Many people view owls with mystery and wonder. The fact that most of us never see them due to their camouflage and nocturnal habits makes them all the more fascinating. It can also lead you to wonder just how many different kinds of owls can be found where I live? In this article we will look at the 8 species of owls in Kentucky.
Owls in Kentucky
The 7 species of owls commonly found in Kentucky are the barn owl, the barred owl, the eastern screech owl, the great-horned owl, the long-eared owl, northern saw-whet owl and the short-eared owl. We’ve also included one owl that you can occasionally find in Kentucky if you are lucky, but is fairly rare, the snowy owl.
1. Barn Owl
- Scientific name: Tyto alba
- Length: 12.6 – 15.8 in
- Wingspan: 39.4 – 49.2 in
- Weight: 14.1 – 24.7 oz
Barn owls are found year round in Kentucky, although they can be difficult to find. They prefer mainly open habitats such as grasslands, fields, ranches, agricultural land and strips of forest.
Barn owls like to nest in man-made structures that have lots of eaves and beams such as barns, attics and church steeples. This is probably one way they got their name. They also nest in tree cavities, caves and cliff-sides. Barn Owls are very nocturnal and are unlikely to be found out during the daylight.
At dusk and through the night, they fly low over fields using their amazing hearing to locate mice and other rodents. Their large, ghostly white face and belly can be quite a spooky sight if you catch a glimpse of them in low light!
2. Barred Owl
- Scientific name: Strix varia
- Length: 16.9 – 19.7 in
- Wingspan: 39.0 – 43.3 in
- Weight: 16.6 – 37.0 oz
The beautiful brown and white striped barred owl is found throughout Kentucky all year, and is fairly common. These birds really like to stay close to home, often not even leaving a 10 mile radius throughout their life.
Although their range often overlaps with the great horned owl, they do not like to be in the same area as them. Great horned owls will actually go after barred owl eggs, young birds, and sometimes even adults.
Barred owls prefer mixed and mature trees near water, especially if there are large tracks of unbroken forest. You may spot them on a hike roosting in trees during the day. However, they are most active at night when hunting.
Their loud and unique hooting call is described as sounding like “who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”. During courtship a mated pair will perform a duet of all sorts of hoots, honks, caws and gurgles.
3. Eastern Screech-Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops asio
- Length: 6.3 – 9.8 in
- Wingspan: 18.9 – 24.0 in
- Weight: 4.3 – 8.6 oz
This tiny owl is common year-round across most of the eastern United States, including Kentucky.
Eastern screech owls can come in three plumage shades, gray, brown or “red” (which is really a reddish brown). No matter what color, the patterns on their feathers provide excellent camouflage for blending in with tree bark.
Their name might suggest they make a screeching or screaming sound, but this is not true. They don’t hoot, but rather make trilling sounds or “whinnies” that sound like a high pitched horse.
If you put up an appropriately sized nest box, you can attract eastern screech owls to your yard. These little owls are at home in farmland, city parks and suburban neighborhoods. Pretty much anywhere with some tree cover.
4. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
- Length: 18.1 – 24.8 in
- Wingspan: 39.8 – 57.1 in
- Weight: 32.1 – 88.2 oz
Great horned owls are one of the most common and recognizable owls in North America due to their large size, yellow eyes and “horns” which are tufts of feathers that stick up on either side of their head.
These owls can be found in many habitats, including forests, swamps, deserts and urban areas such as city parks. Their plumage can vary in color but most are either a cool or warm brown. They are common year-round across Kentucky.
Great horned owls have a diverse diet, consisting of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and fish. Their hoot is what most people think of when they think of the sound owls make, and is often used in TV and movies.
5. Long-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio otus
- Length: 13.8 – 15.8 in (height)
- Wingspan: 35.4 – 39.4 in
- Weight: 7.8 – 15.3 oz
Long-eared owls can be found in Kentucky during the non-breeding months. They are much less common than other species in the state, so you have to really look for them. Their preferred habitat is pine stands or woods near grassland and pastures.
Their bright yellow eyes, white V shaped facial pattern, round facial disc, and long feather tufts that point straight up can give them a constantly surprised expression. The very rounded face with white V is a great way to tell them apart from great horned owls.
Long-eared owls are mostly silent when not in the breeding season, which means you won’t often hear them hooting in Kentucky. However they do sometimes roost in groups during this time, so that can aid in locating them.
Their excellent camouflage and secretive nature of roosting in dense woodlands tends to make them hard to find.
6. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
- Length: 7.1-8.3 inches
- Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz
- Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 inches
Northern saw-whet owls are tiny with a round head and yellow eyes. In addition to their tiny size, there are a few other reasons why these owls are notoriously difficult to locate.
Their mottled brown plumage blends in easily to the trees around them, especially when they’re perched motionlessly on a branch. These owls are also naturally secretive, and are only active at night so you won’t run into them while it’s light out.
The best bet for find a northern saw-whet owl is to learn its call and listen for it at night, especially between January and May when they call most frequently. They have a distinct call that sounds like a blade being sharpened with a whetstone, earning the name “saw-whet” owl. Their too-too-too call is a series of whistled notes of the same pitch.
These owls prefer dense and mature forests, and their diet mainly consists of small mammals such as mice and voles. These owls visit Kentucky during the non-breeding, winter months.
7. Short-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio flammeus
- Length: 15 in
- Wingspan: 38 in
- Weight: 12 oz
Short-eared owls spend the summer almost exclusively in Canada and the northern United States, typically only coming down into Kentucky during the non-breeding season.
As their name implies, they do have “ear tuft” feathers but they are so short as to almost never be visible. During the winter look for them in marshes, gravel and rock quarries, fields, woodlots and thickets. Their populations in a certain area can vary year to year in close relation to the population of their prey such as moles, rats, rabbits and weasels.
It is thought that their populations overall are in decline, as they are particularly sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation from the large open grasslands they require being turned into farm land, grazing land, recreational areas and housing development.
They are actually found in many places globally, and are able to travel long distances over open ocean.
8. Snowy Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
- Length: 20.5-27.9 inches
- Weight: 56.4-104.1 oz
- Wingspan: 49.6-57.1 inches
Snowy owls have a wintering range throughout most of Canada, but this owl has been coming further and further south into the United States each year. Kentucky is not officially in the snowy owls extended winter range, but very occasionally they have been spotted. A recent lucky sighting occurred in 2020 at the Owensboro-Daviess Regional Airport.
These beautiful owls migrate far north to arctic regions of Canada and Greenland to breed during the summer. They will hunt their favorite summer food, lemmings, all hours of the day.
If there are snowy owls near you, they are not as difficult to spot as other owls due to their bright white plumage. Unlike most other owls, they are diurnal and thus active during the day. They prefer wide-open spaces for hunting, like fields and beaches. Look for them on snowy ground on or perched out in the open.
Snowy owls are travelers and often don’t stay close to home once they reach adulthood. Owls from the same nest that were tracked have been found hundreds of miles away from each other in opposite directions.