Owls, mysterious and wise, are a favorite bird for many. The fact that most of us never see them due to their camouflage and nocturnal habits makes them all the more mysterious. It can also lead you to wonder how many different kinds of owls live in your area. In this article we will look at owls in Ontario and what owls species live there, a bit about their size and appearance, as well as where and when you might spot one.
It is currently thought that there are about 19-20 species of owls found in North America. The province of Ontario is home to at least 11 of these owl species!
Let’s take a look at these species and learn a bit about them, shall we?
11 Owls in Ontario
The 11 species of Owls found in Ontario are the Northern Saw-whet Owl, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Eastern Screech-owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Barred Owl, Great Gray Owl, and the Boreal Owl.
While you can always get sightings of uncommon owls passing through or spending time over the border from a neighboring province or U.S. state, our research from allaboutbirds.org and Audubon shows the following 11 owl species are currently considered to be found in Ontario either year round or seasonally during migrations.
1. 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
The best bet for catching a glimpse of a Northern Saw-whet Owl is to learn it’s call and listen for it at night. Luckily, they have a distinct call that sounds like a blade being sharpened with a whetstone, earning the name “saw-whet” owl. During late winter through early summer they tend to call more frequently, so be sure to listen to a high-pitched, “too-too-too” call around then.
The female Northern Saw-whet Owl keeps a very tidy nest. She leaves her chicks after they are about 18 days old and the male continues to feed them until they leave the nest about 10 days later. In typical youthful fashion, the young owls do not clean up after themselves, and by the time they leave home the nest is coated in rotting prey, pellets, and fecal matter.
Found throughout Southern Ontario year-round, they’re the smallest of owls in Canada. Coupled with their small stature, they can be identified by their big round heads with big 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, preferring to lay low and avoid being noticed. Like most other owls, they’re also only active at night.
2. Barn Owl
Scientific name: Strix alba
Length: 12.6-15.8 inches
Weight: 14.1-24.7 Oz
Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 inches
The Barn Owl, with its distinctive screech, is a permanent resident to far southern areas of Ontario and aren’t generally common in the rest of the province or Canada in general. This owl lives up to its name and can often be found occupying barns, and other abandoned structures. They also roost in hollow tree trunks and thick clumps of trees.
These nocturnal predators hunt open fields at night, looking for rodents, which they will swallow whole. This habit of swallowing prey in one gulp means that rather than passing from one end to the other, the owl forms “pellets” which it coughs up. These pellets give an excellent peek into the owl’s diet and are used by researchers to learn more about the owls and their feeding habits, as well as by students.
There are at least 46 varieties of Barn Owl worldwide. The North American version is the largest, while the smallest comes from the Galapagos Islands. The North American Barn Owl is twice the size of its diminutive island cousin. Despite their global presence, habitat loss is beginning to affect their populations in some areas.
3. Great Horned Owl
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
Length: 18.1-24.8 in
Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 in
An image of the Great Horned Owl probably comes to mind when you think of owls, with its large booming hoot and long, horn-like tufts where it gets its name from. It’s one of the most common owls in North America and can be found in nearly any semi-open areas between the Arctic and the tropics.
This owl is a very adept predator that can take down birds and mammals much larger than itself, even including other raptors like ospreys. When larger prey isn’t available, it will also consume tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs.
The Great Horned Owl is well adapted to all weather, as it has extremely soft feathers that insulate against the cold and also serve to muffle the sounds of their flight when in pursuit. This amazing bird has a grip strength that can easily sever the spine of large prey, and requires a force of 28 pounds to open back up. The owl uses this vice-like grip to sever the spines of it’s larger prey.
If you ever hear a group of American crows get agitated, they may be mobbing a Great Horned Owl, which is their most dangerous predator. They may continue harassing the owl for hours until it finally leaves.
This large owl is a permanent resident of Ontario and the majority of the Canada as well as the United States.
4. Long-eared Owl
Scientific name: Asio otus
Length: 13.8-15.8 inches
Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz
Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 inches
The Long-Eared Owl is the most comfortable roosting in dense foliage. According to allaboutbirds.org, the Long-eared Owl has mainly a breeding range throughout most of Ontario. In far southern areas of the province between the Great Lakes you may see them year-round. So while they aren’t terribly common in the state all year, they are there and can be found if you know when and where to look. Though they enjoy the woods for roosting, they need wide-open areas for hunting.
The ear tufts on its head that give the Long-Eared owl its name are not its only distinguishing feature. The male owl has a call that can be heard 1 kilometer (just over half a mile) away. The Long-Eared Owl has a variety of calls, it has a typical “hoot” and also makes a barking sound.
The Long-Eared Owl is an efficient hunter, with hearing so precise it can snatch insects in pitch darkness. They are extremely elusive animals but can be spotted by looking for their pellets on the ground. All owls have distinctly shaped pellets. In the winter, when they roost in groups, they may also be easier to spot.
5. Short-eared Owl
Scientific name: Asio flammeus
Length: 13.4-16.9 in
Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz
Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 in
Short-eared Owls prefer open fields and grasslands, and have adapted well to humans by moving into airports as well, as the planes coming in for a landing displace insects for the owl to swoop up and catch. They get their name from their ear tufts, similar to the Great Horned Owl, though they are so short on this species that they’re often invisible.
Short-eared Owls soar silently over grasslands on broad, rounded wings and are most active around dawn and dusk. They use their incredibly acute hearing to track and hunt small mammals and other birds. It’s also one of the few species that has appeared to benefit from strip-mining, as it’s been found often nesting on reclaimed and replanted mines.
This open-country hunter is one of the world’s most widely distributed owls, and among the most frequently seen during the daytime. Short-eared Owls are capable of traveling long distances, as shown by their distribution, and there have even been reports of these owls descending on ships hundreds of miles from land.
Short-eared Owls are found during the breeding months in most of Ontario. However in the far southern tip of Ontario you’ll find these owls all year.
6. Eastern Screech-owl
Scientific name: Megascops asio
Length: 6.3-9.8 inches
Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz
Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 inches
The Eastern Screech Owl is a common owl found in most wooded areas within its range. It is a year-round resident of Southern Ontario near Toronto and other cities, and is common in any area that has a large concentration of trees. The Eastern Screech Owl’s mottled brown and grey feathers, allow it to blend very well into the trees, making it a master of disguise.
The Eastern Screech Owl is an expert at hiding, but it produces pellets which it expels at the base of the tree where it lives. Not only does this provide a good opportunity to investigate the owl’s diet, but it also gives clues as to where you can find an Eastern Screech Owl.
Although Eastern Screech Owl typically mates for life, occasionally the male will mate with two females. When this happens the second female will kick the first one out of her nest. She will then lay her own eggs, and incubate both sets of eggs.
7. 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, including Ontario. These beautiful owls migrate far north to arctic regions of Canada and Greenland to breed each year. Snowy Owls that have established a site they winter at, will continue to use that same site.
If there are Snowy Owls near you, they are not as difficult to spot as other owls due to their bright white plumage. They roost in obvious places, and unlike most other owls, they are diurnal and thus active during the day. Snowy Owls prefer wide-open spaces for hunting, but they will perch on a high point.
Unlike other owl species, Snowy Owls are not afraid to leave their place of birth. Owls from the same nest, that were tracked, were found hundreds of miles away from each other, in opposite directions.
8. Northern Hawk Owl
Scientific name: Surnia ulula
Weight: 8.5-16 oz
Length: 14.2-17.7 in
Wingspan: 28 in
Lifespan: 10 years
The Northern Hawk Owl can be found throughout almost the entire province of Ontario. These owls mainly live in the boreal forests of Canada, but sometimes travel down in the northern United States in the winter. Populations have declined in Canada so they head south to look for food.
Northern Hawk Owl’s are a bit unusual because they aren’t nocturnal. They hunt primarily during the day, which means that they identify prey by sight and their hearing isn’t as acute as other owl species’. It also makes them a bit easier to spot than other owls.
This medium sized owl has an oval shaped body with a long tapered tail and horizontal striping on the chest. It likes to sit on solitary tree tops to search for prey, and can be seen during the day.
9. Barred Owl
Scientific name: Strix varia
Length: 16.9-19.7 in
Weight: 16.6-37.0 oz
Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 in
The Barred Owl is a common sound to hear in old forests and treed swamps, and their hooting call that sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”. Barred Owls can be found throughout Southern Ontario year-round. The main range of these owls is the eastern half of Canada and the U.S., but they are slowly expanding to the west. In Ontario the best places to look for them are woodlands and forests near bodies of water.
Barred Owls are large raptors with stocky bodies and smooth, round heads. Their eyes are wide and so deeply brown that they appear completely black. They have white and brown mottling all over their plumage, with vertical brown barring on their undersides and vertical barring on their upper parts.
Barred Owls can be very territorial, so many bird watchers use this to their advantage. If you find yourself in the woods at night and hear their call, you can try imitating the call with your own voice. If you’re lucky, one of these owls may fly in to investigate you and determine if you’re another owl encroaching on their territory.
They commonly live in the same areas as the Great Horned Owl, but will immediately vacate their territory when one is nearby, as the much bigger Great Horned Owl is their most serious predatory threat. This has led them to evolve some fantastic camouflage, and the young Barred Owls are capable of “walking” up trunks to better avoid this predator.
10. 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 all year throughout most of Canada, including Ontario. They’re very large owls with broad wings and long tails, one of the tallest owls in America in fact. Their eyes appear small and close together on their big facial disks, giving them a unique expression. A white “X” pattern on their faces is another key identifier. Like their name implies, their bodies are covered in fluffy, silvery gray feathers.
Great Gray Owls tend to be elusive and difficult to spot, and not really the type to bring attention to themselves. They reside in dense pine forests and on the edges of meadows, avoiding areas with people. Like most owls, they are most active at night when they hunt – most often in the hours before dusk and dawn. They often make their homes in dead trees and may be perched at any level.
Even though the Great Gray Owl is the tallest owl in the North America, it’s not the heaviest. Despite their lack of weight they have been seen breaking through snow that was strong enough to support a human to catch a small animal. Their size requires that they eat at least 7 animals of around vole size a day.
11. 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 are found year-round in Northern and Central Ontario, in dense mixed-wood and coniferous forests. They’re mysterious birds and are often hard to spot, especially during the day. They roost in a different tree everyday, so don’t expect to find them in the same spots.
At about the size of a robin, they’re small owls that lack ear tufts but have large, square heads with 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.