13 Owls in Arizona

There are 13 owls in Arizona out of the 19 owl species in the United States

The varied habitats of Arizona make excellent homes for owls and other raptors. From deeply wooded forests to scrub, canyons, and deserts, there are owls to find everywhere you look.

Owls are part of an avian group known as Birds of Prey, which consists of hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, condors, and vultures. They are also referred to as Raptors, from the Latin “raptare” – to seize and carry off, which is how they take their prey.

While most of the raptors in the US are diurnal, meaning that they hunt during the day. owls are primarily nocturnal and hunt mostly at night.

You may be more likely to hear these birds than see them, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find them hanging out on branches or in the nest during the daytime.

Birding hint – Learn the calls of those owls most likely to be in your area. Sound helps you zero in on where they are, and knowing what you’re looking for is helpful too.

When identifying raptors, keep in mind that females are much larger than males. While this may make identification problematic with hawks, it’s not as much of an issue for owls.

Owls are silent fliers. Their rounded wings have fringed tips which muffle sound as they fly. Their wings are broad but their bodies are light, making them a sort of avian stealth jet while stalking prey.

Some of these owls are small and cute and some of them are large and scary. You decide.

For more birdwatching in Arizona see our articles on backyard birds, hawks, ducks, and woodpeckers.

1. Barn Owl

  • Scientific Name: Tyto alba               
  • Size: 13 to 16 inches                
  • Wingspan: 31 to 37 inches

Slim, pale medium-sized owls whose white heart-shaped facial discs give them an eerie look, especially at night.  A strictly nocturnal hunter whose call is a blood-curdling shriek instead of the more familiar hoot. This and their spectral appearance is why they are also called “Ghost Owls”.

The ghostly Barn Owl is gray and brown on top and mostly white underneath. Males tend to be paler all over than females.

These are owls with exceptional hearing and keen night vision. They prowl the nocturnal fields in search of mice and small rodents. Their heart-shaped face and asymmetrical ears enable them to hone in on a vole rustling through the grass.

A Barn Owl swallows their prey whole. What they can’t digest becomes part of the owl pellets found on the ground near the roost.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Barn Owls have dark brown eyes instead of the golden yellow orbs of most other owl species.

Barns and trees are not the only places Barn Owls are found. A Barn Owl nest was located in New York City’s Yankee Stadium.  

Barn Owls are one of the owl species prone to being hit by cars. Their low flights over fields make them susceptible to vehicles. Like most owls, their eyes only look straight ahead. When honed in on their prey, unless they turn their heads, they never see cars coming until they make contact with them.


2. Long-eared Owl

  • Scientific Name: Asio otus                 
  • Size: 14 to 16 inches          
  • Wingspan: 35.4 to 39.4 Inches

Medium-sized, long, and slender owl with large ear tufts that usually point straight up. A nocturnal hunter whose call is a single loud “Hoot!” They may be found roosting during the day, likely up close to the tree trunk for camouflage.

Large yellow eyes and an orange facial disc are other good field marks for this owl. Large rounded wings and streaked underparts also mark this owl, along with those prominent ear tufts.

Long-eared Owls are grassland hunting specialists, flying on silent wings over open ground to find small mammals and rodents. In daylight, they are hidden and well-camouflaged in the heavily treed woods surrounding meadows, fields, and open grasslands.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Long-eared Owls are loud! Their “Hoot!” can be heard from up to three-quarters of a mile.

Those big ear tufts make the Long-eared Owl look bigger than it is.


3. Great Horned Owl

  • Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus                 
  • Size: 18 to 25 inches                   
  • Wingspan: 55 inches

Large owls with distinctive long ear tufts (horns) and large yellow eyes. Another owl with varying plumages, cinnamon-hued birds are found more in the eastern areas, so while that’s the norm in Arizona, you may find birds with gray or browner feathers.

Juvenile owls look like little ghosts in ghillie suits. They are covered in fluffy whitish down, contrasting with their dark facial disks and those noticeable yellow eyes.

These owls hunt from a perch, looking down from high tree branches out over a field or meadow in search of rodents, small mammals, and even other birds.

Great Horned Owls take over standing structures from other large raptors, especially old Red-tailed Hawk nests, and spruce them up to their specifications. Check any nests you find closely – there may be little ear tufts sticking up from the twigs and branches. Young owls are very well-camouflaged in their nests.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Great Horned Owls tend to stay close to home; they don’t migrate.

Other names for the Great Horned are Tiger Owl, because of their striped bodies, and Hoot Owl, due to their very familiar “Hoo H’ Hoo Hoo Hoo”. A Great Horned Owl hoot can be heard up to ten miles away.

Great-horned owls are the largest of the tufted ear owls.

When stressed, Great Horned Owls will snap their bills, hiss, and scream. If you hear American Crows cawing and screaming, they have probably located a Great Horned Owl and will continue mobbing it until it either tries to get away or the crows move out. Great Horned Owls are one of the crow’s biggest predators.


4. Short-eared Owl

  • Scientific Name: Asio flammeus             
  • Size: 14 to 17 inches                
  • Wingspan: 34 to 40 inches

The Short-eared Owl is found everywhere except for Australia and Antarctica, making it the most widely distributed owl in the world. They are long-distance migration specialists and are undaunted by flights over water.

A rounded head and tiny ear tufts mark the medium-sized Short-eared Owl, along with dark eye patches on a white face, giving them a sort of spooky look. The streaked plumage of this owl varies in color from light brown to dark, allowing for great camouflage among the different habitats they call home.

Short-eared Owls are ground nesters, unusual among the owl population. Their coloration makes them very well-camouflaged. While they are hard for other predators to locate, should a hawk or larger owl find them, they will play dead until the hunter flies away. They will also do a “broken-wing” display if a predator comes too close to the nest.

The time to find Short-eared Owls in Arizona is in winter. Look for them searching for prey during the day and at dusk actively hunting over open grassland areas. In flight, they present rounded wings with dark wingtips and moth-like movements.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Short-eared Owls are only one of two owl species found on the Hawaiian Islands (the Barn Owl is the other). Both species were introduced to the islands to curb rodent populations.

Of the six species of owls that don’t live in forest habitats, only three inhabit North America – the Short-eared Owl is one of those three (the Snowy Owl and Burrowing Owl are the other two).

Like the Kildeer (a shorebird), Short-eared Owls will go into a broken-wing display to divert predators from their nest and young.


5. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus              
  • Size: 7.5 to 8.3 inches          
  • Wingspan: 16.5 to 18.9 inches

Northern Saw-whet owls are “cute owls”. Their name comes from the sound they make, similar to a saw being sharpened across a whetstone.

Northern Saw-whet Owls have large round heads, catlike faces, and pale facial discs. They have big and bright yellow eyes and lack ear tufts. They are mottled brown with white streaking and a white “V” between their eyes. Juveniles have a different look – cinnamon bodies, dark backs, and a prominent “V” between their eyes.

These owls are primarily found in heavy woods but are found in urban areas too. A nocturnal hunter, the Northern Saw-whet Owl’s primary food is mice. During migration, small songbirds can be on the menu.

The smaller Saw-whet is often prey for their Strigiform cousins, including Screech and Great Horned Owls. Other potential predators are Accipiters such as Cooper’s, Broad-winged Hawks, and Peregrine falcons.

Nocturnal birds, Saw-whet Owls spend daylight hours roosting in coniferous forests, perching around 10 feet off the ground and surrounded by camouflaging foliage. They are sometimes found by flocks of small songbirds; if you are walking a trail and notice Chickadees making a fuss, there could be a Saw-whet Owl above you in the trees.

Interesting Facts & Notes

These tiny owls are hard to see, so learning their call will help you locate them. They are most likely to call between January and May during mating season.

Northern Saw-whet Owls can fly long distances over water – one landed on a fishing vessel 70 miles off the coast from Montauk Point, NY.

A Northern Saw-whet Owl found itself in Rockefeller Center during the holidays by accident. It was nesting in the Christmas Tree that stands in the Big Apple landmark. The tree was cut down in Oneonta and transported 170 miles to New York City with the owl snug inside its branches for the whole ride.


6. Elf Owl

  • Scientific name: Micrathene whitneyi       
  • Size: 4.7 to 5.5 inches       
  • Wingspan: 13 inches

The Elf Owl is the world’s smallest owl, and its smallest raptor too. With a large head, short tail, and bright yellow eyes, this diminutive bird is a “cute owl”, but a fierce predator too.

This is a tiny owl without ear tufts. Elf Owls are a mottled combination of gray, brown, white, and rufous, with white “eyebrows” over their large eyes. Their faces are usually a warm brown. Parts of their upper feathers are white, making two visible stripes on their sides.

These little raptors are summer visitors to the American Southwest. Your ears are the best tool for finding them – they yap like little puppies, so follow the sound. During daylight hours, look for them in holes in mature saguaro cacti or sycamore trees.

Instead of building their own home, the Elf Owl prefers an already-established hole to nest in. Abandoned woodpecker excavations are always available and easy to re-occupy.

These strictly nocturnal owls are primarily insect eaters but will take small prey too. They forage at night for their food, both in the air and on the ground.

Interesting Facts & Notes

While many owls see snakes as prey, Elf Owls will bring thread snakes back to their nests alive, so the snakes can eat any parasites that have infested the nest or the nestlings.


7. Western Screech Owl

  • Scientific Name: Megascops kennicotti        
  • Size: 7.5 to 9.8 inches           
  • Wingspan: 21.6 to 24.4 inches

A small, well-camouflaged owl, most likely to be heard at night rather than seen. In daylight, these raptors’ ability to blend in against a tree is uncanny (especially the gray morph). They are perfectly patterned to disappear against the tree bark and into tree cavities and recesses, becoming invisible.

Western Screeches are small owls with short ear tufts and dark beaks. The gray morph has dark vertical streaking, and the brown morph is a dark grayish brown with dark brown streaking and some white underneath. The red morph is reddish brown with brownish streaking and some white underneath (this rufous version is mostly found in the Pacific Northwest). All morphs have yellow eyes.

In Arizona and the rest of the southwestern United States, the gray morph is a paler gray than in other parts of the country.

Gray and brown are the most common colors, with red occurring about one-third of the time. Red is the least found of the three-color morphs in the western United States. The gray morph is like playing “Where’s Waldo”, they can blend into a tree cavity so well that they can be impossible to find.

They call starting at dusk, and you are more likely to locate a Screech Owl by its call rather than by sight.

Screech Owls are cavity nesters (including holes in cacti) but do use nest boxes, so having a box on your property may convince them to set up a house in your yard.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Screech owls like south or east-facing cavities in hollow trees, using the morning sun to warm them up. They have a habit of pressing their heads and bodies close against the tree to further camouflage themselves, making them difficult to see even in broad daylight.

Young Screech Owls are fierce competitors for food. They will toss the smallest owlet out of the nest to get more food from their parents.

If you hear a commotion from small birds like Wrens and Chickadees, there may be a Screech Owl nearby.


8. Flammulated Owl

Flammulated Owl in nest at Kelowna BC Canada, June 2022
  • Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus   
  • Size: 5.9 to 6.7 inches                 
  • Wingspan: 15.9 to 16.1inches

Flammulated means flame-shaped markings. This bird’s plumage looks like the remains of a forest fire, with its blended grays and blacks. They would blend right in if they were sitting next to a charred tree trunk.

Flammulated Owls are a combination of gray, brown, rust, and white plumage. Like Screech Owls, there is a gray morph that has a lighter body and some brown feathers around its eyes, and a red morph with rufous plumage among the gray. There is also an intermediate plumage variant.

They have a very Screech Owl-like appearance, with short ear tufts (which are often held flat), but are smaller than the Western Screech Owl. Flammulated Owls have dark vertical stripes down their chests and always have dark eyes.

These owls inhabit mature mountain forests, often the tops of trees, and are cavity nesters. They roost in daylight and emerge at night to hunt insects in the canopy and understory.

Interesting Facts & Notes

A larger windpipe allows the bird to make a deep hoot, making sounds that appear to belong to a much bigger bird.

Size-wise, this bird is about the same as a child’s juice box.


9. Burrowing Owl

Scientific Name: Athenecunicularia         Size: 7.5 to 9.8 inches                        Wingspan: 21.6 inches             

A long-legged, underground-dwelling owl more at home in abandoned prairie dog and tortoise tunnels than trees.

Burrowing Owls are another of those “cute owls”, with their bright yellow eyes, long legs, and little rounded heads. Adults are mottled brown with lighter spots on their heads and backs and a barred chest and belly. In addition to their yellow eyes, Burrowing Owls have white eyebrows and throats.

The main locations for Burrowing Owls are grasslands: golf courses, prairies, agricultural fields, culverts, roadside embankments, airport runways/taxiways, and vacant lots.

These owls are more likely to hop than fly. Burrowing Owls stay close to the ground, hunting insects, small rodents, birds, amphibians, and snakes. They are active both day and night, so it is possible to see them in broad daylight.

Interesting Facts & Notes

These tiny, cute owls store food in a separate “larder room” in their burrow.

Habitat loss is the main reason for the decline in Burrowing Owls. The loss of prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and tortoises means fewer underground tunnels for Burrowing Owls to live in.

Burrowing Owls will use abandoned PVC pipes to nest in.


10. Whiskered Screech Owl

  • Scientific Name: Megascops trichopsis          
  • Size: 6.3 to 7.9 inches              
  • Wingspan: 17.3 inches

This little owl is found in Southern Arizona, Southwestern New Mexico, and Mexico and is found at higher elevations than the Western Screech Owl. They look like Western Screech Owls, with their gray, black, and white plumage. The difference is in the hearing – both birds do not sound alike.

They are hard to tell apart from the Western Screech Owl where their range overlaps, in the lower canyons where the desert becomes treed. The Whiskered Screech Owls are smaller and sound completely different from the Western Screech Owls, so the best way to tell them apart is by sound.

Facts, Tips & Fun Stuff

The ranges of the Whiskered and Eastern Screech Owls do not overlap at all. In western North America, where the Whiskered Screech’s range does overlap with the Western Screech, they inhabit different habitats and altitudes.


11. Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

  • Scientific name: Glaucidium brasilianum      
  • Size:  5.5 to 7.1 inches          
  • Wingspan:  11.8 inches

A feisty, plump little owl that takes down prey larger than itself. This is a daytime raptor, so it may be easier to locate than most owls.

There are two color morphs – a grayish brown or a cinnamon rufous. Both morphs have fine white streaking on their heads. Their bodies have white plumage that appears as three white vertical lines down their chests and bellies. While the gray/brown morph has some white banding in its tail, the cinnamon/rufous morph does not.

These birds have no ear tufts. They do have a long tail, so their initial impression may have you thinking “songbird”, but their lemony-yellow eyes say “raptor”. They have distinct white eyebrows.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Most owls fly silently and have asymmetrical ears to better locate prey in the dark. The Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, on the other hand, has symmetrical ears and is a bit noisy in flight. They rely on sight more than hearing to track down their meals.


12. Northern Pygmy-Owl

  • Scientific name: Glaucidium gnoma        
  • Size:  6.3 to 7.1 inches                   
  • Wingspan:  12 inches

A small owl with a large rounded head and no ear tufts, the Northern Pygmy-Owl is a diurnal hunter unafraid to take on songbirds larger than themselves. They are about the size of a robin.

They are brown with white spotting on the head and back, with whitish underparts and dark barring on their chests and bellies. These petite owls have large yellow eyes and a yellow bill. The tail is long compared to other small owls.

The reddish morph is rusty-brown all over with a spotted head.

To deter larger predators, they have 2 false eye spots on the back of their heads to confuse anything that would try to eat them.

In winter, these raptors move from the montane forest to lower elevations, where they are often found in urban and suburban habitats.

Interesting Facts & Notes

The flight profile of Northern Pygmy-Owls is similar to a woodpecker’s – an undulating flight instead of a straight line.

Like the Ferruginous and other pygmy owls, the Northern Pygmy-Owl has symmetrical ears, due to their being a diurnal raptor.


13. Mexican Spotted Owl

  • Scientific name: Strix occidentalis lucida               
  • Size:  17 inches                
  • Wingspan: 39 inches

A medium-sized owl with mottled white and brown irregular spotting on its body. The Mexican Spotted Owl is found throughout Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and parts of Mexico.

Paler feathers in their facial discs form a sort of “X” between the eyes, which are dark brown. They are found in pine-oak and mixed conifer forests, and steep canyons.

Mexican Spotted Owls are the smallest of the three Spotted Owl species (Northern and California are the other two). Among the three subspecies of Spotted Owl, the Mexican subspecies is the lightest in coloration, with a paler facial disc.

These are nocturnal owls whose main prey is flying squirrels and woodrats. They will also take bats and other small mammals.

Interesting Facts & Notes

This owl is listed as “threatened” on the US Endangered Species List. The main threats to these raptors are wildfires, loss of habitat due to construction, and logging.


Owl Facts

Many owls have asymmetrical ears, meaning that their ears don’t sit directly across from each other. One ear higher and the other ear in a lower position makes them hear their prey far better than having both ears at the same level.

Owls have tube-shaped eyes. This provides them with better depth perception and allows them to see their prey from long distances. They can see for miles but don’t see very well up close.

Those tubular eyes are also why owls can move their necks up to 270 degrees. This movement may cut off circulation in their head, but they have a blood-pooling system that runs their brains and eyes until they move their neck and release the pressure on their arteries and veins.

Baby owls are called owlets. Before they get their full-flight feathers, they are known as branchlings. You can find them sitting on large branches, staring down at you with those big eyes.

Not all owls Hoot! Barn Owls hiss and scream, and Northern Saw-whet Owls sound like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.

Where to Find Owls in Arizona

Just because they’re mostly nocturnal doesn’t mean you won’t find owls on your daytime walk in the woods. I’ve found Long-eared Owls perched on branches in broad daylight, Short-eared Owls flying over both grassland and sandy beaches, Screech-owls sleeping in sun-drenched tree hollows, and even a Great Horned Owl hanging out on a branch next to the trunk of my big Norway Spruce.

Flammulated Owls seem to be located around the Phoenix area, in Maricopa County. Their preferred tree is pine and they will be high up in the canopy. Burrowing Owls like Phoenix too – you can find them there. Don’t overlook construction sites when searching for these owls.

Northern Saw-whet Owls like the higher elevations of Northern and Central Arizona.

Whiskered Screech Owls can be located in southeastern Arizona and in parts of New Mexico; Western Screech Owls are actually easier to spot because they prefer lower elevations and don’t mind being close to civilization.

Long-eared Owls breed in Arizona, in the north and western parts of the state. They are migratory and can be seen during spring and fall migrations.

Short-eared Owls are also winter visitors. They prefer a different habitat than their long-eared cousins – they like open areas, especially near water. Look for them in marshes and meadows and open fields.

Tip – Short-eared Owls hunt in the same habitat as Northern Harriers (hawks). If you see Harriers flying over a marshy or grassy area during the day, come back at dawn or dusk and look for Short-eared Owls.

The Great Horned Owl is a year-round resident, especially in the Sonoran Desert. Northern Pygmy Owls like the Sonoran Desert too.

Barn Owls are the most abundant owls in Arizona, and Maricopa County seems to be their favorite spot.

A note on Owl Etiquette

Owls are sensitive, secretive birds so please observe these few pointers when viewing or photographing owls:

  • Don’t get too close – if the owl looks at you frequently, you’re too close.
  • Stay on “the sidelines” and don’t enter an open area where an owl is hunting.
  • Use binoculars or a scope for viewing and a telephoto lens for photography.
  • Do not intentionally “flush” an owl.
  • If you use audio recordings, minimize their impact on birds, and follow the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.
  • Use discretion when sharing the location of an owl; usually, it’s best to provide details only to people you can trust to treat the owl safely.
  • Do not feed owls anything such as mice, which may cause them to get used to people and can also result in collisions with cars and buildings.
  • Avoid the use of flash photography, especially after dark.
  • Eliminate noise to avoid interfering with a bird’s auditory hunting – if you’re viewing from a car, turn off the engine; if you’re with others, talk in a whisper only when necessary.

Southwest Audubon is the go-to source for all things birds in the Grand Canyon State, including local information on what to see and where to see it.

Another prime source of information is Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology (Cornell Bird Lab) and their eBird tool (there’s way too much stuff on eBird to provide detail here – I create a checklist template here for places I’m traveling to, so I know what birds I may see on my trip – just go on it and explore the site). Oh, and it has mobile apps too!


This was just a brief foray into the owls of Arizona. We hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and will check out some of our other pieces on birds in the 50 States.

Remember, all you need to get started is a decent pair of binoculars, a good location, and a good pair of ears for these birds.

Get your flashlight and a thermos of coffee and go plan that Owl Prowl!

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