Small Owls of North America (11 species)

When most people picture and owl, what comes to mind is a large, majestic bird-of-prey. While many owls are quite large, there are also a wide variety of small owls. These little predators are tiny but fierce, remaining hidden amongst trees and snatching birds and rodents at night. What are some of the smallest owls in North America? We’ve compiled a list of 11 small owls that measure under a foot in length. 

Small Owls

The majority of the owls on this list, found in North America, are only between 5-10 inches tall!

1. Boreal Owl

boreal owl in tree
Boreal Owl | image via Pixabay
  • Scientific Name: Aegolius funereus 
  • Length: 8.3 to 11 inches 
  • Weight: 3.3 to 7.6 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 21.6 to 24.4 inches 

The Boreal Owl is most commonly found throughout Canada and Eurasia, but has been spotted in some northern U.S. states, such as Washington, Montana, and Idaho. This somewhat quiet, small owl measures about 8 inches to 11 inches in length, about the height of an American Robin.

They prefer to reside in dense boreal forests, hence their name. Though the Boreal Owl does not typically migrate, deep winters may occasionally bring them further south to high elevation regions of the western U.S. 

Boreal owls have a slightly square head, yellow eyes, and a pale facial disk. They have a brown back with white spots, and a brown and white streaked belly. Hunting mostly at night, the Boreal Owl enjoys rodents, small mammals, and other birds. They perch still and wait for prey to come close, then strike using their sharp talons.

While they are small, they have the largest weight difference between females and males of any American owl species. Females are always heftier, weighing up to twice as much as males!


2. Burrowing Owl

two burrowing owls on the ground
Burrowing Owls | image by Seth Topham / Bureau of Land Management via Flickr
  • Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia 
  • Length: 7.5 to 9.8 inches 
  • Weight: 5.3 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 21.6 inches

Found across the America’s, the Burrowing Owl can be seen from southern Canada down through Argentina. In the U.S. they remain in Florida and southwestern states year-round, while others in the western U.S. migrate south for the winter. 

True to their name, Burrowing Owls burrow in the ground, either creating their own burrows or taking over the homes of prairie dogs, turtles, or ground squirrels. They’re a sandy brown with white spots, blending well into their habitat, which makes them hard to spot but also helps them hunt. They have a round head, yellow eyes, and long skinny legs. 

Cowboys of the old west used to call them the “howdy owl,” due to their tendency to bob up and down in front of their burrows. The Burrowing Owl prefers prairies, deserts, and grasslands, but will also find a home in ditches, golf courses, and even airports. Unlike most owls, they’re fairly active during the day and stay low to the ground. They feed on large insects and rodents, but many Burrowing Owls eat lizards, frogs, and snakes as well. 


3. Western Screech Owl

photo by: Shravans14 | CC BY-SA 4.0
  • Scientific Name: Megascops kennicottii 
  • Length: 7.5 to 9.8 inches 
  • Weight: 3.5 to 10.8 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 21.6 to 24.4 inches 

Measuring under 10 inches in length, with a wingspan of 21 to 24 inches, the Western Screech Owl is another type of small owl, commonly found in the western half of the U.S., stretching into Canada and down into Mexico. They’re short and stocky, feature a square head, and have distinct tufted ears. With plumage almost resembling the bark of a tree, these birds of prey camouflage well and are hard to spot. Western Screech Owls are most active at night and you may hear their high-noted hoots accelerate in short bursts. 

The Western Screech Owl prefers high elevations in forests, roosting in holes in hollowed-out trees, nest boxes, or other large crevices. They may find their way to residential neighborhoods or urban parks, but are more often found in woods and deserts. They typically eat large insects, but will also eat rodents, bats, and even mammals larger than themselves, such as rabbits. 


4. Eastern Screech Owl

eastern screech owl popping out of a tree cavity
Eastern Screech Owl | image by Susan Young via Flickr
  • Scientific Name: Megascops asio 
  • Length: 6.3 to 9.8 inches 
  • Weight: 4.3 to 8.6 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 18.9 to 24 inches

Eastern Screech Owls don’t actually screech. Instead, their call sounds like an owl doing an impression of a whinnying horse. A low pitched trilling sound. Popular in the eastern U.S., but also common in the midwestern states, this bird of prey is roughly the size of a Robin.

Small in stature but big in nighttime presence, the Eastern Screech Owl camouflages well with the trees, making it very hard to spot. They blend in well with bark, and can appear gray, brown or reddish-brown. They prefer wooded areas, living in tree crevices, nooks, and holes, in suburban, urban, or rural areas. 

The Eastern Screech Owl isn’t typically active during the day, but you may hear a ruckus from small birds and squirrels if one is in the area. They’ll use backyard birdbaths and nesting boxes, but are known to eat songbirds, their young, and eggs. Like most birds of prey, these small owls eat rodents, large insects, and other small birds or bats. 


5. Northern Saw-Whet Owl

northern saw-whet owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl | image by David A Mitchell via Flickr | CC BY 2.0
  • Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus 
  • Length: 7.1 to 8.3 inches 
  • Weight: 2.3 to 5.3 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 16.5 to 18.9 inches 

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a small owl that is considered a true night owl, since it’s rarely seen during the day. Located throughout southern Canada and most of the U.S. states, except for southern Texas and Florida, this bird of prey measures less than 9 inches in length and has a wingspan of 16.5 to 19 inches.

Named for the whistle-y toot sound it makes, said to resemble the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whetstone, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl features mottled brown plumage with white spots on its round head. Typically nesting in dense forests, this small owl prefers nooks and holes, such as that of abandoned woodpecker and squirrel holes or crevices. These birds of prey feed on mice most of the time but will also eat other small rodents. 


6. Whiskered Screech Owl

Imag: Bettina Arrigoni | CC 2.0 | wikicommons
  • Scientific Name: Megascops trichopsis 
  • Length: 6.9 to 7.4 inches 
  • Weight: 3 to 3.5 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 15.7 to 19.7 inches 

The Whiskered Screech Owl measures less than 8 inches in length. They prefer high elevations and are often found in the mountains of Mexico, but may be seen in the southern Arizona canyons. This small owl is active at dusk, hunting at night, eating mostly large insects and sometimes small rodents. Another example of a small screech owl that doesn’t actually screech. Their call is more like a morse code of low-pitch hoots. 

The Whiskered Screech Owl, which may also be referred to as the Spotted Screech Owl, looks very similar to other screech owls. They’re the smallest of the three types, gray in color, and feature small ear tufts. This elusive bird of prey prefers to feed on large insects, but if opportunity knocks, it’ll catch small rodents or lizards, too. 


7. Northern Pygmy Owl

northern pygmy owl
Northern Pygmy Owl | image by Alan Schmierer via Flickr
  • Scientific Name: Glaucidium gnoma 
  • Length: 6.4 to 7.1 inches 
  • Weight: 2.1 to 2.5 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 14.5 to 16 inches 

From the mountains of western North America, perching in conifer trees, the Northern Pygmy Owl is fairly active during the day. Happy to feast on songbirds, this small owl can be spotted in populated areas where groups of songbirds gather to chase it away or where you hear a single or double whistle-hoot in short succession. Measuring only 6 to 7 inches in length, this small owl is brown with a white-speckled, round head and no ear tufts. 

The Northern Pygmy Owl is rather aggressive and prefers to eat other small birds. It has no problem targeting birds that visit bird feeders, so beware. But this bird of prey will also eat small rodents, lizards, and large insects. 


8. Ferruginous Pygmy Owls

photo by: Ninahale | CC 4.0 | wikicommons
  • Scientific Name: Glaucidium brasilianum 
  • Length: 6.5 to 7 inches 
  • Weight: 2.2 to 2.7 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 14.5 to 16 inches 

The Ferruginous Pygmy Owl is widespread in Central and South America, but only rarely found in the southwestern U.S. With a wingspan of about 15 inches and a body length of 6.5 to 7 inches, this small owl likes cactus deserts, forests, and woodlands. There aren’t many Ferruginous Pygmy Owls around so they may be tougher to spot, but you may hear their call – a short, high-pitched repeated toot – at dusk and dawn.

Fairly aggressive, given how small it is, this bird of prey eats other small birds, rodents, lizards, and large insects. You’ll find the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl living in a giant cactus, hollowed-out tree, or an abandoned woodpecker hole. 


9. Flammulated Owl

Flammulated Owl
Flammulated Owl | image via Wikimedia Commons
  • Scientific Name: Psiloscops flammeolus 
  • Length: 5.9 to 6.7 inches 
  • Weight: 1.5 to 2.2 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 15.9 to 16.1 inches 

The Flammulated Owl features brown- and red-streaked plumage, resembling tree bark. It blends well with its surroundings, which can make it very difficult to see. Its small stature and low-pitched hoot makes it even harder to spot because it’s difficult to tell where the sound is coming from. And since this small owl is mostly active at night, it’s a rare treat to see a Flammulated Owl at all. 

Residing in western North America, the Flammulated Owl prefers the canopy of coniferous trees that make up the mountains and forests. Staying high up in pine and fir trees, they forage for insects, relying on their sight to catch crickets, moths, and beetles. When winter hits, Flammulated Owls migrate to Mexico and Central America. 


10. Tamaulipas Pygmy Owl

Tamaulipas Pygmy Owl | image by Annika Lindqvist via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0
  • Scientific Name: Glaucidium sanchezi 
  • Length: 5.1 to 6.3 inches 
  • Weight: 1.8 to 1.9 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 3.4 to 3.7 inches 

Rarely seen, this threatened small owl, the Tamaulipas Pygmy Owl, is native to northeast Mexico and is thought to be decreasing in numbers due to logging. Not much is known about this pygmy owl but it features brown plumage with white feathering on its chest and belly. The Tamaulipas Pygmy Owl prefers to hide out in subtropical forests where it makes a nest in abandoned woodpecker holes. The call is high-pitched with a sequence of a few drawn-out hoots. They feed mostly on insects and lizards. 


11. Elf Owl

Image: Dominic Sherony | CC BY-SA 2.0 | flickr
  • Scientific Name: Micrathene whitneyi
  • Length: 4.7 to 5.5 inches 
  • Weight: 1.2 to 1.9 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 13 inches 

The smallest owl in North America is also the smallest owl in the world. The Elf Owl, aptly named, can be found in southern Arizona, New Mexico, parts of Texas, and northern Mexico. This tiny bird of prey prefers woodlands, forests, and deserts, making its home in abandoned woodpecker holes, whether in trees or cacti. Though the Elf Owl is the smallest owl in the world, it is a fierce predator and doesn’t hesitate to capture prey larger or heavier than itself. Though it mostly eats large insects, it also feasts on mice, lizards, and scorpions. 

The Elf Owl blends in fairly well with its brown and gray plumage. And though it may be hard to spot, it is active at night, eliciting a high-pitched sequence of yipping sounds that resemble a puppy barking or is reminiscent of laughing. You may see them hunting around lights on quiet roads as they work to catch insects.

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About Mary Richardson

Mary is an outdoor enthusiast, nature lover, and amateur birdwatcher that enjoys sharing her knowledge and experiences with others.