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 13 species of owls found in Utah.
Owls in Utah
Including some more rare species, the 13 species of owls you might see in Utah are the barn owl, the boreal owl, the burrowing owl, the flammulated owl, the great gray owl, the great horned owl, the long-eared owl, the Mexican spotted 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
Barn owls are found year-round across most of the U.S., including Utah. 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. 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. There are only a few states where you can spot them in the U.S. While Utah is not technically in their range, there are sometimes sightings east of Salt Lake City. So they are rare for the state, but you could get lucky.
Boreal owls are 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.
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.
3. 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 in Utah during the spring and summer breeding season.
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.
4. Flammulated Owl
- Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
- Length: 5.9-6.7 in
- Weight: 1.5-2.2 oz
The flammulated owl is present in Utah during the spring and summer, mainly in the higher elevation regions that run through the center of the state. These owls are quite tiny, 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.
Zion National Forest, the Tushar Mountains and Wasatch range near Salt Lake City are the main areas that have recorded sightings.
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.
5. 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. There is a small population that may spend the winter in areas north of Salt Lake City, but sightings are considered 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.
6. 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 Utah.
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.
7. 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 Utah year-round. 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.
8. Mexican Spotted Owl
- Scientific name: Strix occidentalis lucida
- Length: 16-19 in
- Weight: 19.5-23 oz
- Wingspan:42-45 in
The Mexican spotted owl is one of 3 subspecies of spotted owls, as well as one of the largest species owls in North America. It is listed as threatened by both the U.S. and Mexican governments. They remain in southern and southeastern Utah year-round but are considered fairly rare.
The Mexican spotted owl are a dark brownish-gray with white barring and a pale face. They have a rounded head with no ear tufts.
Despite being large, these owls are rare and hard to find. The Mexican subspecies can be found in forests of pine-oak or mixed evergreen including Douglas fir and pine. They nest and roost in narrow canyons with steep walls. Spotted owls diet consists mainly of small to medium sized rodents, but can also include rabbits, gophers, bats, smaller owls, birds and insects. They hunt mostly at night but may start at dusk.
9. 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, including Utah. 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.
10. 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 western Utah, but remain year-round in the rest of the state.
11. 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 during the non-breeding fall and winter months in Utah.
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.
12. 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, but this owl has been coming further and further south into the United States each year. Sightings have occurred in northern Utah, but it’s certainly a rare thing.
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.
13. 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. They can be found year-round throughout Utah.
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.