8 Owls in Virginia

Among all of the owl species that can be found throughout the United States, 8 owls can be found in Virginia.

The variety of natural habitats in Virginia makes for a variety of owls across the state. From deeply wooded forests to sandy barrier beaches, 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 “rapture” – 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.

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

1. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Scientific Name Aegolius acadicus                      
  • Size 7.t 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. These are the smallest owls in Virginia.

Northern Saw-whet Owls 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 urban areas. 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 this owl. This presents a problem in Virginia, as they are most likely to call during the breeding season; when they are less likely to be found in the state.

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, NY.

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 landmark for the holidays, 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


A small, well-camouflaged owl is likelier 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 Screeches 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. Both 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. The red morph is actually a reddish brown (rufous). There is a brown morph, but it is very rare in Virginia.

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. 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.

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.

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 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.

The time to find Short-eared Owls in Virginia is in winter. Look for them searching for prey during the day and at dusk actively hunting over grassland areas. 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).

5. Barn Owl

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


Slim, pale owl with a white heart-shaped facial disc, giving it an eerie look, especially at night.  A strictly nocturnal hunter whose call is a blood-curdling shriek instead of the more familiar hoot.

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 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.

6. 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 everywhere in the state of Virginia.

Sitting in the tree and watching for prey is how Barred Owls hunt. 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.

Barred Owls can walk up tree trunks by using their feet, beak, and wings, using them to gain “footholds” on the bark.

Although it is a large bird, 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.

7. Great Horned Owl

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


The largest owl in Virginia. Great Horned Owls have 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 Virginia, 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 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.

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 along the south shore of Long Island, sitting among the sand dunes in broad daylight.

Snowy Owls come out of the high arctic during the winter months in search of food, and the coastal beaches and dunes of Virginia are prime locations for their visits. They also like wide open spaces that remind them of their tundra home, so airports and large parks and preserves are other places to find them.

Snowy Owls live 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.

How many are sighted depends on both the lemming and owl populations in their breeding grounds – lots of lemmings and owls means that young birds will venture farther south in search of winter feeding grounds. Too few furry rodents and too many owls mean that an irruption occurs. These are not annual events, and also occur with other bird species (look up the current year “Finch Forecast” to find if your area will see boreal species like Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Crossbills this winter).

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 Virginia

There are owls all over Virginia.

Just because they’re mostly nocturnal doesn’t mean you won’t find them in the daytime. I’ve found Long-eared Owls perched on branches in broad daylight, Short-eared Owls flying over both grassland and sandy beaches, and Screech-owls sleeping in sun-drenched tree hollows.

Barn Owls are found throughout the state, but their population has been on the decline throughout the Northeast, so it makes it all the more difficult to find these elusive owls.

Northern Saw-whet owls can be found in Northern and Western Virginia during the winter; Eastern Screech Owls can be found all over the state, with higher numbers seen in the Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounding areas.

Long-eared and Short-eared Owls are winter visitors to Virginia. Long-eared Owls prefer the habitats of north and northwestern Virginia, where they like to roost in dense pine trees. These owls are less commonly seen than the similar Short-eared Owl.

Short-eared Owls prefer open fields and marshlands and are mostly found in the Northern and Eastern parts of the state. Active in daylight and at dawn and dusk, they are easier to spot hunting and flying low over fields.

Virginia is far from the southernmost edge of the Snowy Owl’s range. The best time to find them is when the Snowy population is large and the younger birds trek far from home in search of food during winter. Look on the beaches, dunes, lakeshores, and open fields of eastern and northern Virginia – they should be sitting right out in broad daylight. They are used to vast open vistas in their Arctic home, so think “tundra” when seeking these beautiful owls.

Great Horned Owls are year-round residents and can be found everywhere across Virginia. Eastern Screech, Barn, and Barred Owls are also permanent residents here.

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.

Where to Learn More about owls

The Virginia Chapters of the National Audubon Society have bird walks and field trips to provide opportunities to look for birds. Look at the websites for the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, Virginia Beach Audubon, and Richmond Audubon Society for activities and programs close to your location. 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, taking part in one of these programs or lectures enables you to get an up-close view of a Hoot Owl that you would never get in the woods.

This was just a brief foray into the eight species of owls found in Virginia. 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, tea, or hot chocolate, and go plan that Owl Prowl!

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