Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Attracting American Goldfinches to your backyard

A pair of goldfinches in summer can really brighten up your bird feeder!

I can't believe it's been over a year since I've seen one! Here in San Diego I'm at the southwestern edge of their range. In fact, I only saw one pair of birds in January 2019. I had two sightings in 2017, yet I had a dozen sightings in San Diego in 2018.

I looked at range maps for American Goldfinch online. Boy, are there a bunch of errors concerning the breeding range in the West! I wonder why? Maps in the Sibley and National Geographic guides are accurate.

Many online maps erroneously show birds in winter only in the West. Yet they are common breeding birds in western Oregon, coastal and the Central Valley of California. Many maps only show birds in these locations in the winter or non-breeding season. Here's an accurate breeding season map from eBird.

This page is an overview of American Goldfinches. I will have links to more in-depth pages to topics including identification, courtship and nesting, range and habitat, and diet and foods you can offer to attract them to your backyard.

Photo of male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage on a stick
Male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage
Photo by Greg Gillson

American Goldfinch overview

American Goldfinches are tiny birds. Males in breeding plumage are bright lemon yellow with black wings, tail, and forehead. They have sweet lilting calls as the fly over with bounding flight. They have a complicated sweet song in spring.

Happily, they are readily attracted to backyard feeders and bird baths. They eat small seeds, including Niger seed in special "thistle" feeders.


American Goldfinches measure 4-1/2 to 5 inches in length, from bill tip to tail tip. That's tiny! They have a wingspan of 7-1/2 to 8-1/2 inches.

These birds are rather stocky. Their head is large and merges into the body in an almost neckless appearance. The long white tail coverts accentuate the short forked tail. The small conical bill is rather thin for a seed eating bird.

Breeding males are bright lemon yellow. The wing and tail feathers are black with white wing edges forming two wide white wing bars. The forehead is black. Both the upper and under tail coverts are white. The legs and feet are brownish pink. The pink bill is short, wide at the base and sharply pointed.

In later in fall the white edges on the wing and tail feathers wear away. Males then appear to have solid dull black wings with only two thin wing bars.

In winter males are pale tan with yellow mostly restricted to the head. The wings are renewed to jet black with many wide white edges to them. The outer edges on the tail feathers are also lined with white.

Females in breeding plumage are duller yellow below with a greenish cast to the back and upper parts. The black wings have narrower white wing bars than the males.

Immatures and winter females are gray-tan with black wings and tail. Immatures in fall show broad tan wing bar. By winter the wing bars are worn thinner and are a dull white color. Thus they match the female in plumage.

During most of the year American Goldfinches travel in small family groups or flocks. In late fall and early winter flocks of hundreds can form in weedy fields.

Goldfinches feed on the ground or cling to stalks to reach seed heads of grasses and weeds. They hold onto plant stalks acrobatically.

When they fly away, American Goldfinches give a lilting chipping call of about 4 syllables. The call is described as per-chik-o-ree. To many people this sounds more like po-ta-to-chip!

The song is a long complicated lilting trills and chip notes.

The undulating and strongly bounding flight of goldfinches is a quick identification mark when combined with the tiny size and fairly long wings and short tail.

For more in-depth coverage of American Goldfinch identification and how to tell them apart from similar species, please read my article: What do American Goldfinches look like?

Range and habitat

American Goldfinches breed across the northern two-thirds of the United States and southern Canada. Birds move out of Canada and the northern Great Plains in winter. In winter some birds move to the southern United States and northern and mid-eastern Mexico.

Many birds stay for winter where the weather is mild. Others migrate a short distance southward to find warmer weather.

American Goldfinches are found in weedy open habitats with shrubby trees for nesting. Birds are very common for a few years in regenerating clear cuts. When the trees block out the sun and bushes and weeds no longer grow on the forest floor, goldfinches move out.

These goldfinches are also common in city park and backyard habitats.

For more in-depth information on the range and habitat of American Goldfinches, please read my article: Where do American Goldfinches live?


American Goldfinches eat almost exclusively seeds. While many seed-eating birds feed their nestlings insects, not so goldfinches.

The favorite seeds that American Goldfinches love to eat are composites, including thistles, sunflowers, and asters. You may see them feeding acrobatically on dandelions in your yard.

They also eat tree seeds from such trees as birch and sweet gum.

At your bird feeder there are two seeds these birds love. American Goldfinches are really attracted to black oil sunflower seeds and Niger seed. They will eat most small seeds from all types of feeders. A "finch feeder" or "thistle sock" with Niger seed attracts goldfinches and siskins almost exclusively, sometimes House Finches.

American Goldfinches are very attracted to water in bird baths, fountains, and drippers.

For more in-depth information on what these goldfinches eat, and feeders to attract them to your yard, please read my article: What do American Goldfinches eat?

Nesting and reproduction

American Goldfinches are usually monogamous and raise one batch of young each season. Occasionally, however, a female will leave the older nestlings in the care of her mate. She then may seek out another male in which to raise another family of young.

Males start singing in spring. Mating and nesting waits until mid-summer when there are many weed seeds and thistle seeds to feed the young.

The female builds the cup-shaped nest of tightly woven plant fibers. It is bound with spider silk. She lines the nest with the fluff of thistle seeds and similar material.

The female American Goldfinch usually chooses a sapling or other type of small tree or shrub in which to build her nest. The nest is built in the crotch of the branches often under a clump of leaves. The nest height is usually low, from 3 to 10 feet above the ground.

The female lays 2-7 eggs. These are pale bluish, sometimes with spots on the large end. Incubation by the female lasts 12-14 days. Once the eggs hatch the nestlings remain in the nest for another 11-17 days. Nestlings hatch naked and helpless.

For more in-depth information on the courtship and nesting of American Goldfinches,  read my article: Where do American Goldfinches like to nest?

Here's a video on American Goldfinch facts.

Fun facts about American Goldfinches

The scientific name of the American Goldfinch is Spinus tristis. The word spinus is Greek and refers to a type of bird, but no one today knows exactly which one! The word tristis means sad. Some people think the calls are sad. That is certainly true of the Lesser Goldfinch's downslurred call. But most of the American Goldfinch's calls I'd term happy!

Formerly, the scientific genus name was Carduelis. This word means thistle, a favorite food of all goldfinches.

American Goldfinches do not participate in the mobbing of predatory hawks as do many other small birds.

A group of goldfinches is called a "charm."

Many people call American Goldfinches "wild canaries." No wonder, they do look much like the common cage bird, the canary. The real canaries are found in the Macaronesian Islands, including the smaller group of Canary Islands off North Africa.

The nest of American Goldfinches is woven so tightly it may hold rain water!

In most of their range American Goldfinches nest very late--July and August. This is so they can feed the seeds of thistles and milkweed to their nestlings.

This is the State Bird of Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington State.

You may see these birds eating upside down at your tube feeder!

American Goldfinches are the only finches to molt body plumage in both spring and fall, changing their appearance in summer and winter.

American Goldfinches have lived in the wild to at least 8 years and 10 months. One bird in captivity lived to be 13 years old.


Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Terres, John K. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Top 5 ways to get hummingbirds to come to your feeder

There are many ways to get hummingbirds to come to your feeder. The top 5 things you can do that have the most impact are these:
  1. Keep your feeders full
  2. Clean every time you refill
  3. Change the style of your hummingbird feeder
  4. Add flowers to your yard
  5. Place multiple hummingbird feeders

Photo of male Rufous Hummingbird at feeder
Male Rufous Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson
You bought the best hummingbird feeder you could find. You found the best place to hang it. You filled it with delicious nectar. Your first hummingbird showed up. Hurray!

But then, not much. Every once in a while a hummingbird stops by. But you'd like more. Every day.

Hummingbirds are so beautiful. So active. I love watching them zip around the yard, chasing each other. I love to see the dominant male sits on his perch in the sun, surveying his kingdom. That jeweled throat flashing in the sun is so amazing. Don't you just love it? How wonderful! If only hummingbirds were more regular in your yard.

What can you do to get even more hummingbirds to come to your feeder?

In this article I discuss 5 things that will help your yard be that neighborhood hummingbird magnet. It will be your yard where you will hear passersby saying, "I wish my feeders attracted so many hummingbirds."

So, how do we get started? Follow these guidelines to get hummingbirds to come to your feeder. Lots of hummingbirds!

1. Keep your feeders full

It seems obvious. But it's so hard to do on a consistent basis. I look out the window and my hummingbird feeder is empty! I just filled it up 2 days ago. It was then that I made extra of the hummingbird mixture. It's in the fridge.

I have hummingbirds zipping around regularly. A family of Allen's Hummingbirds are using my feeders regularly. This is the first year for that. Usually I only get the big Anna's Hummingbirds. They fight each other all day, defending the feeder. But in the evening twilight I see all 5 feeder ports with a hummingbird on each. Before dark they tolerate each other and drink down as much sugar water as possible.

That's where I lose the most hummingbird water--in the evening twilight.

Okay. Okay. Let me interrupt my writing and go refill my feeder....

There. That's done. And 3 minutes after I hung it back out there's already a young Anna's Hummingbird is drinking the hummingbird mix from the feeder.

When I say to keep the hummingbird feeder full, I don't mean filled up completely. I mean, don't let the feeders go completely empty for long. As soon as there is no hummingbird food those little guys will go looking elsewhere for their needed sugar.

As a reminder, here is the recipe to follow for hummingbird food.

Later I'll discuss how to keep from ever running completely out of nectar. Next, though, something very important.

2. Clean every time you refill

Don't "top off" your hummingbird feeders. They've been sitting for a couple of days out in the sun. Hard-to-remove black mold is starting to form on the glass and the crevices of the plastic parts of the feeder. Though you can't see it yet, strings of bacteria are thriving on the sugar nutrient. These could make the hummingbirds sick.

Think of it this way. Would you drink from it? No? Then it needs to be cleaned and refreshed!

When the feeder is empty or the hummingbird nectar is cloudy, take it down and clean it. Immediately!

If you clean your feeder every couple of days when refilling, then it may not need vigorous scrubbing. Wash it out with hot water and dish detergent. Rinse it thoroughly. If you want to wash it with vinegar, instead of detergent, that's okay. Some people recommend that. I haven't noticed that hummingbirds are put off by any "soap taste." Detergent easily rinses away. Human taste buds and sense of smell is probably better than a hummingbird's. Wash the hummingbird feeder as you would your own dishes and it'll be fine.

Every third time you refill, or if you see mold or cloudy water, give it a good scrubbing. Buy various sizes of pipe cleaners and small scrub brushes to reach all the nooks and crannies of the feeder. Take extra time to get it really clean.

The plastic parts of hummingbird feeders are not dishwasher safe. Even if it says they are, they likely really aren't. If you want to wash the feeder in the dishwasher, well, be prepared to buy new feeders more regularly. That's not all bad. After all, I know a place where you can buy a new one! (My favorite brand that doesn't drip and is easy to clean is available from this affiliate link on Amazon: Ruby, Garnet, and Diamond models.)

Photo of female Costa's Hummingbird on feeder
Female Costa's Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson

3. Change the style of your hummingbird feeder

You should experiment with different styles of feeders. What are those styles?

Well, there are two main broad categories of feeders: inverted and saucer.

You are probably most familiar with the inverted type of hummingbird feeders. These feature a glass or plastic bottle that you fill and then invert. Gravity pulls the liquid down, but a vacuum keeps it from all pouring out at once. As the hummingbirds drink, air goes into the bottle and a bit more hummingbird food is released.

Some of these are quite artistic. Many drip or leak as the sun warms and expands the air inside. They may leak as they sway in the wind. Leaking hummingbird feeders draw ants and bees.

Some of these inverted hummingbird feeders have "pinched waist" or other shapes which are difficult to clean. Some of the plastic feeder ports do not come all the way apart. These trap mold or are otherwise difficult to clean.

Yes, there can be problems with these inverted feeders. But most of these manufacturers have some models that are much better than others. Look for wide mouth bottles. Look for feeders that come completely apart for easy cleaning. Look at online reviews to see if there is a problem with leaking or cleaning.

The saucer type feeders keep the hummingbird nectar in a small bowl. Feeder ports are in the lid. The hummingbird tongue reaches down to the liquid. The hummingbird water will not leak out unless, perhaps, the feeder swings and tips in the wind.

These are often easy to clean and refill. They don't hold very much liquid, though. So they need to be refilled more frequently.

Bees have a harder time reaching the liquid in these saucer type hummingbird feeders. However, these may be easier for ants to enter.

Why change feeder designs?

Well, keeping your feeders clean and disease-free is important for the health of your hummingbirds. If your hummingbird food goes bad, the birds will not return. It could appear that there aren't hummingbirds in the area. But they may have learned that your feeder doesn't taste good. So you need a feeder that is easy to clean.

Bees and ant pests can drive off hummingbirds. If they get into the food they quickly foul it. Thus, you should choose a feeder that keeps these insects away with bee guards and ant moats or the design itself. Yellow is said to attract bees. Thus, many feeders have white "flowers." And leaking feeders attract insects. So the design is important.

You may have to experiment with a couple of different feeders to find one that the hummingbirds like and the insects can't get into. But there are other reasons to have more than one feeder. We'll talk about that below. But first, how about some flowers?

This video discusses 5 flowers that grow well in Idaho that attract hummingbirds. Check your local nursery to see if there is a variety of these flowers that grows well where you live.

4. Add flowers to your yard

Of course, real flowers are probably better than feeders to attract hummingbirds. The sugar in the flowers is not going to get mold and bacteria as hummingbird feeders can if neglected. And you don't have to replace them every three days!

Flowers also attract small insects and spiders that hummingbirds love to eat. Hummingbirds don't just eat nectar! But you can have flowers and hummingbird feeders. All those bright flowers will catch the attention of the hummingbirds from far and wide.

The key to flowers for hummingbirds is to find some that hummingbirds like. Then you need several types so that one or another is blooming all through the year. This is especially important in early spring when hummingbirds are first arriving. You want to grab the first hummingbirds while they are looking for a feeding territory before nesting. You want to grab any hummingbirds just passing through. They can fuel up for a day or two and then continue on their migration.

What are some flowers that attract hummingbirds? The video above mentions Agastache (giant hyssop or hummingbird mint), Zauschneria (California-fushcia or hummingbird flower), Monarda (bee balm or horsemint), Nepeta (catnip or catmint), Buddleja (butterfly bush). Other recommended flowers include Lonicera (trumpet honeysuckle), Lobelia, Salvia (sage).

You should check with your local nursery to find native flowering plants that attract hummingbirds. Hummingbirds naturally go together with tubular flowers.

Consider hanging baskets of flowers early in the spring. Early migrant hummingbirds (February or March on the West Coast and southern states) can see them from farther away. You can bring them in at night during frosts. A hanging basket of flowers next to a hummingbird feeder is both attractive and practical.

In the mountains of Oregon, I noted that patches of Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush) always hosted hummingbirds in summer. It is the State Flower of Wyoming. But I don't know if it grows well in gardens. Here in southern California I notice Nicotiana (Indian tobacco) is very attractive to hummingbirds. It is described as sprawling, but I've noted it as more a thin tree-like bush 6-8 feet tall with huge yellow trumpet flowers. I've only seen them in the wild, never cultivated. But I must admit to knowing very little about flowers, in general.

This video discusses interesting facts about the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. At about timestamp 3:15 it discusses ways to attract hummingbirds to get them to come to your feeder.

5. Place multiple hummingbird feeders

Having more than one hummingbird feeder has several advantages. I'll name just two benefits.

First, there is always a dominant hummingbird at the feeder. This is natural. The males, especially, defend a feeding territory. Not a nesting territory. A feeding territory. That often includes a reliably-filled hummingbird feeder. This dominant bird stands guard from a prominent perch.

Having more than one feeder allows more hummingbirds to get in. The dominant, or bully, hummingbird can only chase one hummingbird away at a time. This allows other birds to get into the feeder.

Second, you can stagger the filling of hummingbird feeders so that only one feeder at a time runs low. When the first is empty, the second is still half full. Fill the first feeder (cleaning it first, of course!) and it will still be half full when the second is out of nectar. If you want more hummingbirds it is important not to let all your feeders go completely empty!

With multiple feeders you can experiment with locating them in different areas of your yard.

If you want more information on the benefits of multiple feeders, please read my article: Get more hummingbirds with 2 or more feeders.

Want more hummingbirds? Give hummingbird feeders as gifts to your immediate neighbors! This works especially well if you really don't see any hummingbirds in your neighborhood. It may take a group effort. And it may take a couple of years. People take social cues. If several people start putting up hummingbird feeders, more will--just like solar panels! More feeders will eventually bring more hummingbirds.

This is a companion article to: Why won't hummingbirds come to my feeder? You will want to check that article for different additional ideas to help you get hummingbirds to start coming to your feeder.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Attract Great Horned Owls to your yard with nest box

This owl, the Great Horned Owl, is probably the most familiar of owls in North America. The deep resonant hooting on cold calm winter nights is familiar to many.

Great Horned Owls are widely distributed throughout North and South America. They are absent only from the Arctic tundra, parts of the Amazon Basin, and the pampas grasslands.

Nearly wherever you live in mainland United States you have Great Horned Owls near you.

Would you like to attract them to your yard more frequently? Read on!

Photo of a young Great Horned Owl on a branch
Fledgling Great Horned Owl
Photo by Greg Gillson

What makes your yard attractive to Great Horned Owls?

These large predators hunt by perching and waiting for prey to scurry by. Then they swoop in silently to attack. They thus need trees or poles for perching. They need some open rough grass or other open areas. They may be more common in second growth forests with edges and openings. But they are common from forests to farmlands to cities.

To attract Great Horned Owls to your yard requires that your property is large and has big trees and open space. It should also abut similar properties or undeveloped areas, woods, farmlands, or grasslands.

There may be good reasons not to attract Great Horned Owls into your yard, though. They are fierce predators. They will hunt small prey such as squirrels and mice. They will hunt larger prey such as rabbits, grouse, and skunks. They hunt and eat all other owls! They will hunt housecats and even small dogs, up to about 15 pounds. So make sure that this large owl will be welcome on your property before enticing them into becoming full time residents.

You can provide nest boxes and platforms to attract Great Horned Owls. I'll discuss that after discussing natural nests.

Peek-a-boo. Great Horned Owl in an old crow nest
Photo by Greg Gillson

Great Horned Owl nests in nature

Great Horned Owls use old hawk, magpie, and crow nests for their nests. They also nest in cliff crevices and derelict buildings and barns. Red-tailed Hawks, American Crows, and Common Ravens probably provide the most nests for Great Horned Owls. These widespread birds help the owl become equally widespread.

These owls may use an old nest as is, without adding anything. Or they may add bark, leaves, or down feathers. They may crush their own owl pellets to add material to the nest.

Courtship begins in winter. Pairs are often heard hooting in the night before the eggs are laid. Great Horned Owls nest from February to April in most places, to June in some locations.

The female lays 1-4 eggs. They take 30-37 days to incubate until they hatch. The young remain in the nest for another 42 days before they are ready to fledge, leaving the nest.

Old hawk and crow nests are rarely reused the next season. Raising young owls often damages the nest making it unusable the next season.

How do you find Great Horned Owl nests? In spring, before the leaves come out, check large trees along fence lines between agricultural fields. Check trees along creeks and rivers. Check trees at the edge of the woods. What do you look for? Old hawk and crow nests. Look for horns sticking up above old hawk nests, as in the photo above!

Here is a very interesting video on the hearing and eyesight of the Great Horned Owl. It explains why this bird is such an amazing hunter.

The Great Horned Owl nest box

You can create a nest for Great Horned Owls by building a wire cone lined with sticks to mimic the nest of a hawk. Here are the pdf nest plans from Nestwatch and the Cornell Lab.

You can also build a nest tray to attach to a tree trunk. Again, weave sticks together to imitate a crow or hawk nest. (Look at how the nest platform is made in the video below.) Add smaller twigs or straw and pack it down to make it firmer for the eggs.

I've even seen a Great Horned Owl using a large metal washtub in a tree as a nest!

These owls may nest in a very large box as long as the entrance "hole" is at least 12 inches high.

Great Horned Owl nest box dimensions

These owls usually use a nest with an open top. They may also nest in large boxes with one open side.

Great Horned Owl nest platform dimensions overview

  • Floor 22x22 inches
  • Side height 8 inches
  • No roof
  • 15-45 feet above the ground

Weave sticks and smaller twigs together to create a nest. You must fill in any larger holes or gaps between sticks. You don't want the eggs to fall down too far. The mother owl must turn the eggs over while incubating.

Great Horned Owl nest box placement

These owls like to have nest platforms in live trees from 15 to 45 feet above the ground. Place in hardwoods (not conifers) that are at least 12 inches in diameter.

You may also place nests in open-sided barns or under cover in similar buildings that aren't used much in the spring. But such buildings are better for Barn Owls. [Great Horned Owls will prey upon Barn Owls (and all other owls), so don't place nest boxes of Great Horned Owls together with any other owl houses.]

Great Horned Owls are used to nesting out in the open in late winter and early spring. Yes, even with snow on the nest! This means you don't have to worry about which direction the nest faces, as with other owl nest boxes.

Here is a video showing a nest platform attached to a tree with sticks woven into it to mimic a hawk or owl nest. The adult owl returns to the nest at time stamp 1:31. (Do I hear Steller's Jay, Hairy Woodpecker drumming, Townsend's Solitaire, and Mountain Chickadees?)

Nest box competitors and maintenance

Really, there aren't many nest competitors for nest sites. Great Horned Owls are likely to be able to drive off any intruder to the nest.

The only animal that is likely to attack a Great Horned Owl is another Great Horned Owl! If they eggs are left unattended a Common Raven might eat them. Fledglings leave the nest before they can fly well. These may be preyed upon by foxes, coyotes, or bobcat.

Young owls are most likely to die from starvation if there isn't enough food. Parents feed the largest and strongest baby first. Only if there is sufficient food and the parents are better hunters do all the young get fed and survive.

You may need to repair and weave the sticks of the nest every year. Or perhaps just add a few new sticks. Do this in early fall when the nest is not in use. As you can see from the above video, it's no work of art! A layer of wood chips underneath may provide some insulation from the cold that may penetrate up through the floor.

Need help choosing your first pair of bird watching binoculars?

I have written several articles on choosing binoculars. Let me save you the trouble of reading them all. I really love my Celestron 8x42 Nature DX ED (purchase with this Amazon affiliate link that supports this blog). They sell for well under $200. You won't have buyer's remorse. 

You may like: 5 common backyard owls

Monday, April 20, 2020

Attract Barred Owls to your yard with nest box

Barred Owls are one of 5 species of owls that can be found commonly in residential backyards in some areas of the United States.

Barred Owls are larger than Barn Owls but smaller than Great Horned Owls. If you have large trees in your yard and live near a forested ravine or swamp, you may be able to attract Barred Owls to your yard with a nest box.

Barred Owls are found in forests, especially near water, from eastern Texas to Minnesota eastward in the United States to Florida and Maine. They are also found in southern Canada from Newfoundland to Manitoba. They then are found in mid Saskatchewan and Alberta and throughout much of British Columbia, SE Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest to northwestern California.

Photo of Barred Owl
Barred Owl
Image by mpmochrie from Pixabay

What makes your yard attractive to Barred Owls?

The typical habitat of Barred Owls includes mature deciduous or mixed woods. Locations can include canyon streams with big trees, wooded ponds, even forests with a closed canopy hiding the sky and more open underneath. They occur in wooded parks in towns, but especially river edge forests.

They stay deep in the wet woods on big limbs in the shadowed canopy under the big trees.

Does this sound like your backyard? If so, and you live in the regions mentioned above, you may be able to attract Barred Owls to your yard!

There should be nearby woods for these owls to hunt in that remain dark at night. There should not be too much people and machinery noise during the day. To keep the owls safe from vehicles, don't put owl boxes too near a busy highway.

Barred Owls are large predators. They have been known to kill and eat housecats. It is possible that a nesting owl may attack small dogs. Such a thing would be very rare for this species of owl. But it is something to consider before attracting Barred Owls to be daily residents of your backyard.

This owl doesn't actively go out and fly around seeking your favorite pet as prey. It sits on a perch and waits for small animals to pass by. 

Thus, it isn't likely to harm small dogs going outside for a potty break before bed--especially if you turn on the lights. It's not impossible, just not very likely that a Barred Owl would attack your dog

Cats roaming around at night seeking rodents will put them in the path of hunting owls, though.

Barred Owls have been known to fly at or strike people in the head with their claws if they get too close to the nest. It seems that early morning joggers in the forest parks are the main victims! Often the owls don't make actual contact. Sometimes they knock people's hats off! Rarely do they draw blood.

Barred Owl nests in nature

Typically, Barred Owls nest in tree cavities. These are usually quite high, 20-40 feet above the ground. They may also use old stick nests of hawks and ravens.

As with most owls, they really don't add much to the nest. They may trample or flatten old hawk or owl nests to make them more suitable. They rarely add lichens, a conifer twig, or a feather or two to the nest.

Courtship begins in February. Nesting continues through August. Barred Owls call all year and vigorously defend their territory against other Barred Owls.

Barred Owls lay 2-5 eggs, 3-4 typical. They only breed once during the nesting season. Females incubate 28-31 days. Once they hatch, the nestlings remain in the nest 28-35 days before fledging.

This video shows what goes on inside a Barred Owl nest!

The Barred Owl nest box

Natural cavities in older trees in a mixed forest are a bit in short supply in most places. Thus, Barred Owls will readily accept an artificial nest box.

Barred Owl nest box dimensions

Barred Owls can use a large Barn Owl house. In fact, the larger size the better for Barn Owls. So both types of owls can use a nesting box designed for the Barred Owl. The Barred Owl prefers a slightly larger entrance hole. The Barn Owl might like a larger floor size.

The floor should be about 12x13 inches. The box should be about 24 inches tall. The nest box entry hole should be 7x7 or even wider at 7x8 inches.

Whether you make a nest box following plans and designs, or purchase one pre-made, try to use these dimensions.

Barred Owl nest box dimensions overview

  • 12x13 inch floor (minimum)
  • 24 inches tall (minimum)
  • 7x7 inches (or wider) entrance hole at least 13 inches up from the floor
  • 15-25 feet high off the ground

Some kind of exercise shelf or perch outside the box is desirable for the chicks to use as they get larger and start to explore their world. 

The older chicks will venture out of the box before they are ready to be off on their own. Thus, it would be good to have a branch near the nest box so that the young can fly-hop and get back in the box at night.

Do not place more than one nest box in the immediate area. Barred Owls are very territorial as previously discussed. Keep owl boxes at least 1/2 a mile apart.

Add 3 inches of wood shavings to the bottom of the box. You may also use clean leaves and moss.

Here is an owl box sold on Amazon that is suitable for Barred Owl in woods.

Barred Owl nest box placement

Nest boxes for Barred Owls must be placed within the dense forest, not on the edge. So don't place a nest box on a building or a bare pole.

Inside the woods the direction the Barred Owl house faces doesn't matter as much. The entrance hole should face away from the prevailing rain direction, if possible.

The height of the nest box is not overly critical. Anything over about 15 feet in height should be fine. One person mentioned how he placed nest boxes on trees on the side of a ravine. The nest box was attached and faced downhill, so it seemed higher on the stream side of the tree.

Keep raccoons from taking over the nest box. They may use it themselves. They may eat the eggs or nestlings. Place a predator guard all around the tree trunk using metal flashing. Place this at least 6 feet high on the tree. Place it higher if people are likely to damage it.

It is best for the owl chicks to have branches near the nest box. They can practice flapping and fly-hopping through the tree and make it back to the nest box at night. The longer they stay at the nest site before fledging the more likely they are to survive.

However, there should be a clear flight path straight into and out from the nest box. Adult owls flying directly into the nest hole shouldn't encounter any other trees, branches, or leaves for at least 20 feet from the front of the nest.

The nest should ideally be in a hardwood (maple, ash, hickory or similar large branching tree). One should try to makes sure there is a dense evergreen, such as a hemlock, nearby. Owls can approach the nest area unseen and hide or roost in this dense conifer. 

Remember, the female incubates the eggs and chicks. The male remains outside the nest during the day (and night) and brings food to the mother and young.

Here is a video of how one person hangs up a nest box for Barred Owls in a tree in a younger forest. Pay attention to the habitat. It is more open and a younger woods than expected. But it is wet and isolated!

Nest box competitors and maintenance

Winter is probably the best time to put up an owl nest box. Even so, it seems that Barred Owls may find a nest box while prospecting in winter or spring, yet wait an entire year to actually use the box

Thereafter, they generally use the same nest site as long as it is in decent shape.

However, if owls don't move in right away, other animals might. Wood Ducks may compete with Barred Owls for the nest box. Squirrels and raccoons will also want the box. A predator guard should deter the raccoons. Squirrels may be the hardest to keep out.

You may wish to examine older boxes in December. Clean out any squirrel nests. Use a mirror on a stick and flashlight to make sure the owl box isn't inhabited by an owl or raccoon before you open it up. It could be dangerous for you to have an animal jump out of the nest box while you are 20 feet up on a ladder!

Barred Owls might not make as much of a mess of their nest as some other owls. So cleaning the nest box yearly isn't always necessary. However, there could be eggs that didn't hatch or dead chicks or prey that didn't get eaten. Squirrels could have filled the box with leaves. So it's best to at least check.

When you clean out the nest box you can add 3 inches of wood shavings.

You may like: 5 Common backyard owls

Friday, April 17, 2020

Attract Barn Owls to your yard with nest box

If you live on the edge of open country habitat, including farmlands, prairies, and fields you may have Barn Owls visit your yard. In fact, even if you live in town there may be Barn Owls near you that you can attract to your yard.

Barn Owls are found widely across the United States where winters aren't too harsh and snow not too deep. These owls are rare to absent in the New England states, most of the northern parts of the Midwest and Great Plains and northern Rocky Mountain states. Otherwise they are found in the Pacific Northwest from Washington State southeastward to Colorado, eastward to Iowa and Kentucky and Connecticut. From these locations they are found southward from California to Florida.

Barn Owls are the top owls you want to get rid of rodent pests, especially mice. They are excellent rodent hunters. In fact, a single Barn Owl will eat 3-4 prey items per night. That's about 1200 rodents per year! A pair of Barn Owls will feed on about 4000 rodents a year when factoring in feeding the chicks! (source)

According to research done for the book Birds of Oregon: A general reference (Amazon link), Barn Owls eat 55-91% field mice (voles). Deer mice make up the balance at 6-32% of the diet. Barn Owls hunt while flying low over the ground, unlike Great Horned Owls that generally hunt from a perch. Thus, Barn Owls avoid areas with perches (such as woods), as Great Horned Owls will kill and eat Barn Owls.

Photo of Barn Owl in aspen tree
Barn Owl roosting in aspen tree
Photo by Greg Gillson

What makes your yard attractive to Barn Owls?

Ideally, to attract a Barn Owl you would live on the edge of agricultural lands and have a large open barn, silo, grain elevator, or craggy cliff on your property. I realize that these requirements will probably eliminate most yards.

However, if your yard is mostly open and on the edge of a large field, golf course, cemetery, creek, school ball field, park or green space, you may be able to attract Barn Owls. Even if your yard is on the edge of a rural town you may be able to encourage Barn Owls to nest in your yard.

The main thing you need to attract Barn Owls is a place to set up a nest box. This can be placed in a large tree, on a pole, or in a barn.

Barn Owls like to hunt in the dark. Consider putting your lights on timers that turn off later in the night.

Barn Owls may take baths in large birdbaths!

Barn Owls are frequently killed by motor vehicles. They hunt low to the ground over fields and may be struck as they fly low across country roads. If your yard is next to such a busy road, perhaps it would be best not to attract owls.

A second common cause of Barn Owl mortality is rat poison. If such poison is used to control rodents on or near your property, then it would not be appropriate to try to attract owls.

What about owls and pets?

There is a lot of misinformation about owls and their potential to attack pets. In the United States you have much more to worry about over coyotes at night than you do owls.

Larger owls, like Great Horned Owls can certainly hunt and kill small pets. They can't carry more than 4 or 5 pounds, though. So they're not going to fly off with your pet unless very tiny. But their talons are incredibly sharp and would certainly severely injure anything they attack. And rarely they've been known to hunt feral cats or domestic ones left out at night. But that's very dangerous. Rabbits are much safer prey for owls to hunt than cats and dogs.

Barn Owls are much smaller than Great Horned Owls. Their prey is mostly mice that they swallow whole. They aren't going to hunt dogs and cats.

However, the Barn Owls will defend their nestlings right near the nest. So if the cat decides to stalk the owls, or the dog gets too curious, well, that's going to end badly for someone. The hissing of an angry mother owl would likely make most cats and small dogs run for home!

Photo of Barn Owls in a cliff nest
Barn Owls in a cliff nest (using an old raven nest)
Photo by Greg Gillson

Barn Owl nests in nature

Barn Owls nest in cavities and crevices. Typical locations for nests include tree cavities, cliffs, caves and burrows in cut banks. They also nest in barns, church steeples, hay bales, and under bridges.

Barn Owl nesting locations require shelter from rain and some privacy. Most nest sites are over 3 meters (10 feet) from the ground. Once they find a good nesting spot, they will keep using it year after year.

Barn Owls will use a nest location for a roosting site all year.

As with all owls, Barn Owls don't build a nest. The female owl will, though, make a depression in any detritus. She may crush her own regurgitated pellets to use as fine nesting material.

The main breeding season of Barn Owls is March to August. Be aware, though, that birds on eggs have been recorded every month of the year.

Wow! the clutch size can be anywhere from 2-18 eggs. That's hard to imagine. The usual number is 4-6 eggs laid. They may raise 1 to 3 broods of young in a season.

The incubation of Barn Owl eggs is 29-34 days. Once they hatch, baby Barn Owls may remain in the nest with their mother for 50-55 days. That's pretty long for birds. But then, after they leave the nest, they stay with the father owl for several more weeks as he teaches them how to hunt.

The Barn Owl nest box

The availability of prey and suitable nest site locations are the limiting factor on the number of nesting Barn Owls in an area. Most barns these days are sealed up tightly and don't give thought to hosting barn owls.

If you live in, or adjacent to, an agricultural area or open rough fields, Barn Owls may just be waiting for you to put up an owl box for them! Some people call these nesting boxes, owl boxes, or even owl houses. They should be unpainted and made of external plywood. It should be caulked or sealed against rain getting inside the box.

Please watch this video from the Barn Owl Trust in England that discusses what makes a good Barn Owl nesting box, as well as what box designs to avoid:

Barn Owl nest box dimensions

The dimensions of a nest box for Barn Owls have some latitude, but bigger is better. The video above from the Barn Owl Trust talks about a critical measurement of 18 inches (450mm) depth from the floor to the bottom of the entrance hole. This is so the young Barn Owls don't fall out of the nest.

The young owls don't leave the nest until they can fly. But they can walk around in the nest for over a month before they fledge. There is a lot of pushing and jostling with all those owls in a box. A young owl could easily get pushed out of the nest and die if the entry hole is too low.

The recommended deepness of the nest box from the Barn Owl Trust is several inches deeper than the Barn Owl plans from Cornell's Nestwatch site (source). Go with the larger dimensions recommended by the Barn Owl Trust to reduce the chance of chick mortality. In fact, they say a box closer to 27 inches deep is safer for the owls.

The floor of the nest box can be 13x23 inches. Again, bigger is better.

The nest hole if circular should be 4-1/2 inches in diameter. If square, then the entry hole for the nest box should be at least 4-1/2 inches wide and 3-3/4 inches high.

Whether you build an owl box yourself from designs or plans you find elsewhere, or purchase one already built, try to select a box with these dimensions.

Barn Owl nest box dimensions overview
  • Floor 13x23 inches or larger
  • Box height 23-32 inches
  • Entrance 4-1/2 inches in diameter and 18-27 inches up from floor of the box
  • Box height 12-25 feet above ground

This is the only nest box on Amazon that is nearly big enough for a Barn Owl. It is 14-1/4x19 inches on the floor. It is 25 inches high and the entrance is up high. It is advertised as a Barred Owl box, but it is barely suitable for the smaller Barn Owl. Requires assembly and you will need to figure out how to mount it in barn or tree (this design is not really suitable for pole mounting, as it lacks an exercise perch).

Nest boxes for Barn Owls must be kept dry. Outdoor nest boxes should have an overhanging roof to keep all rain out.

Make sure there is an exercise platform around the entrance for the young to walk out on as they get more ready to fledge (watch the video above for details). The longer they spend at and around the nest box, the more likely they are to survive.

If you want you can add up to 3/4 inches of wood shavings to the bottom of the box. This isn't necessary, though. The owls will use their own shredded regurgitated pellets as material on the nest floor to build their nests.

The best place to hang a Barn Owl house is in a barn! How to install a nest box in a barn is the subject of this video:

Barn Owl nest box placement

Nest boxes for Barn Owls should be placed at least 12 feet off the ground. The Cornell site referenced above says 8-25 feet high. The higher the box is placed, the more likely will be the nesting success.

The nest box can face any direction. But the eggs and chicks are sensitive to wet and cold weather. So it is probably best to face the entry hole away from the prevailing winds and rain.

Barn Owls aren't very territorial. So you can have multiple Barn Owl nest boxes in fairly close proximity. Place owl boxes at least 100 feet apart, though.

When should you put up an owl box? The best time to put up an owl box in the fall. This gives the owls time to inspect it before the breeding season in spring. You can put up the box at any time, of course. But if you put the box up in spring it may be a full year before any owls use the box.

Placing an owl box in a barn is probably ideal. It provides shelter from harsh or wet weather. There should be an access hole into the barn of at least 5 inches wide by 10 inches tall. As shown by the video above, it is best if the owl sees the nest box entry hole immediately when flying into the barn.

If placing the nest box in a tree, choose an isolated tree. Barn Owls do not want to nest in the woods. They want to be more out in the open. Young owls will be happy to crawl around the branches of the tree near the nest box. There they can practice flapping and fly-hopping from branch to branch.

You may mount an owl box on a heavy pole. It should be a 4x4 pole or utility pole. It needs to support the heavy nest box--even in strong winds. Such an isolated nest box will need an extra large exercise platform. Such a pole is best at 16 feet high. Protect it from predators with a baffle or predator guard on the pole. These should keep out snakes, raccoons, and opossums from climbing up from below.

One caveat, though. Barn Owl nest boxes shouldn't be placed nearer than 1/2 mile from a busy highway. This is especially true if the highway is through open country. These owls hunt by flying slowly low to the ground and will be struck by vehicles crossing the road.

This video discusses how to choose and hang a nest box in a tree:

Barn Owl nest box competitors and maintenance

December is a good time to clean out nest boxes. Remove any material in the box. You may spray a 2% bleach solution to remove bacteria and insects. If you wish, you may add up to 1/2 of wood shavings, but this is not necessary as already discussed.

Starlings, squirrels, raccoons and other animals may enter the nest box. Clean out all material in winter to make it inviting to owls prospecting for a nest location.

Warning: Disturbing owls during early nesting activities will cause owls to abandon the nest site. Take special care in April-May not to disturb the owls. Resist the urge to check whether or not the owls may be nesting. It will soon become obvious, as the young can be quite noisy as they get bigger.

You may like: 5 Common backyard Owls

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Attract Screech Owls to your yard with nest box

You feed small songbirds and put up nest boxes to attract them. Why not do the same for owls?

Your yard probably already has the worms, frogs, mice, rats, gophers, and rabbits that owls eat.

Owls eat a lot of rodents! Cute and beneficial--who could ask for more!

If you install an owl nesting box you can likely attract owls to your backyard. 

The easiest owl in the U.S. to attract to your yard with a nest box is the Screech Owl. 

In recent years scientists discovered that there are actually 2 species of owls in North America formerly considered one. We now have Eastern Screech-Owls (Megascops asio) and Western Screech-Owls (Megascops kennicottii). These go along with another screech owl in the United States, the Whiskered Screech-Owl (Megascops trichopsis) found mostly in Mexico, but barely reaches into SE Arizona and SW New Mexico.

Nearly wherever you live in the United States, then, (except for parts of central Wyoming, northern Michigan, northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont) you can attract Screech Owls to your backyard.

Photo of Eastern Screech-Owl on branch
Eastern Screech-Owl
Image by Irene K-s from Pixabay

What makes your yard attractive to owls?

Owls need food, water, shelter, and a place to nest.

Your yard provides the food. It doesn't take much "wild" space to attract owls. They can find food in the leaf litter under larger trees, or in the trees themselves. They can find food in taller grass in a vacant lot or field next door. There are almost always mice and rats in our yards that we never know about.

Put your outdoor lights on timers to turn off late at night. Owls like it darker.

You can provide a bird bath for owls. You'll probably never know, though, that they've been there for a dip in the night.

Dense trees and gnarled larger trees make the best spots for owls to roost and sleep during the day.
Trees with cavities in them provide a nesting place. But you can provide an owl box for nesting, too.

Photo of Western Screech-Owl roosting in a cedar tree
Western Screech-Owl roosting in a cedar
Photo by Greg Gillson

Screech Owl nests in nature

Screech Owls nest in cavities.

Frequently, cavities excavated by woodpeckers serve as nests for Screech Owls. 

Larger woodpeckers that provide nest holes for Screech Owls include Acorn Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers but, especially, Northern Flickers. Do you have any of these woodpeckers in your neighborhood? Then you may already have Screech Owls visiting your yard!

Natural cavities can form in trees due to rot or broken off branches. Oak trees, maple trees, cottonwoods, and old orchard fruit trees tend to form such suitable hollow limbs or trunks.

Rarely, Screech Owls nest in cut banks or cliffs.

The male Screech Owl scouts out and finds possible nest sites. He will lead his mate there. Often he provides her food to show he is a good provider. Finally, the female selects the best nest site. They may return for several years to the same nest site. They may roost in the nest throughout the year.

The owls don't add any material to the cavity for the nest. 

On average, good nesting cavities are about 1 to 1.5 feet deep. The entrance hole is usually just large enough to get in. If it is too much larger other predators (raccoons, larger owls) can get in.

Screech Owls begin courtship as early as January in southern areas with nesting and eggs as early as February

In more northerly areas birds sitting on eggs can be as late as July.

Screech Owls lay 2-8 (usually 4-5) eggs. Incubation lasts about 26-34 days until the eggs hatch. 

Juveniles usually first fledge and leave the nest about 28 days after hatching.

Parents will feed the young outside the nest for 8 to 10 weeks. The young may return to the nest cavity to roost at night during this time.

You'll love this video of baby Screech Owls!

The Screech Owl nest box

Screech Owls will readily use artificial owl birdhouses. You can build your own as a DIY project. If you purchase or make a box, make sure it is close to the following dimensions.

The box should be made from untreated and unpainted wood. Pine or cedar makes a good choice. A thickness of 3/4 inches provides durability and insulation.

Screech Owl nest box dimensions

The box dimensions are as follows. The floor should be about 10x12 inches. The height of the box should be 14 inches. The entrance hole should be 3 inches in diameter, centered 9 inches from the floor.

The roof should overhang slightly and slope down in front so rain water doesn't drip into the nest. Recessing the floor up inside a bit should keep water from seeping in. Be sure their are drain holes at the corners of the floor.

Do not add a perch, as perches make it easier for predators to reach the eggs or young. Instead, make the entrance hole with double-thick wood to keep potential predators from being able to reach inside.

One side of the nest box should be hinged for cleaning after the nesting season is over. The boxes should last 2-3 seasons before they need replaced.

Cut grooves or attach small strips of wood inside the box below the entrance hole. This allows the owls to get out of the owl box more easily.

Whether you make your own owl nest box or purchase one, look for these dimensions.

Screech Owl nest box dimension overview

  • Floor 10x12 inches
  • Height 14 inches
  • Entrance 3 inches in diameter, 9 inches up from floor
  • Box height 10-30 feet above ground

Add 2 to 3 inches of wood shavings in the bottom of the box. After each nesting season replace the wood shavings putting in the box 2-3 inches of fresh shavings.

Check out the many different types of owl nest boxes that Amazon sells.

Here is one that has the correct dimensions and good reviews (includes hinged sides and wood shavings). (You will still need to figure out for yourself how to mount it.)

Are you a do-it-yourselfer? This diy Screech Owl box on the Hobby Farms website (here) is built with a single plank of cedar lumber 1 inch thick, 10 inches wide, and 8 feet long. Follow the nest box plans there. It shows the cuts and tools needed.

You will find other bird house plans for owls and other wildlife in this woodworking book:

Screech Owl nest box placement

Nest boxes for Screech Owls should be placed 10 to 30 feet above the ground. Do not place multiple Screech Owl boxes closer than 100 to 1000 feet apart (I have seen both distances referenced). 

Screech Owls are territorial. They will chase away other owls in this 1000 foot radius. On the other hand, having an alternative nest box for the pair allows the owls to choose their preferred nest site. It also give them a second place to nest if the first attempt fails. Or it gives a place for other birds to nest.

Ideally, the entrance hole should face southeast. Face the front of the owl box in a direction ranging from east to south. Screech Owls love to sit in the entrance hole and warm by the rising sun. Avoid placing the nest entrance facing between north and west.

Owls are rather messy around their nest site. So choose a location where white wash (owl poo) will not be a problem. You may also observe owl pellets (regurgitated bones and hair) under favorite perches.

When should you put up an owl box? Owls may roost in the box any time of year. But for nesting in the next season put up the box in the fall before the male owl begins scouting for possible nest sites in winter.

If you place the nest box in a tree, consider placing the box under a branch. Young owls climb out of the nest box onto the top of the box and flap-hop out on nearby branches. The owls don't like any branches blocking the entrance hole, though.

You may place a nest box on the east or south side of a barn or other tall out building. Hang the box under the eaves to protect from rain, but also so that predators can't jump down from the roof.

Using a pole mounted nest box will work too. A pole may be best to keep out squirrels which may climb trees to take over the owl box. Use a baffle on the pole to keep squirrels from climbing up. Place the pole 10 feet from a tree or structure where the squirrel could jump across to the box.

Owls do like a staging perch placed about 12 feet from the nest entrance and about 6 feet off the ground. A shepherd's hook works well for this. So will a wooden raptor perch on a pole. The owls will land here first before flying into the nest box. The male will perch here and guard the nest while the female is inside incubating.

Here's a great little video discussing Screech Owl nest box placement:

Nest box competitors and maintenance

The Screech Owl nest box dimensions are also suitable for other birds and animals who may try to take over the box for roosting or nesting.

European Starlings and various tree squirrels may try to take over the box. They will fill the box with straw (starlings) or leaves (squirrels). Remember that the owls don't add any material to nests. Starlings may take several days to a week to build their nest. So try to remove the invading nesting material before the starlings lay eggs. If you see starlings or squirrels inspecting your box you need to do so, too. Remove any foreign material they may have added.

These nest boxes are also perfect for American Kestrels and Northern Flickers, too. These are desirable birds, so I wouldn't be too upset if they nested instead of the owls. Remember, owls generally nest earlier in the spring than other birds. So if the kestrels or flickers begin nesting in the boxes in May or June, the owls likely aren't going to nest this late in the year anyway.

Put up nest boxes in the fall or early winter so owls find them when they start scouting for nest sites in January. Raising young in a nest is messy. The nest box may become infested with various insects. Clean out the nest box in fall. Put in 2-3 inches of new wood shavings.

You may like: 5 Common backyard owls

Saturday, April 11, 2020

5 Common backyard owls in the United States

You may have owls in your yard and not even know it!

Many owls live in forests. Some live in deserts. Some owls live in grasslands. Some live in tundra. Some live in marshes and swamps. Some owls live at the edge of woods and grasslands. These last owls find rural farms and even residential backyards suitable for their homes.

Have you heard owls where you live? Would you like to know what species they are?

In the United States there are 5 owls regularly found in backyards. Residential yards with large trees are suitable for these owls. Such backyards remind these owls of their natural habitat at the woodland edge.

The 5 owls commonly found in town include:
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Barn Owl
  • Eastern Screech-Owl
  • Western Screech-Owl
  • Barred Owl
We'll talk about these individually below: where they live, what they look like, what they sound like, and what they eat. Then we'll link to other articles describing how to attract them to your backyard, if you wish.

First, though, let's discuss why you might want owls in your backyard. Then we'll discuss why you might not want owls in your backyard. Then we'll tell you how to look for signs that owls have been in your backyard.

Photo of Great Horned Owl and chick in old hawk or crow nest in ash trees
Great Horned Owl and chick in nest
Photo by Greg Gillson

The benefits of having owls in your backyard

First of all, why would you want owls in your backyard? Is it good to have an owl in your yard?

The best reason to have owls in your yard is because they eat mice and rats and other undesirable rodents. Further down this page I'll discuss specifically what each species of owl eats. Controlling the population of disease carrying rodents is a huge benefit of having owls in your yard. If there aren't any rats and mice outside your house, then there won't be any inside!

Then, of course, owls are cool.

Owls are silent predators of the night. Their wing feathers have fluffy edges that help them fly without making a noise.

Owls have excellent hearing. They can locate and catch prey in total darkness, just by hearing mice rustling in the grass.

Owls have excellent eyesight. Their large eyes are in tubes, set forward-facing for binocular vision. Owls are unable to turn their eyes within their head. They must turn their head in order to see directly in front of them. Thus, unlike most other birds, owls have good depth-perception that allows them to judge distance accurately. They can see excellently at night, but can see just fine during the day, too.

Why you might not want owls in your backyard

If you have small pets that you let outside at night a Great Horned Owl might try to eat them. It is unlikely, but can happen. If your cat or dog is less than 12 pounds it is unlikely, but possible. Great Horned Owls are known to eat skunks. Striped skunks weight 4-9 pounds, sometimes a bit more.

Likewise, if you own poultry--chickens--Great Horned Owls might attack them if they are out at night. Really, though, fox and mink and other similar animals are more of a threat than owls to such livestock. And owls will eat those smaller weasels.

If you are raising rabbits, then you may not want larger owls in your yard.

Surprisingly, owls on occasion eat fish or crayfish. You probably want to keep owls away from your koi pond!

There is no reason to fear having small screech-owls in your yard, though.

How do you tell if owls are visiting your backyard?

Of course, if you see or hear an owl in your yard, that is pretty obvious. Most people detect owls by hearing them call at night, usually in the winter and spring. You may be awakened by owls calling at night. Barn Owls don't call. And you might not recognize the whistles of screech-owls as an owl call at all.

Crows might alert you to an owl roosting in your trees. If they are dive-bombing a tree there is some kind of hawk or owl there. Check it out! Even birds such as chickadees and nuthatches mob small roosting owls. If the birds are all upset and agitated, there is something there they do not like. It could be an owl.

Great Horned Owls nest in old hawk or crow nests. They nest early--late December to March--before the hawks return to reuse their nests. Look for ear tufts sticking up from old hawk nests in the tops of bare late-winter trees.

Owls like to roost in dense trees, especially conifers, in winter. Look on the ground under trees for a lot of white wash! Scan up inside dense trees for any roosting owls snuggled next to the tree trunk.

Do you have larger oak or maple or similar trees with hollow branches or trunks? Look there for roosting or nesting owls. Owls nest in fruit trees and orchards, perhaps because trimming the limbs creates hollows.

Look on the ground for cast owl pellets. After eating small prey whole, owls cough up single roundish pellets of indigestible bone and fur. These owl pellets may be the best evidence of an owl visiting your backyard if you don't actually see or hear any owls.

Owl pellets can be sterilized by wrapping in aluminum foil and baking in the oven at 325 degrees F for 40 minutes. Dissecting owl pellets to see what they have been eating can be a fun learning experience for kids. [Coyote scat is also fur and bones, but often seeds that owls don't eat. The shape of coyote scat is long and pinched on one end as dog poo, but with fur.]

Photo of Great Horned Owl on a willow branch
Great Horned Owl
Photo by Greg Gillson

Great Horned Owls in the backyard

The "hoot owl" is familiar to most people. Their loud hooting carries far in the still night air. You may see them on utility poles at dusk.

Where do Great Horned Owls live?

Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) are found throughout North America except the arctic tundra. They are common in all the lower 48 States.

These owls like second growth forests with adjacent open clearings and fields. But they are found in nearly all habitats. They occur in swamps, farmlands, forests, orchards, and deserts. In cities they can be found in wooded parks.

What do Great Horned Owls look like?

Great Horned Owls are large. They are slightly larger than a Red-tailed Hawk. They are about 18-25 inches long with a wingspan of 40-57 inches. Females are about 20% larger than males.

Their plumage is mottled in brown, gray, black, and white bars. They have a patch of white on the chest. Their large head has two tufts of feathers on the side that stick up. These are not ears. The ears are on the side of the head at the level of the eyes. They eyes and ears are set in a facial disk. Eyes are yellow.

The tail is short.

The feet are large and powerful with sharp claws.

This YouTube video has excellent calls of a pair of Great Horned Owls:

What do Great Horned Owls sound like?

Great Horned Owls give loud hoots. The pattern is who hu-Hoo, who, who. The males voice is noticeably deeper than the females. Pairs often duet.

What do Great Horned Owls eat?

The diet of Great Horned Owls is highly varied. They eat rodents, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, other smaller owls, American coot, house cats, ducks, doves, and fish. They eat any smaller animals they find out at night, really.

How do you attract Great Horned Owls to your backyard?

Great Horned Owls roost and nest in large trees. They will use large nest boxes place in a tree, pole, or barn. For more information, please visit my page on attracting Great Horned Owls.

Photo portrait of a Barn Owl in leaves
Barn Owl
Photo by Greg Gillson

Barn Owls in the backyard

As their name suggests, Barn Owls frequently roost and nest in Barns. But that doesn't mean they don't nest in town, because they certainly do! Perhaps you've seen their pale ghost-like form wing across the road in your car's headlights.

Where do Barn Owls live?

Barn Owls (Tyto alba) are found throughout the northern hemisphere, in both the New World and the Old World.

In Canada Barn Owls are found only in extreme south Ontario and southern British Columbia. In the United States they are found across the country. But they are very rare in the northern states.

They are quite rare to absent in Montana, North Dakota, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New York.

What do Barn Owls look like?

Barn Owls are fairly large. They are 13-16 inches long. They have a wingspan of 40-49 inches.

Barn Owls are very pale. Males are usually a pale cinnamon and gray above and creamy below. They have a large round head with a white face. Females are a bit more colorful than males, rusty brown above, with more spotting on the breast. Eyes are dark.

In flight they have very long broad wings with shallow wingbeats interspersed with flat glides.

This video has some of the weird Barn Owl calls:

What do Barn Owls sound like?

Barn Owls are not very noisy. Their common call is a harsh hiss or shriek. This is usually given by the male as he flies around. It is often accompanied by bill clicks: shkreeesh, tic-tic-tic... fading or increasing in loudness slightly as the bird turns in flight toward you or away. You might mistake it for an engine belt slipping on a passing car. The sound doesn't carry far. I hear it at night outside my window if the bird is flying down the street outside my home.

What do Barn Owls eat?

Barn owls eat primarily rodents at night. They eat mice, rats, voles. They also eat rabbits and other small mammals.

How do you attract Barn Owls to your backyard?

If you have a barn or tall dense trees you may be able to attract nesting owls using a nest box. For more information please see my article on attracting Barn Owls.

Eastern Screech-Owls in the backyard

Screech-owls are small owls found in trees in city parks and cemeteries. They have a low whistled trill call.

Where do Eastern Screech-Owls live?

Eastern Screech-Owls (Megascops asio) are resident in deciduous woodlands in the eastern United States. They are found from Montana to Connecticut in the north, south from Florida to Texas. They are absent in dense conifer forests. So they are rare or absent in northern Minnesota, northern Michigan, and Maine.

In Canada, they barely reach the southernmost parts of Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

What do Eastern Screech-Owls look like?

These small owls range from 6-1/2 to 10 inches long, bill tip to tail tip. They have a wingspan that ranges from 19-24 inches across.

They are short and stocky. They look neckless. Tufts of ornamental feathers stick up from over the eyes. They have a very short tail. Eyes are yellow.

Screech-Owls come in two main colors, either reddish or grayish. Otherwise, they are heavily barred and streaked with dark. They have large white spots on their scapulars and wing coverts.

Here's a great video showing an Eastern Screech-Owl calling in the daytime!

What do Eastern Screech-Owls sound like?

The Eastern Screech-Owl has two calls. One is a quavering whistle or whinny that drops in pitch. A second call is a longer trill on one pitch.

What do Eastern Screech-Owls eat?

These small owls eat small birds and mammals such as rats, mice, squirrels, and rabbits, as you would expect. They also eat large insects, earthworms, crayfish, frogs, and lizards.

How do you attract Eastern Screech-Owls to your backyard?

Screech-Owls roost and nest in trees, but only need a few even in grasslands. Please see my article to find out how you can attract Screech-Owls to your backyard.

Western Screech-Owl
Photo by Greg Gillson

Western Screech-Owls in the backyard

Western Screech-Owls are the western counterpart of the Eastern Screech-Owls. They were separated only a few years ago based more on their calls than on their plumage. For the most part they are just the same as the Eastern Screech-Owl except for voice. And voice is usually how you find them!

Where do Western Screech-Owls live?

Western Screech-Owls (Megascops kennicottii) live in western North America, from Alaska south to western Mexico. They live in British Columbia and western Montana southward to Colorado, New Mexico, and western Texas.

They live in deciduous and mixed woodlands, often along streams. But they also live in orchards, city parks, and residential areas with large trees.

What do Western Screech-Owls look like?

As with the Eastern Screech-Owl, these birds are 7-1/2 to 10 inches long. They have a wingspan of 22-24 inches.

Most birds are barred grayish with tufts sticking up on the sides of the head. The eyes are yellow. The crossbars on the breast are thinner and denser than Eastern Screech-Owl. The bill is blackish on the base rather than yellow-green. But these differences are unlikely to be useful in the field.

Some birds in the humid northwest coastal region are brownish, but none are reddish as are some Eastern Screech-Owls.

Calls of the Western Screech-Owl:

What do Western Screech-Owls sound like?

The calls of Western Screech-Owls includes a trill all on one pitch. The female of a pair gives a descending whinny. I think both these calls sound much like the Eastern Screech-Owl. However, the male territorial call is unique. It is a low hollow whistle of 7-10 notes on one pitch, starting slow and speeding up quickly to a trill: poo, poo, poo-poo-poo-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu.

What do Western Screech-Owls eat?

Western Screech-Owls eat a wide variety of small mammals and mice, birds, crayfish, shrews, worms, snails, and even flying insects.

How do you attract Western Screech-Owls to your backyard?

These owls will use trees with cavities drilled by woodpeckers or rot. They will also use nest boxes. Please see my article on attracting Screech-Owls to your backyard.

Barred Owls in the backyard

This medium-sized owl was formerly restricted to the eastern United States but is now found more widely. If you've got lots of large dense trees in your backyard you may host this species of owl.

Where do Barred Owls live?

Barred Owls (Strix varia) live year round in conifer and mixed woods, especially in river bottoms and swamplands.

Barred Owls in the United Stated occur from Minnesota to Texas and eastward to the Atlantic in all states. They also occur across the south of eastern Canada and the middle of Manitoba and Alberta. They have recently expanded throughout British Columbia and Southeast Alaska southward since the 1980's through Washington and Oregon to northwestern California.

What do Barred Owls look like?

These larger owls are bigger than Barn Owls but smaller than Great Horned Owls. They are about 17-20 inches long. They have a wingspan of 39-43 inches, tip to tip.

Barred Owls have brown bars across the upper chest but streaks on the lower breast and belly. They have white spots across the dark brown back and wing feathers. The head is large and round. The eyes are dark. The bill is pale.

Here's a video of a Barred Owl calling:

What do Barred Owls sound like?

This owl gives a variety of hoots and screams and cackles. The signature territorial call of Barred Owl is a very loud hooting that sounds like: Who cooks for you? (pause) Who cooks for you-all? I'm always surprised when I hear this call in the southwest desert--given by the White-winged Dove!

What do Barred owls eat?

Barred Owls eat squirrels, mice, small and medium-sized birds, crayfish, frogs, lizards, snakes, and fish!

How do you attract Barred Owls to your backyard?

Barred Owls are a bit more wary around people than the other owls here. Nevertheless, they reside in wooded canyons and parks near rivers. They naturally nest in large trees 20-40 feet up. But if you have mature forest surrounding your yard you may be able to entice Barred Owls to nest with a special nest box. Please see my article on how to attract Barred Owls to your backyard.

I couldn't resist showing you these owl planters (plants not included). You could put them on your window sill until the real owls show up!

Legal disclosure

As an Amazon Associate I earn commissions from qualifying purchases. Thank you for your support.

Featured Post

Best budget birding binoculars: Celestron Nature DX ED

My review: Celestron Nature DX ED binoculars for birding Is the Celestron Nature DX ED 8x42 binocular any good for bird watching? My perso...