From the boreal forests of Canada to the tropical climates of Mexico, North America has a wide range of climates and habitats for many types of animals. We recently covered the types of falcons, as well as the hawks of North America, so in this one we’re taking a look at the types of owls found in North America. We’ll show you some pictures to help you identify them, talk a little about where and when to spot them, and learn a few facts about each species.
Owls are personally among my favorite types of birds, and I’ve seen so few in the wild. I did however see my first great horned owl in the wild recently, it was a marvelous sight. Unfortunately for him, he was being swamped by 3 crows and a red-shouldered hawk that day. The funny thing is, I had actually heard that crows and red-shouldered hawks will team up to run off great horned owls. It was cool to see!
Anyways, let’s have a look at this list of owls!
19 common types of owls in North America
Here are 19 types of owls that you’ll find living in North America:
- Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Barn Owl
- Great Horned Owl
- Long-eared Owl
- Short-eared Owl
- Flammulated Owl
- Whiskered Screech-owl
- Western Screech-owl
- Eastern Screech-owl
- Northern Pygmy Owl
- Elf Owl
- Burrowing Owl
- Spotted Owl
- Great Gray Owl
- Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
- Snowy Owl
- Northern Hawk Owl
- Barred Owl
- Boreal Owl
There are a total of 34 species of owls found in Mexico alone, however many were sparsely populated and little was known about them. For those reasons I left a portion of Mexico’s native owls off of this list. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but just some of the most common species found in North America.
1. Northern Saw-whet
Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
Length: 7.1-8.3 inches
Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz
Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 inches
Northern is a bit of a misnomer for this owl which can be found all through the United States. Though some populations are migratory and travel south, there are Northern Saw-whet owls found throughout most of the lower 48 states at some point each year. Northern Saw-whet Owls can be found in portions of Canada and Mexico as well.
Saw-whet owls are small and nocturnal and may be difficult to see. They live in dense vegetation and make their nests in trees above eye-level. They are not difficult to hear. The shrill cries that give them their name can be heard echoing through the woods at night. Saw-whet owls can be found by watching for groups of songbirds mobbing their nests to drive them out.
2. Barn Owl
Scientific name: Tyto alba
Length: 12.6-15.8 inches
Weight: 14.1-24.7 oz
Wingspan: 18.104.22.168 oz
Barn Owls stay in their ranges year-round and do not migrate to breed. They are a permanent resident in the lower 48 states and Mexico, not in Canada however. Barn Owls stay away from the mountain regions but can be found in farmland and the High Plains. They can be found nesting in abandoned buildings and other manmade structures. They also dig burrows in arroyos if there are no man-made structures present.
Barn Owl pellets are directed in science classes across the country. Barn Owls swallow their prey whole which leaves their dropping full of bones. This makes their pellets a perfect record of their diet. Nesting Barn Owls stockpile prey in their nests to have food on hand for their nestlings. They will often have dozens of small animal carcasses stored.
3. Great Horned Owl
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
Length: 18.1-24.8 inches
Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
Wingspan: 32.1-88.2 inch
The Great-Horned Owl can be found all across the United States and everywhere else in North America. Like the Barn Owl, the Great-Horned Owl is non-migratory and can be found in their range year-round.
Great-Horned Owls are large and will often take down other large raptors as prey. Their massive talons require 28 pounds of pressure to open once they have closed to grasp something. They use their amazing strength to break the spines of their prey.
4. 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
Long-eared owls are common in the United States and south into Mexico for part of the year, their breeding grounds though are in northern states and Canada. Their preferred hunting grounds are open land, and they make their homes in dense shrubbery. Although it is wide-spread through the state, their shy nature means they are rarely spotted, and their habits are not as well known as those of other owls.
Though rarely seen, Long-eared Owls have a distinctive call that can be heard almost a half-mile away. The Long-eared Owl gets its name from the two long ear tufts that add to its look of constant surprise. Long-eared owls do not build their own nests. They make use of the abandoned nests of other birds. They will also occasionally use abandoned squirrel nests.
5. Short-eared Owl
Scientific name: Asio flammeus
Length: 13.4-16.9 inches
Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz
Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches
The Short-eared owl breeds in Canada and Alaska, and also has permanent populations in the northeastern parts of the United States. They travel south as far as Mexico for winter. Many midwestern and southern states are wintering grounds for the Short-eared owl. They will be seen over flat land like farmland or open plains as they fly low to hunt.
This owl is easier to spot than some other species since it is diurnal. Short-eared owls are messy eaters. They will remove the head and eviscerate their prey before swallowing the rest whole. Their diet does not only consist of small mammals. They will also occasionally eat birds. They will remove the bird’s wings before swallowing the rest.
6. Flammulated Owl
Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
Length: 5.9-6.7 inches
Weight: 1.5-2.2 oz
Wingspan: 15.9-16.1 inches
Flammulated Owls are still a mystery as fas as migration goes. However, there are a few breeding populations spread throughout New Mexico, California, Utah, Arizona, and other states in the western United States. They can be found in the mountain regions, especially in pine-oak forests and aspen groves.
The Flammulated Owl has an extremely low-pitched call for its size. This because it’s trachea is comparatively large. This is a helpful defense against predators who may be expecting a much larger owl. This small owl is more common than it was once thought. They are difficult to spot because of their size and ability to camouflage, and their tiny size.
7. Whiskered Screech-owl
Scientific name: Megascops trichopsis
Length: 6.9 – 7.4 in
Weight: 3.0 – 3.5 oz
Wingspan: 16-20 inches
The Whiskered-screech owl is mostly found in Mexico. There is a tiny population that makes its home in the corner where Arizona and New Mexico meet. This owl makes its home at higher elevations and stays in the treetops. Compared to its cousins the Eastern Screech-owl, and the Western Screech-owl, the Whiskered Screech-owl is an enigma. It is considered to be a threatened species.
Like the other Screech-owls, this owl has a very distinctive voice. Its call is described s sounding like Morse code. Though it can be heard, very few Whiskered Screech-owl nest have ever been found. Little is known about its behaviors because it is so rarely observed.
8. Western Screech-owl
Scientific name: Megascops kennicotti
Length: 7.5-9.8 inches
Weight: 3.5-10.8 oz
Wingspan: 21.6-24.4 inches
Western Screech-owls are non-migratory and inhabit a large portion of the western United States, into Mexico. Their range includes a large portion of California, Nevada, New Mexico and other states in this part of the country. Their habitat is in the trees, generally along canyons. They are not averse to living in the suburbs, or in the desert.
The Western Screech-owl does not screech as the name suggests. Instead, it makes a “too, too” sound. They blend in well with trees, and during the day they will often be hiding in plain sight, disguised by the tree bark.
9. Northern Pygmy-Owl
Scientific name: Glaucidium californicum
Length: 6.3-7.1 inches
Weight: 2.1-2.5 oz
Wingspan: 14.5-16.0 inches
The Northern Pygmy-owl is a permanent resident in the mountains of western North America. During the winter they move to lower elevations and often into areas more populated by humans. Despite this, they will not make use of nesting boxes the way other owl species do.
Many raptor species cache their prey for later. Northern Pygmy-Owls are one of these. They do not just cache their food in tree cavities or holes. They also hang their catches from thorns. These tiny owls are diurnal, and sit and wait for prey to come close enough for them to catch it.
10. Elf Owl
Scientific name: Micrathene whitneyi
Length: 4.9-5.6 inches
Weight: 1.4 oz
Wingspan: 10.5 inches
The tiny Elf Owl is a native to the American South West. Mainly found in Texas and Arizona, there is also a small population in New Mexico. They live in deserts nesting in woodpecker holes in cactuses, and in some woodlands. They migrate south and spend their winters in Mexico.
Elf owls are the smallest types of owls. They are threatened or endangered in the majority of their range. They are primarily insectivores, feasting on crickets, beetles, mice, and the occasional scorpion.
11. Burrowing Owl
Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
Length: 7.5-9.8 inches
Weight: 5.3 oz
Wingspan: 21.6 inches
Burrowing Owls are most common in the western half of the United States during the breeding months. In southern states like Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida they may be found all year. There is also a significant population of burrowing owls in Mexico.
They are at homes in deserts and grasslands, and true to their name dig a hole to make their nests. Burrowing owls have a unique method of making sure food is available while nesting. Aside from caching behavior, they will also place animal dung around the entrance to their burrow before laying their eggs. The dung attracts insects to the burrow which they can easily catch and eat.
12. Spotted Owl
Scientific name: Strix occidentalis lucida
Length: 16-19 inches
Weight: 19.5-23 ounces
Wingspan: 42-45 inches
The are 3 subspecies of this type of owl; the northern spotted owl, California spotted owl, and the Mexican spotted owl. The Mexican Spotted Owl is not just an inhabitant of Mexico though, it also has a permanent population scattered throughout New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado.
The habits of spotted owls are not very well known. We do know that spotted owls are naturally rare, and are now becoming endangered due to habitat loss. According to Partners in Flight, the global breeding population is estimated to be at 15,000 birds. 56% of those in the U.S., 4% in Canada, and 40% in Mexico.
13. Boreal Owl
Scientific name: Aegolius funereus
Length: 8.3-11.0 inches
Weight: 3.3-7.6 oz
Wingspan: 21.6-24.4 in
The Boreal Owl is most common in Canada, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. These owls make their homes in mountain ranges. Boreal Owls nest in trees but will also make use of nesting boxes. Very little is actually known about these owls, since they are nocturnal and for the most part located at higher elevations.
It is not uncommon for the female raptors to be visibly larger than the males, Boreal Owls take this to the extreme. Female Boreal Owls can be twice the size of males. Boreal Owls will find new sites to roost daily, making them even harder to observe.
14. Eastern Screech-owl
Scientific name: Megascops asio
Length: 6.3-9.8 inches
Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz
Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 inches
The Eastern Screech Owl is a common owl found in most wooded areas within its range. It is a year-round resident in the majority of the eastern half of the United States. The Eastern Screech Owl’s mottled brown and grey feathers, allow it to blend very well into the trees, making it a master of disguise.
The Eastern Screech Owl is an expert at hiding, but it produces pellets which it expels at the base of the tree where it lives. Not only does this provide a good opportunity to investigate the owl’s diet, but it also gives clues as to where you can find an Eastern Screech Owl.
Although Eastern Screech Owl typically mates for life, occasionally the male will mate with two females. When this happens the second female will kick the first one out of her nest. She will then lay her own eggs, and incubate both sets of eggs.
15. 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 in much of Canada and Alaska. While not as common in this region, they are also inhabitants of several northwestern U.S. states. They’re very large owls with broad wings and long tails, one of the tallest owls in America in fact. Their eyes appear small and close together on their big facial disks, giving them a unique expression. A white “X” pattern on their faces is another key identifier. Like their name implies, their bodies are covered in fluffy, silvery gray feathers.
Great Gray Owls tend to be elusive and difficult to spot, and not really the type to bring attention to themselves. They reside in dense pine forests and on the edges of meadows, avoiding areas with people. Like most owls, they are most active at night when they hunt, most often in the hours before dusk and dawn.
Fact: Great gray owls are the tallest owls in the United States, but not the heaviest. That title goes to the great horned owl.
16. Ferruginous Pygmy-owl
Length: 6.5 -7 in
Weight: 2.2 – 2.7 oz
Found mainly in Mexico, the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl is considered threatened in the United States. Luckily they are still widespread in Central and South America. They can occasionally be spotted in mesquite forests along rivers and in deserts dominated by saguaro cactus.
The ferruginous pygmy-owl is commonly active during the day, unlike other types of owls. They feed on songbirds, insects, small mammals, and lizards. They are permanent residents to small pockets in Arizona and Texas, but they are rare and populations are declining.
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 are not a common sight in the United States. Their habitat is generally much further north into Canada, Alaska, and even Greenland. Though Snowy Owls will occasionally appear and stay for the Winter in some U.S. states.
The snowy owl does have an irruptive winter range that seems to be going further and further south. An irruptive range is an irregular range and means they will appear some winters and not others. Snowy Owls that have established a site they winter at, will continue to use that same site.
If there are Snowy Owls near you, they are not as difficult to spot as other owls. They roost in obvious places, and unlike most other owls, they are diurnal and thus active during the day. Snowy Owls prefer wide-open spaces for hunting, but they will perch on a high point.
18. Northern Hawk Owl
Scientific name: Surnia Ulula
Weight: 8.5-16 oz
Length: 14.2-17.7 in
Wingspan: 28 in
Lifespan: 10 years
The Northern Hawk Owl is rare in the lower 48 states. They are much more common throughout Canada and Alaska. Northern Hawk Owl’s are a bit unusual because they aren’t nocturnal. They hunt primarily during the day, which means that they identify prey by sight and their hearing isn’t as acute as other owl species’. They behave like a hawk, and still look like an owl. Hence the name.
This medium sized owl has an oval shaped body with a long tapered tail and horizontal striping on the chest. It likes to sit on solitary tree tops to search for prey, and can be seen during the day. These owls mainly live in the boreal forests of Canada, but sometimes travel down in the northern United States in the winter. Populations have declined in Canada so they head south to look for food.
19. 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 that sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”. It originated as a bird of the east where it is still most common, but has slowly been spreading through the Pacific Northwest and then southward into California.
Barred Owls are some of the largest types of owls in North America with stocky bodies and smooth, round heads. Their eyes are wide and so deeply brown that they appear completely black. They have white and brown mottling all over their plumage, with vertical brown barring on their undersides and vertical barring on their upper parts.
They commonly live in the same areas as the Great Horned Owl, but will immediately vacate their territory when one is nearby, as the bigger Great Horned 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.