8 Owls in Delaware

Among owl species that can be found throughout the United States, there are 8 owls in Delaware. occasional visitor.

The habitats in Delaware make for a variety of owls across the state. From deeply wooded forests to open areas to sandy beaches, there are owls to find wherever 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.

These are birds that you may be more likely to hear than see, but that doesn’t mean that 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 that 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.

We’re going to start with the smallest owl found in Delaware and work our way up to the largest one.

For other birdwatching in Delaware see our articles on Backyard Birds in Delaware, Hawks in Delaware, Woodpeckers in Delaware, Ducks in Delaware, and Blackbirds in Delaware.

1. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Scientific Name Aegolius acadicus
  • Size 7.1 to 8.3 inches
  • Wingspan 16.5 to 18.9 inches


The Northern Saw-whet owl is one of the “cute owls”. Their name comes from the sound they make, kind of similar to a saw being sharpened across a whetstone. They are Delaware’s smallest owls.

Northern Saw-whets have large round heads with catlike faces and pale facial discs. They have big yellow eyes and no ear tufts. They are mottled brown with white streaking and a white “V” between their eyes.

Juveniles have a completely different look – cinnamon bodies with dark backs and a very prominent “V” between their eyes.

This is a deep woods owl, but they have also been found in suburban areas too. A strictly nocturnal hunter, the Northern Saw-whet Owl’s primary food source is mice. During migration, however, small songbirds can be on the menu.

This small owl is often prey for their larger Strigiform cousins, including Screech and Great Horned Owls, Accipiters such as Cooper’s and Broad-winged Hawks, and Peregrine falcons.

Saw-whets spend the daylight hours roosting in conifers, preferring to be around 10 feet off the ground and surrounded by camouflaging foliage. They are sometimes found by flocks of small songbirds, so if you are walking on a trail and notice the Chickadees making a fuss, there may be a Saw-whet Owl hiding up above you in the trees.

Bird 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.

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

Habitat loss has reduced the Northern Saw-whet population in the southern Appalachian area.

Northern Saw-whet Owls are not afraid to fly long distances over large bodies of water. One actually landed on a fishing vessel 70 miles off the coast from Montauk Point.

Call and Song

2. Eastern Screech Owl

  • Scientific Name Megascops (Otus) asio
  • Size 6.3 to 9.8 inches
  • Wingspan 18.9 to 24 inches


A small, well-camouflaged owl is more 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 bark and into tree cavities and recesses, becoming invisible.

Eastern Screech-owls are small owls with little ear tufts and dark beaks. The gray morph has dark vertical streaking, the red morph is reddish brown (rufous) with brownish streaking and some white underneath, and the brown morph is a dark grayish brown with dark brown streaking and some white underneath. All morphs have bright yellow eyes.

Gray and red are the most common colors, with red occurring about one-third of the time. Brown is the least found of the three color morphs in the east. The gray morph has excellent camouflage – it’s like playing “Where’s Waldo” – they can blend into hollow trees so completely that they can be impossible to find. If you’re staring at a tree thinking that you saw something and the tree bark winks at you, it’s an Eastern Screech Owl.

This is another of the “No Hoot” owls. Screech owls whinny like horses. They call starting at dusk, and you are more likely to locate a Screech Owl by its call rather than by sight.

Screech Owls do use nest boxes, so having a box on your property may convince them to set up a house in your yard.

Bird Notes

Screech owls like cavities in trees that face south or east, to catch the morning sun and warm them up.

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

Birders who are good at making bird calls use the Screech Owl whinny to stir up small birds like Wrens and Chickadees in wooded thickets. The little birds come out to see where the “dangerous owl” is.

Call and Song

3. Barn Owl

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


Slim, pale owls with white heart-shaped faces, give it an eerie look, especially at night. A strictly nocturnal hunter whose call is a blood-curdling shriek instead of the more familiar hoot. This is one of the most common owls in Delaware, although habitat loss is a concern for these birds.

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.

Bird Notes

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

Barn Owls are one of the owl species that are prone to be 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.

Call and Song

4. Long-eared Owl

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


Long-eared Owls are elongated, slender, medium-sized owls 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.

Bird 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 actually is.

Call and song

5. Short-eared Owl

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


The Short-eared Owl is found everywhere with the exception of 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 short 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 finds 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.

Short-eared Owls are not native to Delaware and are more likely found during fall migration. Look for them searching for prey during the day and at dusk actively hunting over open country grassland areas near fresh or brackish water. In-flight they present rounded wings with dark wingtips and moth-like movements.

Bird 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).

call and song

6. 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 here in Delaware, you may find birds with gray or browner feathers.

Young owlets 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 small rodents, other 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 own specifications. Check any nests or large tree cavities 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.

Bird 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.

call and song

7. Barred Owl

  • Scientific Name Strix varia
  • Size 19-20 inches
  • Wingspan 39 to 43.3 inches


A large owl with mottled brown plumage, dark eyes, and a yellow bill, the Barred Owl is found throughout Delaware.

Barred Owls hunt by sitting in a tree and watching for prey. They search for small mammals, and will even sit in trees over water and swoop down to take fish. Look for them around dusk and dawn.

Like many owls, Barred Owls don’t migrate. They spend their lives in the woods, usually close to a water source. Unlike Great Horned Owls, they are not usually found in urban areas.

Bird Notes

The Barred Owl’s call is the distinctive hooting “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” They love forests near water, so if you’re sitting in the woods around a lake, cup your ears and listen for the call.

Although it is a large owl, the Barred Owl’s fiercest predator is the Great Horned Owl, who will even poach eggs from Barred Owl nests. Although they live in the same areas, the Barred Owl will move if it finds a Great Horned Owl nesting nearby.

call and song

8. Snowy Owl

  • Scientific Name Bubo scandiacus
  • Size 20.5 to 27.9 inches
  • Wingspan 49.7 to 57.1 inches


Large, almost all-white owl with variable dark barring found only in winter, especially on the barrier beaches, sitting among the sand dunes in broad daylight.

Snowy Owls live in the Arctic Circle in 24-hour daylight, so they are active more during the day. These are very patient birds. They will perch on a dune or other good lookout spot for hours, surveying the open vista for signs of prey.

Snowy Owls come out of the high arctic during the winter months in search of food, and the open fields, meadows, prairies, lakeshores, grasslands, and coastal areas of Delaware are the places to look for them – but only in irruption years. Sighting a Snowy in Delaware is not impossible, but the odds of seeing them are better in irruption years.

How many are sighted depends on the owl and lemming population on their breeding grounds – lots of lemmings and a stable owl population means only young birds will venture south in search of winter feeding grounds.

Too few furry rodents and a large owl population mean that a Snowy Owl irruption occurs, with younger and older birds seeking food beyond the end of their winter range (New Jersey) and ending up on beaches and fields along the Eastern Seaboard. Snowy Owls have been sighted in Delaware in these irruption years.

This is not an every-year occurrence, so if you want to see Snowies, you may have to travel north.

Bird Notes

Snowy Owls are fast fliers – they have been clocked at speeds up to 50 mph.

You would think a big white owl would be easy to spot, but those white feathers act like camouflage in certain areas, especially along beaches and sand dunes. If you’ve gone on a Snowy Safari at the beach, you probably know that other white things like plastic bags and buckets can look just like owls.

One of my favorite fake owls was a mop head added to a duck blind by the hunters to keep geese and ducks from roosting on the blind. It actually fooled some people and made others do a double-take.

The rule is, if it blinks, it’s most likely an owl.

Are Snowy Owls touchy-feely? They can detect prey through the pads of their feet. Snowies can feel the vibrations of moving rodents through the snow. Their feet contain many special nerve endings that make this possible.




Some cool general owl fun facts

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

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

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 they 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.

Where to find Owls in Delaware

There are owls all over Delaware. Some of the best places to search are the First State’s wildlife refuges, state parks, and its National Wildlife Refuges (NWAs). Places like Bombay Hook and Prime Hook NWAs, Little Creek, and Milford Neck Wildlife Areas. Other good places for owls and other raptors are Cape Henlopen State Park, Brandywine Creek State Park, and Delaware Seashore State Park.

Just because they’re mostly nocturnal doesn’t mean you won’t find them 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 a Great Horned Owl sitting right outside my house.

Short-eared Owls prefer hunting over open fields and marshy areas, so brackish swamps and marshes are places to look, especially in winter. A tip is to look for Northern Harriers during the day and revisit the area at dusk to search for owls.

See Long-eared Owls in the winter. They prefer cooler areas and mature trees. Their communal roosting habit makes them easier to spot, but you will only hear them during the breeding season.

Northern Saw-whet Owls come to Delaware in the non-breeding season. Look for them during the winter months in dense vegetation.

Snowy Owls like open spaces and good observation perches, so look along the Atlantic Coast, the Delmarva Peninsula, and, on fence posts, dunes, and anything with a good, higher view (they like airports and golf courses too). These rare winter visitors are active in daylight, so look for something white and stationary (they tend to stay in one place and scan for prey).

Great Horned, Eastern, Screech, Barred and Barn Owls are year-round residents in Delaware.

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.


To learn about owls, raptors, and other birds, Delaware Audubon is an excellent source of information. Their many local chapters have various opportunities to look for birds. Look for a chapter close to your location and see if they run owl prowls, or sign up for a bird walk.

There are also some organizations that do raptor rehabilitation and utilize birds unable to be returned to the wild as teaching ambassadors for the public. While it’s not seeing a Great Horned Owl in the forest, joining one of these programs enables you to get an up-close view of one that you would never get in the woods.

This was just a brief foray into the owls of Delaware. 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 for these birds, a good pair of ears.

Get your thermos of coffee or hot cocoa and go plan that Owl Prowl!

Similar Posts