Blog Post Jennifer Errick Aug 1, 2019

10 Owls to Look (and Listen) for in National Parks

Owls make their homes in many national parks around the country, though they can be tricky to spot. Here are a few profiles of these elusive birds, which have been both revered and feared throughout human history.

1. Barn owl (Tyto alba)

Nineteen owl species live in the United States, and all of them are part of the same family, taxonomically speaking, except for the barn owl, which evolved in a separate lineage and makes a distinctive screeching noise rather than the “who” sound typically associated with owls. It is named for its habit of roosting in a variety of man-made structures, from barns to bridges to abandoned buildings. This versatility in choosing its habitat is one likely reason it is the most widespread of all owl species, with a range that includes nearly the entire contiguous United States as well as much of the world. Its heart-shaped face directs sound toward its ears, and its extra-soft wings make virtually no noise during flight — two traits that help it hunt effectively in near-total darkness.


2. Northern pygmy-owl (Glaucidium gnoma)

Small but fierce, this owl is only about 7 inches tall but will aggressively hunt and capture small mammals and birds twice its size — it has even been known to attack chickens, though songbirds at backyard feeders are more common prey. One of the least studied owls in North America, it lives in mountainous regions along the West Coast, nests in the hollows of trees, and is a rare diurnal species, meaning it is active during the day.


3. Eastern screech owl (Megascops asio)

The two species of screech owl in the U.S. — eastern and western — live primarily on their respective sides of the Rocky Mountains and have similar physical features but make distinctive sounds. Both types are predominantly gray, though some individuals of both types also have reddish or brownish coloring to their feathers. Although these owls do not actually screech as frequently as one might assume, they trill during mating season, among other vocalizations that may have helped them earn their name. These owls aren’t shy about nesting in human-made spaces, so if you have some in your neighborhood, consider building or buying a nest box for your yard.


4. Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus)

Snowy owls love the cold and spend their summers in the Arctic tundra and their winters in southern Canada, Alaska, New England, New York and the Northern Plains (and farther south, in smaller numbers). Females have brown markings on their feathers, whereas males have mostly white feathers to blend in with their frosty surroundings — most of the snowy owls that played Hedwig in the Harry Potter movie series were male. Although it is not the largest owl by size, the snowy owl’s thick feathers offer extra insulation from the cold and make it, on average, the heaviest owl species on the continent, weighing in around four pounds. Snowy owls have a particular taste for lemmings and may migrate to where these rodents are more plentiful.


5. Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus)

An aggressive hunter with a wide range throughout the continent, this bird is commonly pictured in storybooks and is the quintessential species many of us picture when we think of owls. Its deep hoots can be heard in a wide range of habitats, from forests to grasslands to swamps to deserts. It will typically steal a nest from another bird, such as a hawk or a crow, rather than make one from scratch. The great horned owl has the most varied diet of any North American raptor and will take down prey as diverse as rabbits, mice, voles, skunks, house cats, squirrels, ducks and other owls. It has even been known to attack porcupines — though these encounters often do not end well for either animal.


6. Northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina)

This federally protected bird is one of three subspecies of spotted owl, along with California and Mexican spotted owls. The northern subspecies primarily lives in forested areas of Canada, Washington, Oregon and northwest California, and its populations have been in decline for decades as timber harvesting has deforested its habitats. The bird was officially listed as endangered in the state of Washington in 1988 and threatened nationwide under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, prompting controversial changes to logging practices across the Pacific Northwest. In recent years, competition from the larger and more aggressive barred owl has exacerbated the northern spotted owl’s decline. Biologists at Mount Rainier National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore regularly monitor the animal’s population size and health, and both parks serve as important habitats for the species.


7. Boreal owl (Aegolius funereus)

This northern tree-loving bird can be hard to spot, due to its small size (just 8 to 11 inches tall), nocturnal and solitary behaviors, and silence for most of the year — though it will make a series of tooting noises when looking for a mate in the early spring. Named for the forests where it makes its home, it particularly loves spruce and fir trees and will perch in the branches, waiting for the chance to swoop down on its prey from above. The boreal owl has asymmetrical ears, with one higher on the skull than the other; this allows it to pinpoint sounds more accurately and, as a result, it can locate prey hidden under snow and vegetation.


8. Great gray owl (Strix nebulosa)

The great gray owl is the largest owl in North America, both in height (up to 2 feet tall) and wingspan (4.5 to 5 feet wide) — though both the great horned owl and snowy owl are heavier with more powerful talons, allowing them to hunt larger prey as a result. The great gray owl favors the cool temperatures of Alaska, Canada and the Northwest, but it also lives in a portion of California’s Sierra Nevada range, and a genetically distinct subspecies (Strix nebulosa Yosemitensis) makes its home in Yosemite National Park. According to the National Park Service, about 65% of California’s population of great gray owls live in this park, which provides the perfect mix of dense forest and open meadow the bird needs for nesting and hunting.


9. Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia)

One of the smallest owls on the continent, this diurnal predator generally lives in burrows that other animals such as prairie dogs, tortoises and ground squirrels have already excavated — though it will sometimes dig its own, and with the decline in prairie dog and ground squirrel populations, will even nest in pipes, culverts and other manmade structures. It perches on the ground, unlike many other owl species that nest in tree hollows or branches, and it uses its unusually long legs to raise itself up for a better view of its surroundings.


10. Long-eared owl (Asio otus)

This medium-sized bird shares a few traits with other species. Like the barn owl, the shape of its face (sometimes called a “facial disk”) helps direct sound to its ears, and its soft, fringed wings help it fly silently through the air. Like the boreal owl, its ears are asymmetrical, allowing it to pinpoint prey more accurately. These qualities help the owl hunt aerially, flying over open spaces or under the tree canopy to swoop down on its prey and capture small mammals with its powerful talons. Unlike other owls, long-eared owls will roost together during the winter. The male makes a typical “who” sound, whereas the female makes a bleating sound, similar to a lamb.


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About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.