South Carolina is located in the southeastern United States and is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean. There are coastlands, midlands, and even part of the state where the Blue Ridge Mountains run through. The wide array of forests, plains, mountains, and wetlands is home to a spectacle of different wildlife, including a favorite bird of prey — the owl. In this article we’ll go over the 7 species of owls in South Carolina and where to find them.
The Species of Owls in South Carolina
There are four species of owls in South Carolina that breed and live here year-round; Barred Owls, Barn Owls, Eastern Screech Owls, and Great Horned Owls. However, there are three other migratory species that are also spotted here during the winter; Northern Saw-whet Owls, Short-eared Owls, and Long-eared Owls.
1. Barred Owl
Length: 16.9-19.7 in
Weight: 16.6-37.0 oz
Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 in
Barred Owls are found year round in South Carolina, often in old, dense forests near water and swamplands. They like to roost up in tree cavities during the day and are mostly active at night when they hunt. Their deep hoot is very distinct and is a good way to identify them. It sounds as if they are saying “who cooks for you?.”
These owls are on the larger side, not quite as big as a Great Horned Owl, but slightly bigger than a barn owl. They have stocky bodies, smooth, round heads, and mottled white and brown plumage all over. Their undersides feature vertical bars of dark brown as well.
A large portion of their diet consists of mice and rodents, but they eat a wide variety of other small mammals as well as reptiles, amphibians, and small birds. They sit perched in trees or fly low to the ground, ready to snatch up unsuspecting prey.
2. Barn Owl
Length: 12.6-15.8 in
Weight: 14.1-24.7 oz
Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 in
Barn Owls are easily identifiable thanks to their ghostly pale appearance, mysterious faces with dark, beady eyes, and long lanky bodies. Though the plumage on their upperparts is mostly light brown with some darker coloration, at nighttime they often appear as flashes of pure white.
These owls live year-round in South Carolina and can often be found in woodlands, farms, marshes and open lands like meadows and fields. They’re called “barn” owls due to their tendency to occupy old barns and other abandoned buildings. Having a Barn Owl on your farm or property can come in handy, as they’re experts at keeping rodent populations at bay.
3. Eastern Screech Owl
Length: 6.3-9.8 in
Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz
Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 in
Though Eastern Screech Owls live year-round in South Carolina, finding one might prove harder than you think. These small owls are only about the size of a Robin, with intensely speckled, grey plumage that gives them excellent camouflage when roosting in the cavities of trees. At night, listening for their call— a whinny-like, high pitched trill— is the best way to try to spot them. They tend to live in woodlands and forests, though you can most likely find them in any area that features open land and plenty of trees.
Another way to find Eastern Screech Owls is to look for pellets on the ground near the bases of trees. Pellets are the regurgitated remains of prey the owl can’t digest, such as bones and fur. If you notice a lot of pellets in one area, it could be an indicator of a frequent roosting site, so be sure to check above for any sleeping owls.
4. Great Horned Owl
Length: 18.1-24.8 in
Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 in
Great Horned Owls are the quintessential story book owls. They have large, yellow, cat-like eyes, feathered tufts atop their heads, and thick, chunky bodies covered in grey-brown feathers. Listen for their iconic deep hoots in the evening after sunset, or right before dawn, to tell if one’s nearby.
These owls are among the most common in the Americas and are found year-round in South Carolina. They’re able to survive in a wide variety of habitats, including deciduous and coniferous forests, swamps, and even suburbs.
Great Horned Owls are known for their effectively vicious hunting style. They shoot through the air and use their incredibly strong talons to snatch prey like rodents, insects, and other small animals. These owls are even capable of taking down much larger and dangerous prey including falcons, other owls, and porcupines.
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 small, robin-sized owls with large round heads and big yellow eyes. They’re only scarcely found in South Carolina during the winter, otherwise they reside up north, mostly in southern Canada.
Coniferous forests are the best places to look for them, though they’re also found in other dense woodlands and groves. During the day Northern Saw-whet Owls like to quietly roost in trees, but if songbirds discover them, they may stir up a ruckus until the owl leaves.
Their small size, rare frequency, and nocturnal activity make them pretty hard to spot, but their signature call stands apart from other owls. It’s a distinct “toot-toot-toot” song reminiscent of the sound a whetstone makes when sharpening saws — hence the name “saw-whet.”
6. Short-Eared Owl
Length: 13.4-16.9 in
Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz
Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 in
If you want to find Short-eared Owls in South Carolina, winter is the time to look. Non-breeding populations of Short-eared Owls can be found during the winter in prairies, grasslands, and other open spaces. They’ll often be perched low on trees — or even sitting directly on the ground. In fact, these owls prefer to build their nests on the ground as well, and rarely ever build them up high.
Unlike many other owl species, Short-eared Owls are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. The best time to look for them is at dusk and dawn, when they like to hunt rodents like voles and mice. If you’re lucky you’ll catch sight of one gliding close to the ground with graceful, buoyant wing beats.
7. Long-Eared Owl
Length: 13.8-15.8 in
Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz
Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 in
Sighting a Long-eared Owl in South Carolina is rare — but it does happen. Only scarce populations of Long-eared Owls are found here during the winter. Their numbers may be underestimated, though, since they don’t call as often as other owls and may often go unnoticed. However, during breeding season they have a wide array of different sounds and calls including soft, deep hoots, whistles, catlike mews, and even barks.
Their feathered tufts give them an appearance similar to that of Great Horned Owls, but Long-eared Owls are much smaller, about the size of a crow. Their heads also appear more square-shaped, with narrower facial disks that feature light-orange coloration.
Like most owls, they like to roost in trees during the day and only become active at night. They prefer napping close to the trunks of conifers and pines, with plenty of branches and foliage for shelter. Trees on the edge of woodlands near grasslands and fields are the best spots to check first.
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