|

8 Owls in North Carolina

Among owl species that can be found throughout the United States, there are 8 owls in North Carolina, although one of them is an occasional visitor.

The natural habitats in North Carolina make for a variety of owls across the state. From deeply wooded forests to open areas to sandy barrier 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.

Other Birdwatching in North Carolina

For other birls in North Carolina, see our article on Backyard Birds in North Carolina, Woodpeckers in North Carolina, Ducks in North Carolina, and Hawks in North Carolina.

We’re going to start with the smaller owls found in North Carolina and work our way up to the largest one.

1. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Scientific Name Aegolius acadicus                      
  • Size 7.t to 8.3 inches          
  • Wingspan 16.5 to 18.9 inches

Description

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 the smallest owls in the state of North Carolina.

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.

The smaller Saw-whet 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 it. They are most likely to call between January and May, during mating season.

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.

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.

2. Eastern Screech Owl

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

Description

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 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 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 is like playing “Where’s Waldo”, they can blend into a tree cavity so well that they can be impossible to find.

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.

3. Barn Owl

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

Description

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 the Tar Heel State, 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.

4. Long-eared Owl

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

Description

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.

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.

5. Short-eared Owl

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

Description  

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 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 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 year-round residents of North Carolina. 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. They are more likely to be seen in coastal North Carolina than inland.

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).

6. Great Horned Owl

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

Description

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 Vermont, 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 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.

7. Barred Owl

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

Description

A large owl with mottled brown plumage, dark eyes, and a yellow bill, the Barred Owl is found everywhere in North Carolina.

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.

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.

8. Snowy Owl

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

Description

Large, almost all white owls with variable dark barring are 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 coastal beaches and dunes of North Carolina are the places to look for them – but only 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 birds seeking food beyond the end of their winter range (New Jersey) and ending up on beaches in Virginia and North Carolina.

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.

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 branchlings. 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 North Carolina

There are owls all over North Carolina.

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 even a Great Horned Owl sitting on a branch right next to the trunk of my big Norway Spruce.

Short-eared Owls prefer hunting over open fields and marshy areas, so coastal areas and brackish swamps may be the best places to see these birds, especially in cooler weather. A tip is to look for Northern Harriers, who prefer similar habitats, during the day and revisit the area at dusk to search for Short-eared owls.

Long-eared Owls prefer cooler mountain areas and trees, so look for them in those locations in winter months. Northern Saw-whet Owls are also winter visitors. Look for them in dense vegetation often standing close to the trunk of an evergreen tree.

Snowy Owls like barrier beaches and dunes. These rare winter visitors are active in daylight, so if they are around, coastal areas are where to look.

Great Horned Owls (find them anywhere) are permanent residents of North Carolina. So are Eastern Screech (anywhere there are trees with holes that usually face the morning sun), Barred (deciduous and evergreen forests, often near water), and Barn (anywhere) owls.

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.

Conclusion

To learn about owls, raptors, and other birds in North Carolina, as always, Audubon North Carolina and its many local chapters have numerous opportunities to look for birds. Look for one 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 eight species of owls found in North Carolina. 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 and go plan that Owl Prowl!

Similar Posts