Owls, mysterious and wise, are a favorite bird for many. They can be tiny enough to fit in the palm of your hand, or large enough to take on a hawk. In this article, we are going to look at all of the types of owls you can find in the United States.
Types of Owls in the United States
It is currently thought that there are about 21 species of owls throughout the United States and Canada. This is excluding the rare vagrants that may occasionally be spotted. Let’s look at photos of each and learn about what habitats they prefer and where you might be to find them.
If you want to find out which owls species you can find in a specific state, click here.
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 throughout most of the United States, with the exception of the states along the northern border of the country where they are rare or absent. They can be found mainly in 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. Barred Owl
- Scientific name: Strix varia
- Length: 16.9-19.7 in
- Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 in
- Weight: 16.6-37.0 oz
The beautiful brown and white striped barred owl is found mainly in the eastern United States and Canada, although there are some that have a range in the Pacific northwest. These birds really like to stay close to home, often not even leaving a 10 mile radius.
Although their range often overlaps with the great horned owl, they do not like to be in the same area as them. Great horned owls will actually go after barred owl eggs, young birds, and sometimes even adults.
Barred owls prefer mixed and mature trees near water, especially if there are large tracks of unbroken forest. You may spot them on a hike roosting in trees during the day. However, they are most active at night when hunting.
Their loud and unique hooting call is described as sounding like “who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”. During courtship a mated pair will perform a duet of all sorts of hoots, honks, caws and gurgles.
3. 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. They have a year-round range in some northwestern states, and a potential winter range in areas around the Great Lakes and New England.
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.
4. 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 year-round throughout much of Texas and Florida, as well as most areas along the southern border of the U.S. They travel further north into areas of the central and western U.S. during the 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.
5. Eastern Screech Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops asio
- Length: 6.3-9.8 in
- Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 in
- Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz
This tiny owl is common year-round across most of the eastern half of the United States.
Eastern screech owls can come in three plumage shades, gray, brown or “red” (which is really a reddish brown). No matter what color, the patterns on their feathers provide excellent camouflage for blending in with tree bark.
Their name might suggest they make a screeching or screaming sound, but this is not true. They don’t hoot, but rather make trilling sounds or “whinnies” that sound like a high pitched horse.
If you put up an appropriately sized nest box, you can attract eastern screech owls to your yard. These little owls are at home in farmland, city parks and suburban neighborhoods. Pretty much anywhere with some tree cover.
6. Elf Owl
- Scientific name: Micrathene whitneyi
- Length: 4.9 – 5.6 in
- Weight: 1.4 oz
- Wingspan: 10.5 in
Elf owls are pretty rare in the United States. During the breeding season, they can be found in southern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and parts of western Texas. Then they travel back down into Mexico for the non-breeding months.
The elf owl is considered the worlds smallest raptor, at less than six inches in length. You can identify elf owls by their tiny size, lack of ear-tufts that give them a round head, and brownish-gray feathers. They feed primarily on insects and arthropods, but will sometimes eat small lizards.
These owls are only active at night. Listen for them along canyon and desert roads. Their call is often described as “yapping” and sounding kind of like a puppy. They may hunt around lights that attract insects.
7. Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
- Scientific name: Glaucidium brasilianum
- Length: 6.5 -7 in
- Weight: 2.2 – 2.7 oz
- Wingspan: 14.5-16 in
Only found in southeastern Arizona and the southern tip of Texas, the ferruginous pygmy owl is considered threatened in the United States but still widespread in Central and South America.
Because of this they are considered to be rare in both states but can still occasionally be spotted in mesquite forests along rivers and in deserts dominated by saguaro cactus.
This species will hunt during dusk and dawn and may remain active during the day, feeding on songbirds, insects, small mammals, and lizards.
8. Flammulated Owl
- Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
- Length: 5.9-6.7 in
- Weight: 1.5-2.2 oz
The flammulated owl only comes to the U.S. from Mexico during the breeding season, although not much is known about their migration. They can be found in small pockets across the west in mature mountain forests.
These owls are quite small, 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.
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.
9. 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 span Alaska, Canada and Eurasia. Not many make it down into the continental United States, but there is a population that has a range that begins in northern Idaho and Montana and continues down mountainous regions into Colorado.
They’re 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. However they will use a nestbox if you happen to live in their range.
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.
10. 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. They remain year-round throughout most of Canada, the United States and Mexico.
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.
11. 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 are migratory. While some remain in the U.S. year-round, many only come to the United States during the winter, while spending summers in Canada. 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.
You can listen for their long and low hoots on spring and summer nights, but they are fairly silent during the winter. However they do roost together in flocks during the non-breeding season, so that may make them easier to locate than a lone owl.
12. 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. Outside of Mexico, you can find them in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado year-round, but are considered fairly rare.
The Mexican spotted owl is 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.
13. Northern Hawk Owl
- Scientific name: Surnia ulula
- Length: 14.2-17.7 in
- Weight: 8.5-16.0 oz
- Wingspan: 27.9 in
Northern hawk owls are generally found in Canada and Alaska, but their winter range can sometimes extend down into the northern United States.
These owls don’t typically migrate, so when they turn up in the U.S. it is usually after a good breeding season when the population is up, but the number of their prey animals is down. This means some owls will travel much further than normal to find food. Lucky for the bird watchers!
Like many owls, they have large, round heads with yellow eyes and white faces. However, like hawks, they tend to hunt during the day around dawn and dusk, perching atop trees before gliding after prey. Also like hawks, their eyesight is tremendous and they are able to spot prey from up to half a mile away.
When they make it down into the U.S., they tend to look for lakeshores, pastures and wooded farmlands.
14. 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. 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.
15. 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.
They stick around in all year in the northeast, west coast, and western mountains all year, but tend to be winter-only visitors to most other states. They prefer dense and mature forests, and have a diet mainly consisting of of small mammals such as mice and voles.
16. 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, Alaska and the northern United States. They travel to the middle and southern U.S. in the winter, and may remain year-round in the northwest.
As their name implies, they do have “ear tuft” feathers but they are so short as to almost never be visible. During the winter look for them in marshes, gravel and rock quarries, fields, woodlots and thickets. 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.
17. Snowy Owl
- 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 during the winter. The amount of owls and location in the U.S. can vary quite a bit year to year.
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 and beaches. Look for them on the ground on snowy beaches, 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.
18. California Spotted Owl
- Scientific name: Strix occidentalis occidentalis
- Length: 18.5-18.9 in
- Weight: 17.6-24.7 oz
- Wingspan: 39.8 in
California spotted owls live in a few patchy areas of California year-round, but finding them is extremely rare. It’s population has greatly declined due to the logging of old-growth forests, the spotted owl’s habitat. Competition with barred owls also makes survival more difficult.
Spotted owls are slightly smaller than barred owls, with broad, rounded wings, short tails, and round heads. They’re covered in mostly dark brown plumage, with white dappling throughout.
Their facial disks also feature a white “X” marking that helps identify them. Like most owls, spotted owls are active at night, when they hunt for small prey, mostly rodents. Their loud, deep hoots can sometimes echo for over a mile on still nights near forests.
19. Northern Spotted Owl
- Scientific name: Strix occidentalis caurina
- Length: 18.5-18.9 in
- Weight: 17.6-24.7 oz
- Wingspan: 39.8 in
The last of the spotted owl subspecies on our list, the northern spotted owl can be found in parts of coastal California, Oregon and Washington.
This subspecies needs mature conifer forests that are large and unsegmented with dense canopies. While they look similar to the barred owl, their overall coloration is dark brown rather than gray.
Spotted owls eat small to medium sized mammals as well as insects and small birds. They sometimes cache extra food in tree limbs or under logs.
The spotted owl, including this subspecies, has a declining population due to habitat loss with an estimated global breeding population of just 15,000 owls. Another factor that contributes to their declining population is the barred owl who is bigger, more aggressive, and is known to drive them away when they share the same range.
20. 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. year-round.
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.
21. Whiskered Screech-Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops trichopsis
- Length: 6.9 – 7.4 in
- Weight: 3 – 3.5 oz
- Wingspan: 15.7-19.7 in
This species mainly lives in Mexico and parts of Central America, but can be found in far southern Arizona and New Mexico. They look very similar to the above Western screech-owl, but are a bit smaller.
Whiskered screech-owls like oak woodlands at higher elevations and are sometimes found side by side with Western Screech-owls in the lower parts of canyons in southern Arizona. They hunt from dusk all through the night and nest in natural oak or sycamore tree cavities, or ones left by woodpeckers.