posts and other man-made structures.
The elf owl is a monogamous species that breeds between April and July. They tend to stay in the same place year-round and are a nocturnal species that hunts for insects, reptiles, and sometimes small mammals.
10. Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
The northern saw-whet owl is endemic to North America and is typically found in the northern parts of the continent but there are populations at high elevations as far south as Mexico. While they spend most of their time in various forest habitats, they will migrate during winter, when they can often be found in urban areas.
Northern saw-whet owls weigh just 2.6 ounces (75 grams), making them one of the smallest North American species. What’s more, they typically don’t grow to more than 8 inches (20 cm), although females are normally larger than males. They have bright yellow eyes and brown feathers with white flecks. They also lack ear tufts.
This is a nocturnal species that can be found roosting in dense vegetation throughout the day. At night after sunset and just before sunrise, they will hunt for small mammals, which they pick apart, using their excellent hearing.
11. Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum)
The ferruginous pygmy owl is a species that lives in the southern parts of North America and down into Central and South America. They live in a variety of habitats, including rainforests, deserts, and everything in between.
These owls have chocolate brown feathers with white markings down the chest and belly as well as on the wings. They’re a very small species that grows to around 6 inches (15 cm) and are known for their easily imitable call which is often used by bird watchers.
Ferruginous pygmy owls find a mate in the fall after they hatch and usually remain together for life. They do not migrate and will remain in their range where they hunt for insects. However, being opportunists, they may sometimes prey on small mammals.
12. Flammulated Owl (Psiloscops flammeolus)
The flammulated owl is a small species found along the western parts of the United States and as far north as British Columbia and south to Mexico. These owls grow to around 6 inches (15 cm) and have dark feathers with flame-like markings on the face, which is how they earned their name.
These owls have rather large wings in comparison to their bodies, meaning they are very fast flyers. They mainly feed on insects and do not migrate during the winter.
When it comes to breeding, the flammulated owl will lay between two and four eggs in their nest in a tree cavity. They often use old woodpecker holes for nesting and do not fill them with any additional materials.
13. Whiskered Screech Owl (Megascops trichopsis)
The whiskered screech owl can be either gray or red in color, with the red variety being more common in the southern part of its range. They’re found only in the southern parts of North America in the south of Arizona, and their range extends down into Mexico and Central America.
Whiskered screech owls can be found roosting in tree cavities during the day or among thick vegetation. They hunt at night for small mammals and sometimes, larger insects. They sit on their perch and swoop down on their prey as it passes.
These owls prefer a higher elevation, usually above 5,249 feet (1,600 meters), and can be found in mountain forests.
14. Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii)
Western screech owls are found all over North America, and their range extends south to Central America. They inhabit a variety of forest types as well as deserts, and open spaces, and are even found in urban areas.
The western screech owl is a non-migratory species and when courting, the male will present the female with food. Breeding usually happens in woodlands where they will nest in tree cavities or hollowed-out cacti in desert areas.
These are incredibly common owls that have a short stature of around 9 inches (23 cm). They have dark gray to brown feathers and a streaked pattern on the belly.
15. Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)
The eastern screech owl is often confused with its western cousin because of their remarkably similar appearance. The only difference is the beak, which is typically darker in the western variety. As you may have guessed from their name, this species is found in the eastern portion of North America as far south as Cuba and north along the Canadian border.
Eastern screech owls are nocturnal hunters that fly quickly and will feed on a variety of small mammals, birds, and insects. While smaller prey is swallowed whole, the owl will take larger prey back to its perch and pick it apart.
These owls are not often seen by humans, but can be heard, and their muted trill is easy to distinguish. Males tend to have a lower call than females.
16. Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis)
Spotted owls are found in the western parts of North America, where they inhabit canyons and coniferous forests. They’re a mid-sized species that can grow up to 18 inches (46 cm) in height and have a wingspan of around 45 inches (114 cm).
The spotted owl has a round head and dark brown feathers with mottled white markings on the belly. On the back and the head, the owl has white spots which is where it takes its name from. Females are usually larger than males and can weigh up to 26.8 ounces (760 grams).
These owls nest in the highest tree canopies but may move closer to the forest floor in summer where it is cooler. They are opportunist hunters, and will eat anything they can catch, including birds, small mammals, insects, and even bats.
17. Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus)
The boreal owl, as its name suggests, is typically found in boreal and subalpine forests in Alaska and Canada. However, their range stretches all across the boreal parts of the northern hemisphere. They prefer dense forests without lots of open spaces where they hunt for small mammals.
This species has a rectangular-shaped head and does not grow overly large, with adults generally measuring around 11 inches (28 cm) at most. They have brown to black mottled feathers with beautiful white markings and a whitish bill which distinguishes them from the northern saw-whet owl, whose beak is darker in color.
Boreal owls breed between March and June and are a monogamous species. Females will lay their eggs over the course of a few days, laying one every two days. They can live to around 16 years old in the wild and become sexually mature in their first year.
18. Northern Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium californicum)
The northern pygmy owl is a small species that is very similar to the mountain pygmy owl. So much so that it’s not widely agreed that the two are indeed separate species. They have brown to gray feathers and only grow to around 7 inches (18 cm).
Northern pygmy owls prefer a forest habitat but not one that is overly dense because, like the mountain pygmy, they need open spaces to dive down at their prey which usually consists of small birds and a variety of mammals like chipmunks and voles.
This is not a nocturnal species, nor does it migrate. The northern pygmy owl breeds between April and June, and females will lay between 2 and 7 eggs in disused woodpecker holes and other tree cavities.
19. Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)
The great gray owl is found in the northern parts of the United States and up into Canada, mainly in forest habitats. This species is also found in many other places around the world, including Estonia and parts of northern Asia. This is a large owl species that can grow up to 33 inches (84 cm), with females being larger than males.
The face is gray and features small yellow eyes surrounded by concentric rings and no ear tufts. The feathers are gray, brown, and white, and there is a distinct black spot on the chin.
Unlike a lot of owl species that breed in the spring, the great gray owl breeds during winter, although eggs are not laid until at least March and as late as June. The species hunts for small rodents and can hunt both during the day and at night. While they don’t migrate as a habit, they may do so if food sources run low.
20. Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
The burrowing owl is a small species that grows to just 10 inches (25 cm) and usually weighs no more than 9 ounces (255 grams). They’re found in open areas such as prairies, grasslands, and deserts and live mainly in the southern parts of the United States and down into Central America.
Burrowing owls, as their name suggests, do not roost in trees like other species but will burrow in the ground, often using abandoned prairie dog burrows. While they are a diurnal species, they typically hunt for small mammals and insects at sunrise and sunset.
This species has bright yellow eyes and a round head with white eyebrows as one of their most distinguishing features. The plumage is light brown in color which helps with camouflage and is mottled with white markings.
Are all Owls Nocturnal?
Owls are often associated with being a night animal and it’s true that many species are nocturnal. But this isn’t the case for all owl species with many being crepuscular. This means that they are most active at dusk and dawn and this is when they do most of their hunting.
There are also a few diurnal owl species in North America that hunt during the day. These owls tend to have better vision and will mainly use this sense to spot their prey as opposed to nocturnal owls who largely rely on their sense of hearing. Both the short-eared owl and the burrowing owl are both daytime hunters.
What Makes Owls Such Effective Hunters?
Owls are among some of the most efficient hunters on the planet, rarely missing a prey item once they set their sights on it. But what makes them so good at catching a meal?
Both nocturnal and diurnal owls have amazing vision, and those that hunt at night have eyesight that is adapted for low-light. This is because they have a high number of cones and rods in the eyes, which allow them to adjust their eyesight regardless of the conditions.
They also have incredibly large eyes which can account for as much as 5% of their body weight. However, the eyes are not rounded like most animals but instead have a more tubular shape so they cannot move independently of the head. This is why owls have the ability to rotate their necks so far allowing them a better view of their surroundings.
When you look at an owl, regardless of the species, you’ll notice that they all have a facial disc which is a set of feathers that have a similar function to a satellite dish. This feathery form is perfectly shaped to direct sound to the owl’s ears, giving them exceptional hearing.
Because a lot of owl species hunt at night, they need to be able to detect where sounds are coming from in the dark. For this reason, a lot of owls ears’ are at different positions on the head which allows them to detect where a sound is coming from.
Powerful Talons & Specialized Beak
A lot of owls will swoop down onto their prey and catch it in their sharp talons. These are designed to grip onto the prey and not let it go as the owl flies back to its perch to feed. Even when they’re flying, the talons provide a super strong grip thanks to the way that the talons are positioned. Two face forward, and one faces backward, giving them a grip similar to human fingers and a thumb.
In addition to this, owls have a specially designed beak that allows them to tear their prey apart with its curved design. There are some species whose beak is serrated around the edges so that they can bite through flesh more easily. This is important as they need to break their food into manageable chunks owing to the fact that they cannot chew.
Ability to Fly Silently
Prey doesn’t stand a chance because it’ll never hear an owl approaching, thanks to its special feathers that help to muffle flight sounds. As they move, they’re as good as silent because of the comb-like structures on the forward-facing edge of the feathers that reduce locomotion-induced noises to almost nothing.
The back part of the wings have specialized feathers that allow air to pass through without making a sound. Even for larger species, flight is silent.
What’s more, owls have large wings in comparison to their body size which allows them to take flight without having to flap too much. Less flapping equals less noise!
As I mentioned earlier, owls are able to rotate their necks in order to look around. While most people believe that they can fully rotate their necks, they actually have a range of about 270 degrees; but that’s still super impressive, especially when you consider that they can do this without moving their body.
So, how do they do this? Well, it’s all to do with special adaptations of the vertebrae, which have larger openings for the arteries to pass through so that when the owl turns its head, these blood vessels are not trapped.
What’s more, the blood vessels are adapted to ensure that there is still a good blood supply to the brain when the head is turned. They have three arteries in the chin that allow them to create a blood pool which they use to supply the brain, eyes, and head when the neck is turned.
You’ll notice that owls come in a variety of colors. The snowy owl that lives in the Arctic Tundra has a white coloration helping it to blend in with its wintry environment. On the other hand, the burrowing owl, which is often found in desert environments, has a light brown plumage to help it blend in. The color of an owl is determined by its habitat and, if prey can’t see it coming, it makes it easier to sneak up.
Cultural Significance of Owls in North American Society
Owls have long been associated with wisdom and have been used as a cultural symbol for thousands of years, particularly in Native American communities. For example, many Native American tribes believe that owls are a symbol of death and associate them with ghosts, believing that the facial rings are made from the fingernails of spirits.
Other Native American tribes view the horned owls as some of the most powerful and dangerous species. They even suspected them of not being owls at all but shape-shifting spirits of the deceased.
The notion that owls are wise comes from the Western idea that these birds sit so peacefully just watching. This behavior also earned them an association with being mysterious. In Ancient Greek culture, the owl was often depicted with the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena.
Moreover, owls are often seen as a symbol of independent thinking, courage, and intuition as well as being a symbol of the supernatural.
In Africa, the owl has something of a bad reputation and is often associated with fear. In some parts of this continent, these birds are believed to bring illness upon children and are often associated with witchcraft.
In Ancient Roman culture, people would nail a dead owl to their door as a way of warding off evil spirits, and they were even believed to be able to predict death. And in the Bible, the owl was seen as a negative animal along with creatures like vultures and dragons.
Threats to North American Owls
Most owl species are listed as being of least concern but there are some vulnerable and endangered species. They face a number of threats, many of which come from humans.
Habitat loss is one of the leading threats to owls and this is often caused by logging. While there are protected areas, the Trump administration opened up more than 3 million acres of protected owl habitat to make way for logging. However, this was overturned when Biden came into power.
There has been a marked decline in the populations of several owl species, and one report states that the northern spotted owl is declining at a rate of 6-9% a year because of habitat loss.
Various owl habitats are being lost including forests as well as oak savannas and grasslands, largely as a result of urbanization. The problem is that this means owls find it more challenging to find suitable nesting spots and prey becomes more scarce. Studies have shown that this habitat loss makes breeding in many owl species, like the northern saw-whet owl, much less successful.
In a recent study, it was demonstrated that the use of chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and rodenticides threaten up to ten species, including the northern spotted owl.
But that isn’t typically because they come into direct contact with them. Instead, the owl’s prey will ingest the chemicals and this is then passed on when the owl feeds on its prey. But even the food of the prey will have been contaminated with chemicals, and this accumulation through the food chain gets worse until it reaches the top, where we find our owl species. They are then exposed to the highest levels of contaminants.
When non-native species enter an area, any native species then has to compete for resources and can often be pushed out or struggle to get the things they need.
The barred owl is considered to be an invasive bird species that threatens the northern spotted owl. Studies have shown that by removing them, spotted owl populations begin to increase once again. As a result of this information, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has permitted the mass killing of barred owls in order to study the effects on the threatened spotted owl.
Global warming is causing devastation to owl habitats because of forest fires which are destroying their nesting and feeding sites. While some areas may recover from this, there are examples of fires destroying large portions of owl habitat that are no longer viable. In one case, wildfires in Oregon burned more than 360,000 acres of owl habitat and more than 194,000 of those acres were considered no longer usable.
Another alarming effect of climate change is that the coloration of owls is changing. This was demonstrated by Finnish scientists over the course of a 30-year study that showed tawny owls were turning brown. Since their color helps them to camouflage, losing this could have devastating effects on their hunting abilities.
Moreover, owing to warmer temperatures, many owls are migrating far outside of their natural range and snowy owls have now been spotted as far south as New York!
Owl Conservation Efforts in North America
While there are several threats to owls, there are also a good number of conservation efforts in place to protect them. For example, the Owl Research Institute is an organization dedicated to the monitoring and research of owls in order to conserve them. They’re monitoring species over the long term as well as various species-specific projects going on at any given time.
When Trump was in power, he authorized the use of millions of acres of owl habitat for logging companies to go in and cut down trees. However, in a bid to protect the northern spotted owl, the Biden administration worked to overturn this, and it was eventually struck down.
There are various organizations around North America that focus on the conservation of specific owl species. For example, the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network aims to connect humans and owls and offers various measures for protection, including aiding injured owls and raising awareness.
Since owls are losing a lot of their natural habitat, it’s essential that humans step in to restore it. Fortunately, there are several habitat restoration programs in place, and they’re proving to be successful. One such project in California proved to be incredibly beneficial to the spotted owl. What’s more, the WWF is raising awareness and advocating for the short-eared owl, whose habitat is also at risk.
Where numbers have fallen in the wild, captive breeding and then releasing the birds into the wild could be the answer. While this is still a relatively new concept where owls are concerned, there has been one attempt at releasing spotted owls into the wild in British Columbia, and efforts are ongoing.
Offering threatened species a protected status can also be a viable way of conserving them. The pygmy ferruginous owl was once listed as protected, but this was revoked in 2006. However, it’s looking likely that this will be reinstated, which can only be good news for the species.