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!

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