Utah is a state known for its magnificent landscapes and beautiful National Parks. Between Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, it can really look like you’re on another planet if you’ve never been to the state before. Places like these that are protected make wonderful habitats for wildlife where they can grow and thrive without fear of loss of habitat due to humans. In this article we’ll look at the species of owls in Utah that you may come across at various times of the year.
11 species of owls in Utah
Owls are primarily nocturnal birds of prey, with a few exceptions, that possess large forward-facing eyes, a hooked beak, and typically a loud call. They’re most well known for being silent flyers with fantastic hearing and sight. Out of the 20 species of owls found in North America, 11 of those are found in the state of Utah. Let’s take a look at them!
1. Flammulated Owl
- Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
- Length: 5.9-6.7 in
- Weight: 1.5-2.2 oz
- Wingspan: 15.9-16.1 in
The Flammulated Owl is a tiny, reddish owl found within a vertical stretch of forests with large trees through the center of Utah, extending north to south, during the breeding season in the summer. It’s scarcely larger than a small juice can, making it an extremely difficult animal to spot and considered a notable find for bird watchers. It spends the majority of its time foraging for insects near the tops of massive pine and fir trees.
This owl is highly migratory, wintering in Mexico and Central America, but because of its size and migratory habits, little else is known about its activities when there. They’re also so well camouflaged that finding one during the daytime is worse than finding a needle in a haystack. An interesting fact about this animal is that it’s able to make a deep, low-pitched hoot that makes it sound like a much larger owl, thanks to its unusually large windpipe!
2. Western Screech-owl
- Scientific name: Megascops kennicottii
- Length: 7.5-9.8 in
- Weight: 3.5-10.8 oz
- Wingspan: 21.6-24.4 in
The Western Screech-owl hunts in woods and deserts of western North America, and is found state-wide in Utah other than a small patch on the north eastern corner. They have an extremely wide range in diet, which includes everything from worms and crayfish to rats and bats. They’ve adapted well to human presence, and can often be found in urban parks and residential areas as well as the wilder places. They’ll often nest in backyard boxes, making them beloved by locals.
Despite its name, it doesn’t really “screech”; instead it’s more likely an accelerating series of hollow toots. Despite its smaller size, it’s a powerful predator that’s capable of taking down prey much larger than its own body, including cottontail rabbits. This is the type of owl most seen camouflaged against a tree opening, as they are capable of pressing their head and body feathers against the tree to properly blend in.
3. 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
The Great Horned Owl is the most commonly thought of owl, with its large booming hoot and long, horn-like tufts where it gets its name from. It can be found state-wide in Utah. This owl is a very adept predator that can take down birds and mammals much larger than itself, even including other raptors like ospreys. When larger prey isn’t available, it will also consume tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs. It’s one of the most common owls in North America and can be found in nearly any semi-open areas between the Arctic and the tropics.
This owl is well adapted to all weather, as it has extremely soft feathers that insulate against the cold and 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 large prey, and requires a force of 28 pounds to open back up. If you ever hear a group of American crows get agitated, they may be mobbing a Great Horned Owl, which is their most dangerous predator. They can continue harassing the owl for hours.
4. Northern Pygmy-owl
- Scientific name: Glaucidium gnoma
- Length: 6.3-7.1 in
- Weight: 2.1-2.5 oz
- Wingspan: 14.5-16 in
The Northern Pygmy-owl resides in the mountainous regions of Utah in the north and south of the state. They may be small, hence the name, but they’re ferocious hunters notorious for hunting songbirds. Unlike most owls, they hunt during the day, choosing to sit quietly and surprise their prey. When looking for this owl, the best course of action is to follow the sounds of mobbing songbirds, which is where they harass the owl until it flies away.
To further separate them from most owls, this species has a much greater reliance on vision and doesn’t possess the asymmetrically placed ears that most owls have to help pinpoint sounds. They have a distinctive pair of spots on the back of their neck though – this is believed to give the illusion to attackers and mobbers that the owl still has eyes on them.
5. Burrowing Owl
- Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
- Length: 7.5-9.8 in
- Weight: 5.3 oz
- Wingspan: 21.6 in
Burrowing Owls, like the name suggests, live in underground burrows they’ve dug themselves or taken over from a prairie dog, ground squirrel, or tortoise. Their habitat includes the grasslands and other open habitats state-wide in Utah, as they use these large fields to hunt mainly insects and rodents. Their recent decline in numbers can be directly tied to the decline of prairie dogs and ground squirrels in the area and human alteration of their habitat.
Unlike most owls where the female is larger than the male, both sexes of this species are the same size with little sexual dimorphism present. They’ll store extra food in their burrows to ensure adequate supplies during incubation and brooding, and when food is plentiful their stores can grow extremely large – one such cache was found to contain more than 200 rodents.
6. Long-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio otus
- Length: 13.8-15.8 in
- Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz
- Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 in
The Long-eared Owl can be found year-round throughout the state of Utah, usually roosting in dense foliage where their camouflage makes them difficult to find. They’re extremely nimble flyers with hearing that’s so acute they’re capable of snatching prey up in complete darkness. Thanks to their long ear tufts that give them their name, they always seem to be wearing a surprised expression.
Should you find an owl pellet, it’s most likely from one of these animals. They swallow their prey whole, and then end up regurgitating the indigestible parts in pellet form, usually one per day. These pellets are essential for scientists to pick through to determine the diets of owls.
7. 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 Utah 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.
8. 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 in Utah, the best places to find this unique looking owl are open fields and grasslands, and more and more, around airport landing strips, waiting for planes to kick up prey for easy pickings. It has a relatively small non-breeding population, meaning they mostly winter within the state.
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 traveling 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.
9. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
- Length: 7.1-8.3 in
- Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz
- Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 in
Northern Saw-whet Owls are found year-round in southern and eastern Utah. In Northern Utah, closer to Salt Lake City, they are more rare to see. They’re small, robin-sized birds with large, round heads and big 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, preferring to lay low and avoid being noticed. Like most other owls, they’re also only active at night.
The best bet for catching a glimpse of a Northern Saw-whet Owl is to learn its call and listen for it at night. Luckily, they have a distinct call that sounds like a blade being sharpened with a whetstone, earning the name “saw-whet” owl. During late winter through early summer they tend to call more frequently, so be sure to listen to a high-pitched, “too-too-too” call around then.
10. Spotted Owl
- Scientific name: Strix occidentalis
- Length: 18.5-18.9 in
- Weight: 17.6-24.7 oz
- Wingspan: 39.8 in
The Mexican Spotted Owl is one of 3 subspecies of spotted owls, one of the largest owls in North America, and one of the 11 owls found in Utah. Those 3 subspecies are the Mexican Spotted Owl, California Spotted Owl, and the Northern Spotted Owl. Its listed as threatened by both the U.S. and Mexican governments. In the United States they are found in small pockets in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Nevada.
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. Over half of these are found in the U.S. with about 40% in Mexico. Another factor that contributes to their declining population is the Barred Owl who is bigger, more aggressive, and is known to drive them away.
11. 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
Only scarce, non-breeding populations of Great Gray Owls are found in the northeastern corner of Utah. These owls are more common further north in Canada and in the Pacific Northwest. They favor dense coniferous forests of fir and pine that also offer ample open areas for hunting. Spotting them is quite difficult, since they are quiet birds that avoid attention and stay away from places that are occupied by people.
Great Gray Owls are larger owls, bigger than even Great Horned Owls. Their size is mostly an illusion, though. Their thick feathers make them appear large, but their weight shows otherwise. However, they are still among the tallest species of owls, with broad wings and big, round heads. Their plumage is silvery brown all over with darker streaking and a pale “X” marking on their facial disks.