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All 9 Owls in North Carolina

owls in north carolina
Eastern Screech-Owl: Photo by Matt Zuro

Introduction

North Carolina is a state rich in birdlife and no group of birds is more iconic and sought after than the owls. The owls in North Carolina are diverse and fascinating. In this article, we’ll go through all nine species of owls in North Carolina, their features, habitats, behavior, and where in the state you might find them! Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll feel more informed on the state’s owls and inspired to go out looking for them (ethically, of course).

How Owls Fly in Silence

Owls possess remarkable adaptations that enable them to fly practically silently, a trait essential for their stealthy hunting methods. One key element of their silent flight is the specialized structure of their feathers. Unlike other birds, owl feathers have serrated edges that break up turbulent air and reduce noise during flight. Their flight feathers have velvety surfaces that further dampen sound by minimizing air turbulence. Not only that, owls have uniquely fringed wing feathers that disrupt airflow and muffle the sound of their wingbeats. Combined, these adaptations allow owls to glide through the air with near-silent precision, giving them a distinct advantage when stalking their prey under the cover of darkness.

Jump to a species!

Owls in North Carolina

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

  • Features: Barn Owls, characterized by their medium size, possess long, rounded wings and short tails. These features, along with their buoyant, loping flight, contribute to their unique flying style. Their legs are elongated, and their heads are smoothly rounded, lacking ear tufts. Barn Owls typically display a pale hue overall, with dark eyes. Their head, back, and upperwings exhibit a blend of buff and gray, while their face, body, and underwings appear white. In nocturnal conditions, they may present an entirely white appearance.
  • Behavior: Barn Owls typically seek shelter and rest in cavities, deserted barns, and various structures, as well as dense tree cover. During the night, they engage in hunting behavior, gliding close to the ground in a repetitive motion across open landscapes, relying primarily on sound to locate small rodents as their main prey.
  • Habitat: Barn Owls need expansive stretches of open terrain to hunt effectively, which can encompass marshes, grasslands, or mixed agricultural expanses. When it comes to nesting and resting, they favor secluded hollows, whether nestled in trees or found within human-made edifices like barns or silos.
  • Range: Barn Owls can be found scattered throughout the entire state. They often nest in human-made nest boxes in suitably safe habitat and feed on the small rodents that can be associated with domesticated areas.

Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

  • Features: The Eastern Screech-Owl presents as a compact, stout bird, characterized by a sizable head and minimal neck structure. Its wings are rounded, while its tail appears short and square. Notably, pointed ear tufts are frequently elevated, contributing to its unique profile. These owls may exhibit predominantly gray or reddish-brown (rufous) plumage, yet regardless of the overall hue, they feature intricate patterns of bands and spots that afford superb camouflage against tree bark. Their eyes are distinguishably yellow in color.
  • Behavior: Eastern Screech-Owls are primarily nocturnal creatures, frequently heard rather than seen, with their distinctive trilling or whinnying song being a familiar sound to many bird enthusiasts. Despite their elusive nature, these owls, which favor nesting in tree hollows, can be enticed to nest boxes and occasionally spotted during daylight hours near the entrance of their cavity dwellings, provided one has a keen eye.
  • Habitat: The habitat of the Eastern Screech-Owl is largely defined by trees. This owl species can be found quite commonly in various woodland environments, whether they be evergreen or deciduous, and in both urban and rural settings, with a preference for locations near water sources. However, it typically avoids habitats devoid of trees, such as expansive mountainous or plains regions.
  • Range: In North Carolina, these birds can be found (and especially heard) throughout the entire state.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

  • Features: Snowy Owls are impressive in size, featuring softly rounded heads that typically lack ear tufts. Their bodies are robust, adorned with thick plumage on the legs, which lends them a broad appearance when perched on the ground. These owls exhibit predominantly white plumage, often adorned with black or brown markings on the body and wings. Females may display dense markings, creating a salt-and-pepper appearance, while males tend to be paler and gradually become whiter with age. Their eyes are characterized by a striking yellow hue.
  • Behavior: To spot Snowy Owls, scan wide-open spaces where they frequently perch on or near the ground. They are commonly found on elevated positions like dune crests, fenceposts, telephone poles, and hay bales. When in flight, they typically maintain proximity to the ground.
  • Habitat: During winter, keep an eye out for Snowy Owls along the shorelines of lakes and oceans, as well as across agricultural fields and airport grounds. These owls breed in the treeless arctic tundra.
  • Range: In North Carolina, Snowy Owls are very rare visitors, usually in years when lemmings, the owls’ favored prey, are have population crashes much farther north, where Snowy Owls are regular. There are scattered records across the state.

Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus

  • Features: Great Horned Owls are notable for their substantial size and sturdy build, featuring two distinct feathered tufts atop their heads. Their wings are broad and rounded, and while in flight, their rounded head and short bill contribute to a blunt-headed silhouette. These owls exhibit a mottled gray-brown plumage, with reddish-brown faces and a tidy white patch on the throat. The overall coloration can vary regionally, ranging from sooty to pale tones.
  • Behavior: Great Horned Owls are active during the night, often observed at dusk perched on fence posts or tree limbs along the borders of open spaces, or gliding across roads or fields with powerful, deliberate flaps of their rounded wings. Their vocalization is characterized by a deep, stuttering series of four to five hoots.
  • Habitat: Search for this commonly found owl in wooded areas, especially young forests mixed with fields or other open spaces. Their adaptable nature allows them to inhabit a wide variety of habitats, ranging from deciduous and evergreen forests to swamps, deserts, tundra edges, and tropical rainforests. They can also be found in urban areas, orchards, suburbs, and parks.
  • Range: Great Horned Owls are common and can be seen anywhere throughout North Carolina.

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)

  • Features: Burrowing Owls are petite owls characterized by long legs and short tails. Their heads are rounded and devoid of ear tufts. Adult individuals display a brown hue with sandy-pale spots adorning the upper parts of their bodies. The breast is speckled, transitioning into dark brown bars on the belly. Notably, they feature a striking white throat and eyebrows, along with yellow eyes. Juvenile Burrowing Owls, on the other hand, exhibit less mottling than adults, sporting buffy-yellow underparts and wing patches in brown tones.
  • Behavior: Burrowing Owls typically occupy the ground or low perches, like fence posts, for the majority of their time. They engage in hunting near the ground, capturing insects and small prey. When startled, they exhibit rapid body jerking movements up and down. These owls are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day.
  • Habitat: Burrowing Owls inhabit open landscapes with limited vegetation, including prairies, pastures, deserts, shrubsteppe, and even airports. Within certain regions of their habitat, they form close associations with prairie dogs and ground squirrels, utilizing their burrows as nesting sites.
  • Range: Burrowing Owls are highly unusual visitors to North Carolina with only a few records across the state. They are generally found in the western United States.

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

  • Features: Barred Owls are sizable and robust owls, featuring rounded heads, absence of ear tufts, and medium-length, rounded tails. Their plumage displays a mottled pattern of brown and white, with notably dark brown, nearly black, eyes. The underparts predominantly exhibit vertical brown bars against a white background, while the upper breast is adorned with horizontal brown bars. Additionally, their wings and tail showcase alternating bars of brown and white.
  • Behavior: During the day, Barred Owls typically perch quietly in forest trees for roosting, though they may emit calls sporadically even in daylight. Throughout the night, they actively hunt small prey, particularly rodents, while emitting their distinctive and instantly recognizable “Who cooks for you?” call.
  • Habitat: Barred Owls inhabit expansive, mature forests comprising both deciduous and evergreen trees, frequently in close proximity to bodies of water. They construct their nests within tree cavities found within these forested environments.
  • Range: Barred Owls are regular all across North Carolina in wooded areas.

Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)

  • Features: Long-eared Owls are medium-sized and sleek owls characterized by their elongated ear tufts. Their head, nearly as wide as it is long, presents a square-like appearance. The facial disks are elongated and narrow. These owls exhibit a predominantly dark coloration, with buff or orange facial regions and intricate patterns of black, brown, and buff feathers. Their distinctive ear tufts feature black coloring with buff or orange fringes, while the face displays two vertical white lines between the eyes. Their eyes are a vibrant shade of yellow.
  • Behavior: Long-eared Owls are primarily active at night, with daytime hours typically spent roosting in dense sections of trees, often close to the trunk where their plumage offers effective camouflage. This species is known for its vocal nature, producing a diverse array of hoots, squeals, barks, and other vocalizations. When hunting, they glide low over open terrain, although they seldom begin hunting until after true darkness sets in. During winter, Long-eared Owls frequently roost together in communal groups.
  • Habitat: Long-eared Owls thrive in habitats that offer a blend of grassland or open terrain for hunting, and dense, tall shrubs or trees for nesting and resting. During winter, they prefer roosting sites within pine stands, as well as windbreaks or shelterbelts.
  • Range: Long-eared Owls are very irregular visitors or vagrants to North Carolina. They are more common further north and west in the U.S. and also in Europe.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

  • Features: Short-eared Owls are medium-sized owls characterized by their rounded heads, although the “ears” referenced in their name are not easily visible. They possess broad wings with smoothly rounded tips and a short tail. Their upperparts display a medium brown hue adorned with buff and white spotting. The face is pale, accentuating the striking yellow eyes outlined in black. The breast is heavily streaked with brown, while the chest and belly exhibit a pale or buffy coloring. Notably, their pale underwings feature a dark comma-shaped mark near the wrist, and the upperwings showcase a pale patch within the primaries.
  • Behavior: Short-eared Owls are diurnal hunters, actively pursuing prey during daylight hours by gliding low over short vegetation. Their flight is characterized by stiff flaps of their rounded wings, lending them a buoyant and mothlike quality as they soar.
  • Habitat: Search for Short-eared Owls in grasslands and open landscapes, where they commonly perch on low trees or directly on the ground.
  • Range: These owls are also not regularly seen in North Carolina but do have a wider range than their Long-eared counterparts.

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

  • Features: Northern Saw-whet Owls are diminutive owls characterized by their large, rounded heads devoid of ear tufts. They exhibit a mottled brown plumage, with a whitish facial disk and a head adorned with white spots. Their eyes are yellow in color. Juvenile Saw-whet Owls display a dark brown hue with a creamy yellow breast and belly.
  • Behavior: Northern Saw-whet Owls are primarily nocturnal and elusive, making them challenging to spot. However, they emit a shrill and penetrating call repeatedly. During daylight hours, they seek refuge in dense vegetation, often perching just above eye level and near the trunk of evergreen trees.
  • Habitat: Northern Saw-whet Owls primarily inhabit forested environments. They breed in expansive forests throughout northern North America, occasionally utilizing more open habitats like the shrubsteppe of the West, provided suitable nesting sites are present. During winter, they migrate to dense forests across the central and southern regions of the United States.
  • Range: Northern Saw-whet Owls can be found sparsely across North Carolina during the winter. North Carolina is on the southern end of the species’ wintering range.

Threats and Conservation

In North Carolina, owls face various threats to their populations, including habitat loss and fragmentation due to urbanization, deforestation, and agricultural expansion. This loss of suitable nesting and foraging areas can particularly impact species such as the Northern Saw-whet Owl, which rely on extensive forested habitats. Collisions with vehicles and structures pose significant risks to owls, especially nocturnal species like the Barred Owl and Eastern Screech-Owl. Climate change may also disrupt owl habitats and prey availability, further exacerbating their conservation challenges.

To mitigate these threats, conservation efforts in North Carolina focus on habitat restoration and protection, including the preservation of large tracts of forested land and the creation of wildlife corridors to connect fragmented habitats. Public education and outreach programs aim to raise awareness about the importance of owl conservation and promote responsible land management practices to safeguard these iconic birds for future generations.

Citizen Science

Citizen science initiatives play a crucial role in monitoring owl populations and contributing to conservation efforts in North Carolina. Programs like eBird, a popular online platform for bird enthusiasts to record and share their sightings, provide valuable data on owl distribution and abundance across the state. Citizen scientists contribute observations of owl species such as the Great Horned Owl, Barn Owl, and Eastern Screech-Owl, helping researchers better understand their habitat preferences, breeding behaviors, and migration patterns.

Community-led projects such as owl monitoring programs and nest box installations engage volunteers in hands-on conservation activities, fostering a deeper appreciation for these nocturnal predators and their ecological importance. By harnessing the collective efforts of citizen scientists, North Carolina can implement informed conservation strategies to protect owl populations and their habitats for future generations.

Birding Groups in North Carolina

North Carolina hosts a vibrant community of birding groups and clubs that cater to enthusiasts of all levels of experience. The North Carolina Audubon Society is a prominent organization dedicated to bird conservation and education, offering field trips, workshops, and citizen science projects throughout the state. The Carolina Bird Club provides a platform for birders to connect and share their passion through meetings, bird walks, and annual conferences, fostering camaraderie among members and promoting avian research and conservation initiatives.

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Conclusion

North Carolina’s diverse owl species enrich its ecosystems and captivate bird enthusiasts. While facing conservation challenges like habitat loss and climate change, concerted efforts in habitat preservation, citizen science, and community engagement can ensure their continued survival. By fostering appreciation and stewardship of owls and their habitats, North Carolina can remain a haven for these iconic birds, contributing to its rich biodiversity and natural heritage.

Credits:

All About Birds – www.allaboutbirds.org

Sibley, D. (2020). Birds of Eastern North America. Helm.