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8 Species of Owls in Tennessee (Photos)

 Last Reviewed by Jesse Foutch on 02-06-2024

Owls possess a captivating allure with their nocturnal habits, large expressive eyes, and silent flight enabled by their distinctive feathers. Tennessee, with its diverse habitats, hosts a variety of owl species. Among the owls in Tennessee are the Eastern Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, and the Northern Saw-whet Owl, along with an occasional rare visitor to keep an eye out for.

1. Eastern Screech-owl

  • Scientific name: Megascops asio
  • Length: 8.5″ (height)
  • Wingspan: 20″
  • Weight: 6 oz

The Eastern Screech-Owl holds a permanent place across Tennessee, thriving in diverse habitats from dense woodlands to suburban backyards. These small yet proficient owls have a varied diet, preying on insects, rodents, and smaller birds, showcasing their adaptability and importance in local ecosystems.

eastern screech owls poking out of broken tree
Eastern Screech Owl | image by Matt Whitbeck/USFWS via Flickr

Their presence in Tennessee is marked not just by their numbers but by their distinctive calls that fill the night air, contributing to the state’s natural symphony. The Eastern Screech-Owl’s ability to blend into its surroundings, thanks to its camouflaged plumage, makes spotting one a rewarding challenge for bird enthusiasts.

In Tennessee, they play a crucial role in controlling insect and rodent populations, making them a beloved part of the state’s wildlife community.

2. Great Horned Owl

  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Length: 22″ (height)
  • Wingspan: 44″
  • Weight: 3.1 lbs.

The Great Horned Owl, as Tennessee’s largest nesting owl, is distinguished by its notable ear tufts and yellow eyes. This species is often the image that comes to mind for many due to its prominence in media and its striking appearance. Unique in its diet, the Great Horned Owl is one of the few predators that regularly include skunks in its meals.

great horned owl
Great Horned Owl | image by USFWS Pacific Region via Flickr

Its adaptability is evident in its wide range of habitats within Tennessee, encompassing everything from deep forests to suburban areas, making it a common sight for residents.

The Great Horned Owl plays a vital role in controlling the population of various prey, including rodents and other small mammals, contributing to the ecological balance. Their distinctive deep hooting call is a characteristic sound of the night in Tennessee, serving as a key indicator of their presence in the area.

3. Barn Owl

  • Scientific name: Tyto alba
  • Length: 16″
  • Wingspan: 42″
  • Weight: 1 lb

Barn Owls live throughout Tennessee but are elusive and not often spotted. They stand out as one of the most globally widespread birds. Their distinctive heart-shaped face and striking plumage make them easy to identify.

While they are known to nest in man-made structures like barns, there’s concern that their numbers may be decreasing in the state. They play a crucial role in controlling rodent populations, benefiting local agriculture and ecosystems.

image: 5thLargestinAfrica | CC 2.0

Despite their silent flight and nocturnal habits, Barn Owls communicate with an array of sounds, from eerie screeches to gentle calls, differing from the hoots associated with other owl species.

Their hunting efficiency is enhanced by their exceptional hearing, allowing them to pinpoint prey even under complete darkness or cover of vegetation. This auditory prowess positions them as invaluable allies in managing pest populations, further underlining their ecological importance. 

4. Barred Owl

  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Length: 17.5″ (height)
  • Wingspan: 40″
  • Weight: 1.3 lbs

The Barred Owl maintains a stable presence across Tennessee, with higher concentrations in the central and western regions. Recognizable by their distinctive call that resembles the phrase “Who cooks for you, Who cooks for you all?”, they are among the more vocal owl species.

Image: NatashaG |

Spotting them can still be challenging despite their activity during daylight hours, which is somewhat unusual for owls and increases the likelihood of encountering one compared to strictly nocturnal species.

Barred Owls thrive in dense forest habitats, often near water. They have adapted well to human presence, sometimes even nesting in suburban areas if suitable wooded environments are available. Their diet is versatile, including small mammals, birds, and amphibians, making them integral to controlling pest populations and maintaining ecological balance.

5. Long-eared Owl

  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Length: 13.8-15.8 in (height)
  • Wingspan: 35.4-39.4″
  • Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz

The Long-eared Owl is a medium-sized owl. The species does not reside permanently in Tennessee and is categorized as “scarce (non-breeding)” within the state. Despite this, they are regular transients, occasionally making appearances for those keen on spotting them. Their distinctive long ear tufts, which give them their name, make identification straightforward.

long-eared owls

These owls prefer dense forested areas for roosting during the day, making them challenging to spot. Their presence in Tennessee, although infrequent, highlights the state’s importance as a passage in their migratory route. Observers can increase their chances of sightings during migration periods, especially in areas that offer the seclusion and tree cover these owls seek.

6. Short-eared Owl

  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Length: 15″
  • Wingspan: 38″
  • Weight: 12 oz

Short-eared Owls, while not common residents, visit Tennessee during their non-breeding season. They are typically present from late November to mid-March. Sightings, though rare, are most probable during this period in open fields or brushy landscapes, especially in central and western Tennessee, near the Mississippi River.

short-eared owl
Short-eared Owl | image by Tom Koerner/USFWS via Flickr

Characterized by their relatively short ear tufts, which are often difficult to see, these owls are more easily identified by their habitat preferences and flight patterns.

Unlike many owl species that favor dense forests, Short-eared Owls thrive in open areas, hunting low over the ground for small mammals. Their presence in Tennessee during winter months adds a unique component to the state’s birdwatching opportunities.

7. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Length: 8″ (height)
  • Wingspan: 17″
  • Weight: 2.8 oz

The Northern Saw-whet Owl stands as the smallest owl in Tennessee and ranks among the tiniest birds of prey in the United States. These owls are non-breeding residents within the state, where they are considered threatened.

northern saw-whet owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl | image by David A Mitchell via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, the eastern regions of Tennessee, particularly near The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offer the best chances.

Despite their small size, Northern Saw-whet Owls have a significant impact on local ecosystems, primarily feeding on insects and small rodents. Their elusive nature and preference for dense forest habitats make sightings rare and exciting for bird enthusiasts.

8. Snowy Owl

  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Length: 20.5-27.9″ (height)
  • Wingspan: 49.6-57.1″
  • Weight: 56.4-104.1 oz

Snowy Owls are quite rare to Tennessee, but there have been confirmed sightings within the state. Comparable in size to the Great Horned Owl, their striking white plumage sets them apart, making any sighting a memorable event. Fans of Harry Potter may recognize the Snowy Owl as the species of Harry’s companion, Hedwig.

Snowy owl
Snowy Owl | image by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services via Flickr

These magnificent birds, primarily arctic residents, venture south during irruption years, driven by food scarcity in their native range, offering a rare opportunity for Tennessee birdwatchers to spot one of the most iconic owl species in the world. 

8 thoughts on “8 Species of Owls in Tennessee (Photos)”

  1. Thank you for your knowledge of owls. When I was 4 or 5 years old (57 yrs ago). I was awakened very early morning by a noise outside my bedroom window. I groggily awakened to these large big round yellow eyes when I looked out into the yard. Of course my screams alerted my parents and my dad went out to investigate. It was a huge owl perched on the clothesline. Because of this post I now know that it was the Great Horned owl! I was afraid of owls throughout my childhood and beyond but within the last 10 years I’ve overcome my fears by learning more about them and hope to visit the GSMNP to go on an owl trek. Thank you again!

    • Thanks for your story Barbara! I can see how that might be a frightening encounter as a child, a large own up close looking at you with those big eyes! I’m glad you aren’t afraid of them anymore, they are really beautiful birds and quite magical to encounter!

  2. We have 2 barn owls that live in our Silo and just discovered they have babies now. ????

  3. In Nashville , there is a state owned area called Ellington Agriculture Center which has wonderful walking trails. An early morning trail run was met with two beautiful (and quite large) owls that I believe were either barn or barred owls. I have photos. Spectacular creatures!
    Thank you for this informative article.

  4. Lived in northern California near the Oregon border. A thrill of a lifetime was getting up early and seeing a spotted owl on bird feeling. We had been having trouble with wild rat that babies. Needless to say rats disappeared. While growing up in Maine remember seeing stories of them on extinction list. California was successful in bringing them back. Did not mention to many people. Logging industry was strong back when they were trying to save them. Will never understand were balance of jobs and saving wildlife works together. Anywho, have moved to southeastern Tennessee and took dog out at about 4a.m. Wooded are behind house in mountain have owl hoot to me. Awesome! now I have to find out more about Tennessee owls. Thanks for the information.

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