A-z - Animals

Types of American Owls

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Owls are nocturnal and mostly solitary, so many people are unaware that they are ubiquitous worldwide, except for a few remote islands and the coldest ice caps. There are more than 200 species of owls, and there are 19 species of owls in the United States.

Owls are considered birds of prey, meaning they are predatory birds that actively hunt other animals. Owls eat small mammals, small birds, fish and insects. Birds of prey are also known as birds of prey because of their excellent eyesight and strong feet with long claws for grabbing prey. Birds of prey are also known for their fast flight and hooked beaks for chopping up meat. Most raptors prefer live prey, but some, such as vultures and buzzards, are scavengers.

In this article, we discuss 19 species of owls that live or visit the lower 48 states of the United States. Population data for the U.S. and Canada are collated by Partners in Flight .

barn owl

barn owl photography perching alertness animal
Barn owls live in grasslands, farmland, and deserts.

© iStock.com/mzphoto11

The barn owl population is 120,000 and steadily increasing. These owls live in grasslands, farmlands, and deserts. Barn owls have long legs that allow them to hunt through bushes or snow. They have excellent eyesight and are very sensitive to sound. They can use sound alone to locate prey! 90 percent of the barn owl's diet is rodents and other small mammals. They are also monogamous and stay with one partner for life.

striped owl

most dangerous bird
The barred owl is also known as the owl or barred owl because of its distinctive plumage pattern.

© Jim Cumming/Shutterstock.com

The barred owl population is 3,100,000 and counting. The barred owl is also known as the owl or barred owl because of its distinctive plumage pattern; barred tans and browns. They prefer to live in mature forests and are threatened by deforestation. These owls are territorial and mark territory by standing on tree branches near the boundaries of hunting areas and singing. Their territories are often static and used by multiple generations of the same family.

northern owl

northern owl
Northern owls prefer areas with dense coniferous trees, especially those in mountain ranges.

©WildMedia/Shutterstock.com

Northern owls number 1,700,000 and live in boreal forests (also known as snow forests). They prefer areas with dense coniferous trees, especially those in the mountains. Northern owls are dark brown or rust colored and can be difficult to spot on tree trunks. They eat small rodents such as squirrels, gophers, moles, and shrews. Female northern owls weigh twice as much as males!

burrowing owl

Moulting Animals - Burrowing Owls
Burrowing owls are burrowing birds that live underground and prey on ground animals.

©Mauricio S Ferreira/Shutterstock.com

The number of burrowing owls in the United States is 1,100,000. Their numbers are declining due to habitat loss, pesticides and predators. As their name suggests, they are burrowing birds that live underground and prey on animals on the ground. Unlike most owls, burrowing owls hunt during the day. They prefer grassy meadows or other open areas for their homes where they can easily spot prairie dogs, their favorite food. The main reason for their decline is the prairie dog control program in North America, which has left burrowing owls without food to eat. Burrowing owls are about the same size as American robins!

eastern screech owl

eastern screech owl
Eastern screech owls are only nocturnal, spending their days nestling in hollows in tree trunks.

©mlorenz/Shutterstock.com

The eastern screech owl has a population of 680,000 in the United States and Canada. They have done an excellent job adapting to life near human development, but their numbers are declining due to deforestation. These owls are only active at night, spending their days nestling in hollows in tree trunks. Oddly enough, their calls sound less like screams and more like neighing horses. Eastern Screech Owls choose a mate and stay together for life!

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elf owl

elf owl
Elf owls are the smallest owls in the world.

©Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock.com website

The Elf Owl is the smallest owl in the world, weighing only 1.5 ounces! This owl is about the size of a sparrow. Widely distributed, mainly in the southwestern United States and Mexico. It prefers desert areas with bushes and trees and can often roost in old woodpecker holes inside trees or cacti. Elf owls' favorite foods are insects such as crickets, scorpions, centipedes, and moths. Elf owls number 40,000 individuals, and habitat loss in desert regions such as California and Arizona has made the species a threatened species.

Iron Gnome Owl

Iron Gnome Owl
Iron Pygmy Owls hunt during the day and you can see them nibbling on lizards, amphibians and reptiles.

© Jan Stria/Shutterstock.com

This owl lives in tropical, dry forests that range from southern Texas to Arizona. Fewer than 1,000 iron pygmy owls remain due to habitat loss; their land is being converted to urban housing by humans. Iron Pygmy Owls hunt during the day and you can see them nibbling on lizards, amphibians and reptiles. These little owls are only six inches tall and are brown with white stripes and light brown spots. They make the stereotypical hoot-hoot call that owls are famous for.

flame owl

flame owl
Fire owls nest in tree hollows and can give birth to up to four young at a time.

©iStock.com/Devonyu

There are 11,000 flamingos left in the western forests of the United States and Canada. Their numbers are steadily declining due to habitat loss and the use of pesticides. Fire owls are one of the few that prefer insects to mammals, so pesticide use can significantly affect their survival. Rarely taller than 6 inches tall, this little owl has a whopping 14-inch wingspan! Because of these large wings, they can fly very fast. Fire owls nest in tree hollows and can give birth to up to four kittens at a time!

great gray owl

Silver Animal - Great Gray Owl
Great gray owls like to hunt while sitting still on tree stumps or branches just a few feet off the ground.

©Erik Mandre/Shutterstock.com

Great gray owls also live in boreal forests. The boreal forest refers to the vast area extending from the mid-latitudes of North America to Eurasia. Due to deforestation, there are only 95,000 great gray owls left in the United States and Canada. Great gray owls like to hunt while sitting still on tree stumps or branches just a few feet off the ground. They listen and watch patiently with their excellent eyesight, then swoop down to snatch their prey. The giant gray owl, with a wingspan of over five feet, is truly awesome!

great horned owl

why owls hoot at night
Great horned owls are threatened by pesticide poisoning and illegal hunting.

© Imran Ashraf/Shutterstock.com

The Great Horned Owl population is 3,900,000 and is slowly declining. These owls have adapted to many environments, but prefer to hunt in forests next to open fields. Their survival is threatened by pesticide poisoning and illegal hunting. Great horned owls are fierce hunters and have been known to hunt osprey, peregrine falcons, and even other owls.

long eared owl

long eared owl
Long-eared owls are also known as tiger owls because of their unusual pattern of brown and white stripes.

©SanderMeertinsPhotography/Shutterstock.com

The long-eared owl is one of the few gregarious owls in the world. The number of long-eared owls in the United States and Canada is 140,000 and declining. Deforestation has caused their numbers to decline by 91 percent since the 1970s. These owls have long ears that are actually erect tufted feathers. The leading theory among ornithologists is that long-eared owls use their ears to communicate their intentions and emotions, just like dogs or cats!

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northern eagle owl

northern eagle owl
The northern eagle owl is threatened by deforestation.

©Svitlana Tkach/Shutterstock.com

The northern eagle owl numbers 100,000 individuals and lives mainly in boreal forests. They are threatened by deforestation, but their numbers have remained stable over the past few years. The Northern Eagle Owl is not migratory and prefers to stay within the same breeding range for life. They are also not nocturnal, only active during the day. You may spot them in March when they are actively mating and nesting on hollow tree stumps; they are especially fond of nesting in dead spruce trees. Northern Eagle Owls can spot prey up to half a mile away!

northern pygmy owl

northern pygmy owl
The northern pygmy owl lives in western forests and is threatened by habitat loss.

© Jordan Feeg/Shutterstock.com

With 100,000 northern pygmy owls remaining, their numbers appear to be stable. They live in western forests and are threatened by habitat loss where trees are removed. Due to their size and color (7 inches tall and taupe), they are difficult to spot, and most of the time, you will hear them calling from the top of the tallest tree around, but you will not be able to find the bird. These owls are about the size of a house sparrow, but they hunt twice as much prey!

Northern Sawmill Owl

Northern Sawmill Owl
Due to their large ears, the northern sawmill owl has excellent hearing and can pinpoint the location of prey.

©iStock.com/bookguy

The northern sawmill owl population in the United States and Canada is 2 million and counting. They have done a good job of adapting to human habitation and expanding their range to include extensive forests. They are named for a particular sound that sounds like a saw blade being sharpened. Due to their large ears, the northern sawmill owl has excellent hearing and can pinpoint the location of prey. They can even hunt in total darkness!

short eared owl

short eared owl
The short-eared owl is threatened by pesticide poisoning and habitat loss.

© iStock.com/Harry Collins

The short-eared owl population in the United States and Canada is 660,000 and is declining. They are threatened by pesticide poisoning and habitat loss. Their numbers have declined by more than 65 percent since the 1970s due to continued human use of pesticides. You may spot a short-eared owl in your area, as they live from coast to coast across the United States and hunt during the day. You'll be most likely to spot them during mating season (March-April), when male short-eared owls will make much fanfare to attract a mate. The male dances and flaps his wings to lure his mate, and once mated, they stay together for life!

snowy owl

Is an owl a mammal
Snowy owls are also known as arctic owls, arctic owls, and white owls.

©iStock.com/Pasforward

The snowy owl is also known as the arctic owl, arctic owl, and white owl because of its white feathers. There are only 30,000 snowy owls left in the United States and Canada, and the numbers are dwindling. There are about 64 percent fewer snowy owls alive today than there were in 1970. This decrease is due to illegal hunting and climate change. As the name suggests, snowy owls winter in southern Canada and the northern United States, and prefer the arctic tundra as their home. Female Snowy Owls (white with brown spots) can reach a total length of 28 inches with a wingspan of over 6 feet!

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spotted owl

male spotted owl
Spotted owls live in old-growth western forests and are threatened by habitat loss.

©CM Corcoran/Shutterstock.com

There are only 15,000 spotted owls left in the US and Canada. Despite being a federally protected bird, deforestation has negatively impacted its population. They live in old-growth western forests and are threatened by habitat loss. Spotted owls sit and wait for predators as they perch patiently on tree branches all night, waiting for an unsuspecting squirrel, wood rat or deer mouse to pass by.

western screech owl

western screech owl
The western screech owl lives in western forests along waterways.

©Steve Bruckmann/Shutterstock.com

The western screech owl lives in western forests along waterways. They often hunt animals twice their size! There are 220,000 western screen owls left in the United States and Canada. The loss of forests threatens them, leaving them nowhere to nest and roost. This screech owl actually makes a high-pitched screech. It also sounds like barks, giggles, trills and whistles!

Whiskered Screaming Owl

Whiskered Screaming Owl
The long-bearded hooting owl is named for the whisker-like feathers on either side of its facial disc.

© Amanda Guercio/Shutterstock.com

The screech owl is a threatened species with fewer than 500 left in the wild. They live in pine and oak forests in southern Arizona and New Mexico, and continue through Mexico and Central America. Humans deforested, and this habitat loss nearly wiped out the bearded hooting owl. They get their name from the whisker-like feathers on either side of the facial disc. The hooting of the bearded screen owl sounds like whoop !

Fun Facts About Owls

  1. Many owls have ears at various heights on the owl's head. These asymmetrical ears help them locate their prey with great precision.
  2. Owls have two forward-facing toes and two backward-facing toes. If they need to walk on their feet, they can turn one of the back toes to the front!
  3. Certain species of owls swallow their prey whole.
  4. A group of owls is called a parliament of owls.
  5. An owl's eyeballs are completely different from human eyeballs. The owl's eyes are shaped like tubes, similar to a pair of binoculars. This eye shape allows them to zoom in on prey from a distance.
  6. The owl's neck can rotate 270 degrees. But they couldn't take their eyes off it!
  7. Not all owls hoot – many hiss, hiss, screech, whistle and bark.
  8. Owls have a flat face (called a face plate), which amplifies sound ten times more than round-faced birds.
  9. Owls have three eyelids! One is to clean the eyes, the other is to blink, and the third is to sleep.
  10. Many owls have fringed feathers that make them completely quiet in flight.
  11. Almost all female owls are larger than male owls.
  12. Small owls are called owls.
  13. The oldest owl ( Orinmegalonyx oteroi ) found in the fossil record was three feet tall and lived 55 million years ago.

Next:

  • Owl Predators: What Do Owls Eat?
  • top ten raptors
  • Eagle Size Comparison and Wingspan: Biggest Raptor?

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featured image

Burrowing owl perched on a twig with leaves
Burrowing owl populations are declining due to habitat loss.

© iStock.com/Philou73


about the author

heather hall


I'm a freelance writer with 22 years of experience. I live in the Pacific Northwest surrounded by nature. When I do my daily runs, I often see herds of elk, deer, and bald eagles. I have two dogs that take me on hikes in the mountains where we see coyotes, black bears, and wild turkeys.

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