Owls are must-haves on every birder’s life list. There are more than 225 species of owls in the world; at least a few species are found in every country and continent except Antarctica. It should be easy to see owls, right? Unfortunately, they can be some of the most challenging birds to find.
Why Are Owls So Hard to Find?
Compared to most bird species, owls are generally larger and bulkier, which should make them more easily visible. They also have broad ranges, many of them year-round, so they don’t migrate away from interested birders. Furthermore, many owls have even adapted to urban and suburban habitats, bringing them even closer to birders. So why are these birds still so hard to see?
- Owls Are Nocturnal
Most owls are nocturnal and are primarily active after dark. Not only is this when most birders aren’t out in the field, but there is less light available to easily see owls. Furthermore, many nature preserves are closed at night, right when owls are most active.
- Owls Are Secretive
These raptors are designed for stealth and have very secretive behavior in order to hunt more effectively. Many owls remain still and silent as they wait and watch for prey. While owls will hoot and make other sounds when attracting mates, it is more common for owls to stay quiet.
- Owls Are Camouflaged
Owls are some of the most heavily camouflaged birds. In fact, many owls can blend almost seamlessly into tree bark, even when perched in the open near a tree.
Fortunately, birders can work around each of these obstacles in order to see more owls.
See also: How to Attract Owls to Your Backyard
The Easiest Owls to Spot
Some owls are easier to spot than others. The easiest owls to find will often feature one or more of these traits:
- Diurnal – More active during daylight hours with hunting, preening, and other activities.
- Crepuscular – Active at dawn and twilight when there is still ambient light, rather than full dark.
- Urban or Suburban Distribution – More readily seen in easy-to-access habitats, including yards.
- Open Habitats – Preference for open habitats rather than heavily wooded areas.
- Larger Size – A bigger bird is easier to spot or notice even if it stays still and silent.
- Social – More willing to stay in family groups or small flocks instead of remaining solitary.
When an owl has several of these traits, it can be remarkably easy for birders to find it, if they know where to look.
Barn owls (Tyto alba) are some of the most sought-after owls to see. These birds have paler plumage with whitish underparts that helps them be easier to see. They’re often crepuscular and will even hunt in midday when prey is scarce.
Because barn owls nest in open structures such as silos, barns, and sheds, they’re accustomed to human presence. Barn owls often return to the same nesting sites, particularly structures and large owl boxes, so one barn owl family can become a familiar sight for birders to enjoy year after year.
Great Horned Owls
The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is one of the most widespread owls in North and South America. These are large, bulky birds with distinctive feathered “horns” on top of their head. Their size alone makes them easy to spot as they perch on sturdy branches.
Great horned owls owls have also adapted to rural and suburban habitats. They may be seen around barns or structures, often perching on windowsills or rafters. While these are solitary birds, they are unwelcome predators for many other birds and may be mobbed by crows, jays, or grackles. That vigorous activity can alert birders to wherever a great horned owl may be present.
The small burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) is a very easy owl to see. These are social birds and stay in family flocks for much of the year, giving birders the opportunity to see several owls at once. They nest in burrows in open areas and can even be seen on golf courses or athletic fields in urban parks.
In areas where the birds are managed and protected, burrows may be marked and the owls have become accustomed to humans nearby. These are also diurnal owls and are active throughout the day around their home burrows, making them even easier to spot.
Both the eastern screech-owl (Megascops asio) and the western screech-owl (Megascops kennecottii) feel right at home in urban and suburban areas. They will readily use owl boxes as well as nest in hollow trees.
When young screech-owls are growing, they stay in family groups near the nesting site for several weeks. This gives birders plenty of opportunities to watch their shenanigans as they practice short, fluttering flights or playful pounces. While their mottled camouflage does help conceal them, screech-owls can look like unexpected lumps or bumps on electrical wires or thinner branches, making them easier for birders to see.
See also: Talons VS Claws: What’s the Difference?
The barred owl (Strix varia) is a larger owl, and that makes it easier to spot in the suburban habitats it calls home. While these relatively common owls do prefer wooded habitats, they also tend to be more vocal than many other owls. Their distinctive “whooo-cooks-for-you, whooo-cooks-for-you-all” call can echo through suburban neighborhoods throughout late fall and winter as they establish territories and mating bonds.
Like other large raptors, they will also reuse nesting sites and may revisit the same large nest boxes or hollow trees for several years to raise more owlets.
See also: Birdsong Identification Tips
Seeing a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is an amazing moment for any birder, and these white northern owls can be easy to spot under the right conditions. They prefer open habitats such as scrubby fields, beach dunes, and rocky tundra, and they will also perch on rooftops and poles.
They are often active during the day and may look like unexpected bumps, snow-covered rocks, or even stranded plastic bags out of place in an otherwise level area. While their northern range is well away from many eager birders, winter irruptions can bring tremendous numbers of snowy owls much further south than expected.
No matter which owl a birder wants to see, it is important to be properly prepared for owling. When you’re ready to get out and see owls…
- Wear clothes that are quiet, without scuffing fabrics or jingling buckles that will scare off owls
- Cover flashlights with a piece of tissue to diffuse the light and not startle nocturnal birds
- Listen carefully for hoots, screeches, and whistles to find where owls are most active
- Join a dedicated owling walk at a nature center or birding festival for expert guidance
- Stay safe and respect other nocturnal wildlife, keep on visible paths, and never trespass on private property
Seeing owls can be an amazing experience for any birder, and understanding which owls are easiest to see and how to see them can help every birder add more owls to their life list.