Mississippi is part of the Gulf Coastal Plain and is made up primarily of low rolling hills and lowlands. The state is famous of course for being named after the Mississippi River, being the home of Root Beer, and of course blues music . The river and its tributaries coupled with 19.4 million acres of forested land within the state, make for an attractive wildlife habitat for many species. In this article we’ll be focusing specifically on the owls in Mississippi, where and when you might spot them, and talk just a little bit about each one.
7 species of owls in Mississippi
1. Eastern Screech-owl
Scientific name: Megascops asio
Length: 6.3-9.8 in
Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz
Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 in
The Eastern Screech-owl is a year-round resident wherever trees are available in Mississippi. If a mysterious trill catches you ear in the middle of the night, that large sound came from an owl no bigger than a pint glass. They’re extremely common east of the Rockies and has adapted well to humans, so can also commonly be found in backyard nest boxes. Of course, they’re also very well camouflaged, so are rarely seen during the day.
The easiest way to find this owl is to listen to the sounds of angry smaller birds. When these birds, such as Blue Jays and chickadees, start to sound the alarm, they’ll swoop down around the Screech-owl while making noisy calls in an attempt to get the owl to move on by alerting other birds to their presence. Their biggest nuisance bird is the European Starling, as even though this owl is still a predator, the starling is capable of regularly displacing them from their nesting site and taking over to raise their own young.
2. Great Horned Owl
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
Length: 18.1-24.8 in
Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 in
Great Horned Owls have a tremendous amount of range throughout North America, and within Mississippi is no different. It’s the most common owl in the state, primarily found in semi-open areas with wide spaces between the trees. It has a large, booming hoot and two tufts that resemble horns, which is where it gets its common name from. It’s an adept predator that’s capable of taking down birds and mammals much larger than itself, even including other raptors such as Osprey. When larger prey isn’t available, it turns to scorpions, mice, and frogs.
This owl is well adapted to all weather, as it has extremely soft feathers that insulate against the cold that also serve to muffle the sounds of their flight when in pursuit. This amazing bird has a grip strength that can easily sever the spine of larger prey, and requires a force of 28 pounds to open the talons. If you ever hear a group of American crows getting agitated, they may be mobbing a Great Horned Owl – their most dangerous predator. They can continue harassing the owl for hours.
3. Barred Owl
Scientific name: Strix varia
Length: 16.9-19.7 in
Weight: 16.6-37.0 oz
Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 in
The Barred Owl is a common sound to hear in old forests and treed swamps, and their hooting call of “who cooks for you?” is especially common throughout Mississippi. It originated as a bird of the east, but has slowly been spreading through the Pacific Northwest and then southward into California. They’re very territorial, so many bird watchers use this to their advantage. If you find yourself in the woods at night and hear their call, you can try imitating the call with your own voice. If you’re lucky, one of these owls may fly in to investigate you and determine if you’re another owl encroaching on their territory.
They commonly live in the same areas as the Great Horned Owl, but will immediately vacate their territory when one is nearby, as this much bigger owl is their most serious predatory threat. This has led them to evolve some fantastic camouflage, and the young Barred Owls are capable of “walking” up trunks to better avoid this predator. They’re able to do this by grasping the bark with their bill and talons, flapping their wings, and slowly making their way back up the tree.
4. Short-eared Owl
Scientific name: Asio flammeus
Length: 13.4-16.9 in
Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz
Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 in
When living in Mississippi, your best bet of finding this rather silly looking owl is during the winter state-wide. They prefer open fields and grasslands, and have adapted well to humans by moving into airports as well, as the planes coming in for a landing displace insects for the owl to swoop up and catch. This open-country hunter is one of the world’s most widely distributed owls, and among the most frequently seen during the daytime. Their name both is and isn’t a misnomer – their ear tufts, like the Great Horned Owl’s, are so short that they’re often invisible.
This bird soars silently over grasslands on broad, rounded wings and is most active around dawn and dusk. They use their incredibly acute hearing to track and hunt small mammals and other birds. It’s also one of the few species that has appeared to benefit from strip-mining, as it’s been found often nesting on reclaimed and replanted mines. They’re a bird that’s capable of travelling long distances, as shown by their global distribution, and there have even been reports of these owls descending on ships hundreds of miles from land.
5. Barn Owl
Scientific name: Strix alba
Length: 12.6-15.8 inches
Weight: 14.1-24.7 Oz
Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 inches
The Barn Owl, with its distinctive screech, is a permanent resident of Mississippi and found throughout the entire state. This owl lives up to its name and can often be found occupying barns, and other abandoned structures. They also roost in hollow tree trunks and thick clumps of trees.
These nocturnal predators hunt open fields at night, looking for rodents, which they will swallow whole. This habit of swallowing prey in one gulp means that rather than passing from one end to the other, the owl forms “pellets” which it coughs up. These pellets give an excellent peek into the owl’s diet and are used by researchers to learn more about the owls and their feeding habits, as well as by students.
There are at least 46 varieties of Barn Owl worldwide. The North American version is the largest, while the smallest comes from the Galapagos Islands. The North American Barn Owl is twice the size of its diminutive island cousin. Despite their global presence, habitat loss is beginning to affect their populations in some areas.
6. Long-eared Owl
Scientific name: Asio otus
Length: 13.8-15.8 inches
Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz
Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 inches
The Long-Eared Owl is the most comfortable roosting in dense foliage. According to allaboutbirds.org, the Long-eared Owl has a “non-breeding (scarce)” range in the state of Mississippi. So while they aren’t terribly common in the state, they are there and can be found if you know when and where to look. Though they enjoy the woods for roosting, they need wide-open areas for hunting.
The ear tufts on its head that give the Long-Eared owl its name are not its only distinguishing feature. The male owl has a call that can be heard 1 kilometer (just over half a mile) away. The Long-Eared Owl has a variety of calls, it has a typical “hoot” and also makes a barking sound.
The Long-Eared Owl is an efficient hunter, with hearing so precise it can snatch insects in pitch darkness. They are extremely elusive animals but can be spotted by looking for their pellets on the ground. All owls have distinctly shaped pellets. In the winter, when they roost in groups, they may also be easier to spot.
7. 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
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a dainty owl that is a non-breeding resident throughout the state of Mississippi. They prefer to roost in evergreen trees and tends to stay very close to the trunk just above eye-level.
Even though they aren’t common to see in the state, they are the smallest of the owls in Mississippi. The tiny Saw-whet Owl is about the same size as a robin, which means that a mouse is a big meal. The deer mouse is a frequent meal of the Saw-whet Owl. The owl is so small that an adult mouse is enough food for two meals.
Saw-Whet Owls can often be located using songbirds. When an owl moves into the area, the songbirds are likely to kick up a fuss, in an attempt to drive the owl away.