Acknowledged as being wise and cryptic, owls are a specialty to see in the birding world. Their nocturnal nature and elusive reputation make sightings of them more difficult to obtain. There are 6 species of owls in North Carolina and in this article we’ll take a look at each one. But first, a quick overview of owls.
Although they may not be seen as often as day-dwelling birds of prey, owls are their ecological counterparts and are the ruling nocturnal predators of the bird world.
Their characteristic wide eyes are immobile on their head, but have keen depth perception and good binocular vision. To account for the immobility of the eyes, owls are able to turn their heads extremely far in either direction.
Some owls have asymmetrical ear openings which help them precisely detect a sound source and determine the direction and distance to it. This can help them snatch up prey in utter darkness.
Their curved beaks and razor sharp talons are excellent at capturing and tearing prey.
For most species, the structure of the feathers allows for nearly total silent flight. The special structure enables some feathers to absorb and reduce sound, thus continually establishing their capacity as a bird of prey.
Catching sight of these night dwellers may be difficult, but not entirely impossible.
Now, on to the owls of North Carolina!
6 species of owls in North Carolina
The 6 species of owls in North Carolina are the Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the Eastern Screech-owl.
1. Barn Owl
Length: 12.6 – 15.8 in
Weight: 14.1 – 24.7 oz
Wingspan: 39.4 – 49.2 in
These beauties are the only owls of their family (Tytonidae) located in North America (the rest on this list are from the family Strigidae or “true owls”.)
They are distinguished from the others by their heart-shaped facial disk, serrated central claws, and small(ish) eyes. They have long legs and bare toes.
Their faces and underwings are soft white and are very conspicuous in flight. The remainder of their body can range from buffy cinnamon to yellowish/gold and even rusty.
Barn Owls at strictly nocturnal and won’t make any appearances during the day. They eat up to 4 small mammals a night, including rats, mice, voles, lemmings, and other rodents. They also munch on shrews, bats, and rabbits.
These owls can be found year round in North Carolina.
2. Short-eared Owl
Length: 13.4 – 16.9 in
Weight: 7.3 – 16.8 oz
Wingspan: 33.5 – 40.5 in
These guys are brown and buffy overall (the female typically being darker than the male) with spotted wings and streaked bellies. Their itty bitty ear tufts are practically unnoticeable. Their dark black eye patches make them look fierce, in a glam-model type of way. Or like they are a fifth member of the band KISS.
Short-eared Owls can be found throughout North Carolina during the winter months.
This owl is widely distributed around the world and found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. Their wide global distribution suggests they are capable of flying long distances over land and ocean. They have been reported to land on ships hundreds of miles from shore!
3. Great Horned Owl
Length: 18.1 – 24.8 in
Weight: 32.1 – 88.2 oz
Wingspan: 39.8 – 57.1 in
These large owls are overall pretty grey on top and barred on the belly. They have a conspicuous collar of white feathering and large ear tufts. Their faces are often described as “catlike” in appearance. Regionally, they vary in color. The Eastern variation has cinnamon tones throughout the breast and facial disk.
Great-horned owls are some of the most common owls in North America. Their widespread distribution is attributed to their ability to live in a variety of habitats. This includes forests, grasslands, rainforests, deserts, tundra edges, wetlands, cities, and backyards. They can be found year round in the state of North Carolina.
These guys are powerful and fearless. They have a grip strength that requires 28 pounds of force to release—that’s crazy, considering they weigh less than three pounds, themselves! With this super-owl strength, they can take on large prey, like Osprey (they still munch on small meals, like frogs and scorpions.
American Crows can often be seen mobbing Great-horned Owls. This is because crows make good meals, and these owls are their most dangerous predator. If you are looking for a Great Horned, keeping an ear out for awful crow cawing might help lead you to one.
4. Barred Owl
Length: 16.9 – 19.7 in
Weight: 16.7 – 37.0 oz
Wingspan: 39.0 – 43.3 in
Barred owls are mottled brown and white with barring on the tail and wings. Their pale bellies have dark streaking. If you make eye contact, don’t be too unsettled by their pitch black eyes.
In North Carolina, these owls can be found year-round. They don’t migrate and like to stick to the same area— they’re big time home-bodies. One banding experiment showed that of 158 birds re-found after being banded, none had moved more than 6 miles away.
If you’re out and about at night and hear a call to the likes of “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” it’s likely a Barred Owl. They can be called in relatively easily with mimicry.
5. Northern Saw-whet Owl
Length: 7.1 – 8.3 in
Weight: 2.3 – 5.3 oz
Wingspan: 16.5 – 18.9 in
Northern Saw-whet Owls are teeny tiny with reddish brown hues overall and brown streaking on a white belly. They have a noticeable white V between the eyes and white spotting on their large head.
They may have gotten their name from one of their calls that sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone, but there’s no consensus to which call in particular gave rise to it.
They may be small, but they don’t let their size stop them from doing big things. They are capable of flying over large bodies of water, including the Great Lakes. One was documented landing on a shipping vessel 70 miles from land in the Atlantic Ocean!
Saw-whets can be found in the upper half of North Carolina during the winter months.
6. Eastern Screech-owl
Length: 6.3 – 9.8 in
Weight: 4.3 – 8.6 oz
Wingspan: 18.9 – 24.0 in
Eastern Screech Owls have three color morphs (gray, rufous, and intermediate) that usually occur in most populations, but there’s usually one that’s more dominant. In North Carolina, this would be the Rufous morph. They are more reddish overall, with a black-rimmed facial disk and ear tufts. Their bellies have blotchy streaks and their shoulders are spotted white.
They can be found year round in North Carolina. They aren’t strangers in suburbs where they typically have higher rates of fledglings due to fewer predators. Usually, they mate for life, but on occasion the male will stray and mate with a second female. The new girl might kick out the first lady and lay her own eggs in the nest and incubate both clutches.