Owls are incredibly unique birds. They are generally nocturnal, have characteristically large eyes, and have large feathers that allow them to fly and hunt silently. Different U.S. states may be home to different types of owls. When it comes to the owls in Virginia, there are 8 different species.
The 8 species of owls in Virginia you might spot are Barn Owls, Eastern Screech-owls, Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, Northern Saw-whet Owls, Long-eared Owls, Short-eared owls, and sometimes Snowy Owls.
The 8 Species of Owls in Virginia
For information about each of them, including the best places and times to find them, keep reading below.
1. Barn Owl
Length: 12.6-15.8 in
Weight: 14.1-24.7 oz
Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 in
Barn owls are found year round in Virginia and across the entire country. During the day they hide in dark, quiet places like abandoned barns or other man-made structures, but at night they soar across open fields and grasslands looking for a meal.
They have pale white faces with dark eyes, and light tan bodies with gray markings on their heads, necks, and upperwings.
They’re adept at using sound to locate small rodents, using their talons to capture prey in the darkest of conditions — even under snow or vegetation. To eat, they swallow their meals whole and spit out the indigestible remains as pellets.
At night you may see them as a flash of white gliding by, or hear their alarming, piercing call.
2. Eastern Screech Owl
Length: 6.3-9.8 in
Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz
Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 in
Even though Eastern screech owls are found year-round in Virginia, you’ll have to have good eyes to find them. Their grey and red-brown patterned feathers give them excellent camouflage for blending into trees.
Find them nestled in empty tree cavities in most kinds of woods and forests, often near water sources. A good way of locating them is to listen for their trills at night, which sound somewhat similar to a horse’s whinny.
These small owls will also accept nest boxes, so consider putting one up on your property to attract a breeding pair. For best results make sure to install it a good while before breeding season, which begins in April.
3. 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 possibly the most iconic owls from literature, story books, and other media. Their signature deep hoot, feathered tufts on their heads, and large, yellow eyes make them easily recognizable among other owls.
They’re found year round in Virginia, in a large range of habitats including deciduous and evergreen forests, new forests with clearings and open areas, and even swamps.
Their soft, fluffy feathers keep them warm in the winter, and allow them to fly silently — a strong advantage when it comes to ambushing small rodents and other prey.
4. Barred Owl
Length: 16.9-19.7 in
Weight: 16.6-37.0 oz
Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 in
Barred Owls year-round owls in Virginia. They roose during the day in large evergreen and deciduous forests. They’re fairly large owls with mottled brown and white plumage, and dark eyes. Their soft brown coloration blends right into the trees they roost in during the day.
Barred owls wait until nightfall to hunt. The best way to find them is by listening for their distinct calls that sound like they’re saying “who cooks for you?” If you hear it, try imitating it back. If you wait quietly and patiently, they may even fly over to scope you out.
These birds don’t travel or migrate very far from their homes. Set up a nesting box in a mature forest to attract a breeding pair. For best results, install the box well before breeding season which occurs between March and August.
5. Northern Saw-Whet Owl
Length: 7.1-8.3 in
Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz
Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 in
As if these tiny, elusive birds weren’t already hard to see — only non-breeding populations of Northern saw-whet owls are found in Virginia. In a large portion of the state they are even more scarce.
These owls are only about the size of an American Robin. They have cute faces with yellow cat-like eyes and large heads for their small frames. Like cats, they don’t get along with songbirds. In fact, a good way to tell if one is around is to observe small birds making a ruckus, which they often do when trying to get a roosting Northern saw-whet owl to scram.
It’s thought that their name comes from the sound a saw makes when sharpened on a whetting stone. If you listen closely on quiet nights from January to May, you might just hear their short, high pitched toot-toot-toot call.
6. Long-eared Owl
Length: 13.8-15.8 in
Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz
Only non-breeding Long-eared owl populations are found in Virginia. They’re pretty hard to spot due to their secretive nature and excellent camouflage. During the day they lay low in dense forests, coming out to open areas at night to hunt.
Like other owls, listening for their calls is the best way to locate them. Listen for their long, deep hoots and barking calls during spring and summer nights. They roost together in large numbers during the winter, giving you a good opportunity to observe them.
7. Short-Eared Owl
Length: 13.4-16.9 in
Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz
Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 in
Non-breeding populations of Short-eared owls are found in Virginia. They tend to stay near open areas such as grasslands, keeping close to the ground and on low tree limbs.
Dawn and dusk is the best time to look for them. Unlike most owls, they can also frequently be seen in the daylight. Keep on the lookout for their pale faces with yellow eyes outlined in black.
When they fly they flap with smooth, stiff beats, making their flight appear graceful and effortless. Their broad, rounded wings help them cruise over open lands and fields without making a sound.
That flight pattern changes when it’s time to hunt, though. When chasing after their prey they tend to fly close to the ground, changing direction unpredictably.
8. Snowy Owl
Length: 20.5-27.9 in
Wingspan: 49.6-57.1 in
Consider yourself lucky if you manage to catch a glimpse of a Snowy owl in Virginia. They only appear here in irruptions — generally unpredictable, large migrations of birds. Otherwise they’re either up in the arctic tundra, Canada, or the very northern portions of the U.S.
They’re very large owls, larger than even Great horned owls, with smooth, rounded heads and bulky, heavily feathered bodies. Their beautiful, white plumage with black speckling makes them stand out from other owls.
Also unlike other owls, they can be spotted sitting on the ground, or close to the ground, in open areas. They sometimes perch on rises and dunes, close to shore near bodies of water like lakes and oceans.