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 15 species of owls found in Montana.
Owls in Montana
Montana has one of the highest owl counts in the country, in terms of the number of different species you may be able to see in the state.
Including some more rare species, the 15 species of owls you might see in Montana are the barn owl, the barred owl, the boreal owl, the burrowing owl, the eastern screech owl, the flammulated owl, the great gray owl, the great horned owl, the long-eared owl, the northern hawk owl, the northern pygmy-owl, the northern saw-whet owl, the short-eared owl, the snowy owl, and the western screech owl.
That’s an impressive list! Let’s look at each one.
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
Montana is one of the few states not officially in the standard range of the barn owl. However, because the barn owl can be found in surrounding states, they do wander into Montana from time to time, so you have a chance for a rare sighting. 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
Montana is one of only a few states where you can find barred owls in the western U.S. You’ll want to look for them in the forests of the western border and northwestern corner, as they are absent from the central and eastern parts of the state.
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. Boreal Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius funereus
- Length: 8.3-11.0 in
- Weight: 3.3-7.6 oz
- Wingspan: 21.6-24.4 in
Boreal owls, as their name suggests, reside in the boreal forest of spruce, birch and fir trees that spans northern North American and Eurasia. The United States is a bit too far south for them, so there are only a few states where you can spot them, Montana being one. You’re more likely to find them in the western half of the state, especially in the Kootenai, Flathead, Lolo and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forest areas.
They’re mysterious birds and are often hard to spot, especially during the day. They roost in a different tree each day, so don’t expect to find them in the same spot you saw them yesterday. However they will use a nestbox if you happen to live in their range.
At about the size of a robin, they’re small owls with large, square heads, stocky bodies and short tails. At night they perch and wait for prey such as small mammals and birds before swooping down and grasping their meal with their talons.
Boreal owls are usually quiet and don’t call very frequently. However, in the late winter through the spring this behavior changes as males call more often for mates. Listen for these quick hoots at night for a better chance at finding them.
4. Burrowing Owl
- Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
- Length: 7.5-9.8 in
- Wingspan: 21.6 in
- Weight: 5.3 oz
Burrowing Owls can be found during the breeding season throughout central and eastern Montana.
These owls are quite small with long legs, and they live underground in burrows. Sometimes they dig these burrows themselves, and sometimes they take over burrows left from other animals such as prairie dogs or ground squirrels. They have even been found to use man-made structures such as pipes, buckets and culverts for burrows.
You’ll find them in open habitats such as deserts and grasslands. They can be hard to spot as they are very small compared to the wide open landscape they call home, and when in their burrows barely peek above the horizon. Burrowing owls are most active at dawn and dusk.
5. 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
The range of the eastern screech owl extends all the way to the eastern half of Montana.
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.
6. Flammulated Owl
- Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
- Length: 5.9-6.7 in
- Weight: 1.5-2.2 oz
The flammulated owl has a small breeding population in far western Montana. These owls are quite small, and spend most of their time at the top of large evergreen trees, so they are quite hard to spot. The easier way to locate them is probably by sound. They have a repetitive, low pitched hoot.
Their diet consists primarily of flying insects like crickets, moths and beetles, that they hunt at night. They have reddish gray feathers, are well camouflaged, and resemble screech-owls but with shorter ear-tufts.
7. Great Gray Owl
- Scientific name: Strix nebulosa
- Length: 24.0-33.1 in
- Weight: 24.7-60.0 oz
- Wingspan: 53.9-60.2 in
Great gray owls are found year-round across Alaska and Canada, but aren’t found in too many places in the continental U.S. Western Montana falls into their year-round range, although they are still considered fairly rare in the state.
These large owls have round heads with yellow eyes and a “bow tie” at the neck, a strip of white feathers with black in the middle. Great gray owls live in dense evergreen forests of the north, and hunt voles, gophers, chipmunks and other small mammals in meadows and clearings. In the U.S. they like pine and fir forests close to montane meadows.
Great gray owls don’t build their own nests. They will reuse an old raven or raptor nest, the top of a broken tree, or even human made platforms or clumps of mistletoe. Their hearing is so good they can hunt just by sound, and their powerful talons can break through hard packed snow to grab animals beneath.
8. 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. You’ll find them year round throughout Montana.
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.
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.
9. 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 Montana during the spring and summer breeding season. 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.
Their excellent camouflage and secretive nature of roosting in dense woodlands tends to make them hard to find. Listen for their long, low hoots on spring and summer nights.
10. Northern Hawk Owl
- Scientific name: Surnia ulula
- Length: 14.2-17.7 in
- Weight: 8.5-16.0 oz
- Wingspan: 27.9 in
Northern Hawk Owls are generally found in Canada and Alaska, but their winter range can sometimes extend down into the northern United States, including Montana. They would be considered rare in the state, and most sightings have occurred in the northwest corner.
These owls don’t typically migrate, so when they turn up in the U.S. it is usually after a good breeding season when the population is up, but the number of their prey animals is down. This means some owls will travel much further than normal to find food. Lucky for the bird watchers!
Like many owls, they have large, round heads with yellow eyes and white faces. However, like hawks, they tend to hunt during the day around dawn and dusk, perching atop trees before gliding after prey. Also like hawks, their eyesight is tremendous and they are able to spot prey from up to half a mile away.
When they make it down into the U.S., they tend to look for lakeshores, pastures and wooded farmlands.
11. Northern Pygmy-Owl
- Scientific name: Glaucidium gnoma
- Length: 6.4-7.1 in
- Weight: 2.1-2.5 oz
- Wingspan: 14.5–16 in
Northern Pygmy-Owls are generally widespread in the mountainous western United States, and this extends into the western part of Montana. They’re active during the day, which makes seeing them a little easier than most other nocturnal owls, but they’re also pretty small and tend to perch still waiting for prey — so you still need to keep your eyes peeled.
Try to familiarize yourself with their high-pitched toots and calls to make locating them less tricky. Pay attention to groups of songbirds making a commotion, too. If they find a Northern Pygmy-Owl, they’ll often mob it and try to scare it away. They don’t want this owl around, since it often eats small song birds.
Northern pygmy-owls have very circular heads with no ear tufts. Their belly has vertical brown stripes, while their head and back are brown with white speckles.
12. 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. They are mainly winter residents in Montana, but may remain year-round in the western part of the state.
13. 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, but you can find them year-round in Montana.
As their name implies, they do have “ear tuft” feathers but they are so short as to almost never be visible. They have yellow eyes like many owls, but the black surrounding their eyes really makes the color pop.
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.
14. Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl | image by USDA NRCS Montana via Flickr
- 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 and the far northern U.S. states, including Montana. Population will vary quite a bit year to year, depending on how many owls were born that summer or how the supply of food is further north. Sightings are more frequent in the northeastern corner.
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, airports, 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.
15. Western Screech Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops kennicottii
- Length: 7.5 – 9.8 in
- Wingspan: 21.6 – 24.4 in
- Weight: 3.5 – 10.8 oz
Western Screech-Owls can be found all along the coast of western North America and in many states of the western U.S. The western screech owl sticks to the western part of Montana, while the eastern screech owl sticks to the east.
Visually, there aren’t any big differences between the eastern and western varieties. They do have different hoots thought. While the eastern variety has a descending whinny, the western screech owl has a series of quick hoots. They don’t tend to overlap their range.
They nest in tree cavities in both rural and urban areas. When hiding inside tree cavities their perfectly camouflaged feathers make them very hard to find. They’re small, robin-sized owls with stocky bodies and short tails. Their mostly gray-brown plumage with streaky undersides camouflages them exceptionally well against trees when they’re roosting in holes during the day.