Spotting Signs of Owls

baby great horned owl in nest

Though there are many differences between the 250 individual species of owls, there is one thing they are all known for: staying out of sight. Look and listen for the signs of owls in your neighborhood, and you may even find one in your own backyard!

Owls leave behind certain things as they go about their business. Naturalists of all ages and backgrounds can spot these owl signs, if they know where and when to search for them. Frequent signs of owls in one area indicates that a nest or roost is nearby. Owls only use nests for raising baby owlets. A roost, on the other hand, is an owl’s favorite hiding spot for taking a daytime nap.

Owl Feathers

Owls shed their feathers every summer in a process called molting. Their flight feathers are the largest, most colorful, and most identifiable feathers, which they molt one at a time while flying, preening, and stretching. The area immediately around an owl nest or roost may have a few scattered feathers, though the interior will have many more. If you spot a feather, look for specific colors and patterns to identify the type of owl the feather may have belonged to.

Great horned owl feathers are tan with dark brown stripes running horizontally down the feather like a tiger’s back. A barred owl feather is also tan with dark brown stripes except the stripes are thick and triangular, thickest where they meet the rachis, or center spine of the feather. Barn owl feathers are tan with dark brown stripes on one side, white on the other. Some only have a couple flecks of white at the base. Snowy owl feathers are mostly white but with black stripes near the tip. These black stripes are wavy like strokes of black paint.

Baby Owl Calls

baby great horned owls spotted in nest

The surest sign that an owl nest is nearby is the sound of owlets calling for their lunch. Baby owls call whenever they’re hungry—their stomachs are not on a schedule. Baby great horned owls make short, pleading screeches separated by a couple seconds of silence. The sound of hungry barred owl babies is more dramatic: 2-3 second raspy screeches that rise in pitch as if the owlet is asking a question. Baby barn owls make a ghostly rasping sound, a hushed version of the screeching sound adult barn owls are known for.

Owl Scat

bird scat on statue

“Scat” is a naturalist’s word for poop, which, as the picture book reminds us, everybody does. Owl scat is not to be confused with pellets: the long, ovular balls of fur and bone which owls regurgitate after swallowing prey whole. In fact, owl scat is nearly indistinguishable from the poop of other birds. Owl scat is a white solid that looks similar to paintball splatter. It looks identical to the white smears of poop that other birds leave on windshields and on the sidewalk. A spot on the ground with several blobs of white speckle, or bird scat, is a sign that a nest or roost is above. Barn owl scat is frequently found next to buildings if the owls have taken up residence in the roof. If you ever see an area with several pieces of white scat all in one spot, look around. You may be able to spot the entrance to the birds’ home.

Owl Pellets

As owls swallow their prey whole, they must regurgitate pellets of fur and bone as a part of the digestion process. This icky-sounding process actually tells naturalists a lot about the owls’ health and diet, as well as the surrounding rodent and insect population. Though they can be found anywhere an owl has visited, owl pellets are found most often in and around their nest and roosts. Spotting several owl pellets in one area means their home is directly above you, likely in a hollow of a tree. See what owl pellets look like.

Using your eyes and ears, you can find signs of owls all around you. Keep your ears open for their calls, and your eyes open for the signs they leave behind.

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