Barn Owl to Barred Owl: 5 Owls in Your Backyard

great horned owl

Get to know five of the most common night owls in North America: the barn owl, barred owl, great horned owl, snowy owl, and screech owl. Elusive but always somewhere nearby, these predatory birds may be living in a tree, hollow, or rafters near you. If you listen carefully at night, you may hear the characteristic hoot of one of these common North American owls.

Barn Owl

barn owl with heart-shaped face

These beautiful birds are known for their heart-shaped faces and affinity for the suburban lifestyle. They’re often spotted flying along human-made roads in the United States and Mexico, looking for rodents and insects. Instead of hooting, barn owls produce a 2-second scream that not only alerts all other barn owls within a 100-foot radius but also tends to wake their human neighbors. The majority of the owl pellets we collect come from families of barn owls who keep the same homes over generations.

Barred Owl

barred owl close-up

This black-eyed beauty asks one question: “Who cooks for you?” At least that’s what the barred owl’s call sounds like in English. Barred owls can be found throughout the eastern half of the United States and the southern provinces of Canada. Their meals of choice include small mammals of all sizes, which, naturally, are uncooked.

Great Horned Owl

great horned owl face with ear tufts

Arguably the most expressive owl of North America, at least by human standards, is the great horned owl. It uses two large tufts on its head to express its mood, much like humans’ smiles and frowns. In this picture, the great horned owl is warning the photographer to keep their distance. The great horned owl can be found anywhere throughout Mexico and the United States, and everywhere but the coldest parts of Canada. Their trademark sound is a “hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo.” 

Snowy Owl

snowy owl, female with black spots on white feathers

Above is a female snowy owl with a mix of black and white feathers. Female and juvenile snowy owls sport brown and black flecks, perfect for being out and about in light autumn snowfall. However, the male snowy owl’s feathers are almost entirely white, helping him to vanish in heavy snow. Snowy owls can be found throughout Canada year-round, visiting the northern United States in the winter. Listen for two low, raspy hoots to spot one of these winter-loving creatures.

Screech Owl

eastern screech owl

At a distance, this colorful owl is easily mistaken for a piece of bark. Much like the snowy owl’s white plumage helps it blend in with the snow. The screech owl’s pattern helps it disappear in the forest. There are more than 20 known species of screech owls in North America, and scientists are still determining how each is related. One distinguishing feature is the unique calls each species makes, which is also how different species of screech owl tell each other apart. Above is an eastern screech owl which can be found throughout the eastern half of the United States.

Owl Identification

Owls come in a great variety of colors and shapes, even within North America. The feather patterns of each species helps it to camouflage itself in its particular environment, while its unique calls help it to communicate. Owls can be tough to spot for 2 reasons. 

  1. Owls are active primarily at night when human vision is limited.
  2. Owls’ colorful feather patterns help them blend in with their surroundings.
The best way to spot an owl is with your ears. By listening to their unique calls, you can determine what kinds of owls are in your backyard. By listening and watching patiently, you may spot an owl with your eyes, too. To identify the owls in your area, consider ordering The Book of North American Owls for young readers or our favorite field guide for adults.

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