“What types of owls can you see in California?”
The above question is common, so I thought I’d help by making a list of all the individual owl species that live in California.
The temptation to intersperse this entire article with puns is almost overwhelming. I could just wing it and beak-off about these birds all day long, but I really do give a hoot, and soon you would be talon me to stop it. Ok, settle down because that is owl you get. 🙂
Below is a list of the 13 owl species you can find in California.
#1. Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owls are common in California.
In fact, these raptors can actually be found almost anywhere in North America, from the Arctic south to the tropics. Its habitat is practically unlimited as long as there are trees and rocky nesting sites available. It is hard to find a bird that can adapt better than a Great Horned Owl.
Great Horned Owl Range Map
These owls are quite large and look fierce! To identify, look for their long tufts of feathers that resemble ears on their head. Also, check out their intimidating eyes. I know I would not want to have a staring contest with one!
Both sexes hoot, but males are lower-pitched than females. Males give territorial calls that can be heard a few miles away at night. I don’t think there’s another owl species that does hooting better than a Great Horned Owl!
Generally speaking, these owls tend to eat larger animals to sustain their bigger bodies. They seek rabbits, geese, groundhogs, many species of birds, rats, and even other raptors! But, these owls also have no problem eating small prey, such as frogs, insects, invertebrates, reptiles, mice, and scorpions. Interestingly, a Great Horned Owls’ sense of smell is so weak that they even attack and eat skunks!
Length: 17-25 inches (43 – 64 cm)
Weight: 2.5 to 4 pounds (1134 – 1814 grams)
Wingspan: 3 – 5 feet (91-153 cm)
Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
#2. Short-eared Owl
This mid-sized tawny-brown mottled owl is widely distributed across North America. These birds mostly hunt in the daytime when voles, their favorite meal, are active. Interestingly, they are one of the most common owls you can see during daylight hours!
Short-eared Owls are typically found in open country. Your best chance to spot them in California is at dusk or dawn in fields, grasslands, meadows, or even airports.
Short-eared Owl Range Map
These owls build their nests on the ground in open areas. If obliged to flee its nest to draw off a predator, the parent will poop on the eggs so the smell will keep predators away. Similar to a Kildeer, Short-eared Owls also lure predators away from their nest by hopping away and pretending to be crippled.
Short-eared Owls are not particularly vocal. But when they do make noises, these birds have a call, oddly enough, that sounds an awful lot like a cat looking for a mate.
Length: 13–17 inches (34–43 cm)
Weight: 7.3–16.8 oz (206–475 grams)
Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches (85–103 cm)
Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
#3. American Barn Owl
Barn Owls (aka Church Owl, Ghost Owl, and Monkey-faced Owl) have a heart-shaped face that is sandy-colored with a dark brown edge. Interestingly, the shape of an owl’s face steers sound to their ears, which helps make them the most efficient hunter-by-sound ever tested. Their hearing is so good, they can locate small animals under dense bush or snow with ease, and they even hunt bats!
There are more than 40 unique varieties of Barn Owls. The American (Tyto furcata) version is the largest (555 grams/1 lb. 4 oz.), with the smallest species living on the Galapagos Islands (260 grams/9.2 oz.).
American Barn Owl Range Map
Barn Owls are non-migratory and are found in California year-round.
These nocturnal creatures tend to inhabit abandoned barns (hence the name). They are seriously endangered in many parts of their range. Still, farmers love them because they keep surrounding property fairly rodent-free, protecting other animals from the diseases that mice and rats carry.
They do not “hoot” in the classical fashion of other owls.
Their unique screechy sound is far more reminiscent of a red-tailed hawk. When showing off for a female, males will sometimes clap their wings together a couple of times while flying.
Length: 11–17 inches (29–44 cm)
Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz. (555 grams)
Wingspan: 39–49 inches (1–1.25 meters)
Scientific Name: Tyto furcata
#4. Northern Saw-whet Owl
If you see a tiny owl in California, there’s a good chance it’s a Northern Saw-whet Owl! In fact, this species is one of the smallest owls on the planet.
Northern Saw-whet Owls seem to prefer dense coniferous or mixed hardwood forests, with a river nearby. Because of their need for mature trees, their numbers have been declining.
Northern Saw-whet Owl Range Map
Abandoned woodpecker holes in deciduous trees are typically used for nests, but these owls will also use artificial nesting boxes. Interestingly, females will breed indiscriminately with various males in any given season, having more than one clutch of eggs. As soon as the chicks have feathers, she leaves to find another mate while Dad tends to this batch of chicks.
These owls get their name from the sound they make when alarmed, which resembles the whetting (sharpening) of a saw. But their most common call happens during the breeding season. It sounds like a “too-too-too,” emitted at about two notes per second.
Length: 6.5–9 inches (17–23 cm)
Weight: 1.9–5.3 oz. (54–151 grams)
Wingspan: 16.5–22.2 inches (42–56.3 cm)
Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
#5. Barred Owl
Barred Owls (aka the Hoot Owl) are an unthreatened, nocturnal owl found in California. The name “barred” derives from the horizontal stripes of alternating light brown and dark brown on the wings, back, and tail.
Barred Owls are the species that I have observed the most in the wild. They are incredibly curious and inquisitive, and many times will watch as you walk past them. Even if they get nervous as you approach, they typically just fly off to another tree to continue observing.
Barred Owl Range Map
Since these owls are relatively large, they are at the top of the food chain. Their only predators Great Horned Owls and bad humans!
Barred Owls rely on mice and other small rodents but eat just about anything made of meat! They will readily grab rats, rabbits, bats, squirrels, moles, minks, weasels, opossums, a variety of birds, frogs, snakes, fish, turtles, and will even hunt around your nightly campfire to catch some sweet, juicy insects.
And speaking of classical noises, their hoots are the classic sounds featured in movies and scary Halloween tales.
It’s easy to recognize their call as it sounds like they are asking, “Who cooks for you?” Barred Owls will sound off during daylight hours too, and they mate for life.
Length: 16–25 inches (40–63 cm)
Weight: 1–2.75 pounds (500–1250 gr)
Wingspan: 38–49 inches (96–125 cm)
Scientific Name: Strix varia
#6. Long-eared Owl
Long-eared Owls are also known as the Northern Long-Eared Owl, Lesser Horned Owl, or Cat Owl because of their catlike facial features. They are secretive and roost in very dense foliage. Combined with their excellent camouflage, these owls are EXTREMELY hard to spot in California!
As you can see, these owls get their name from the long tufts of feathers on their heads. These ear tufts resemble exclamation points, so Long-eared Owls often seem like they have a surprised look on their face.
Long-eared Owl Range Map
Amongst owls, these guys are almost unique by being quite sociable. They are known to live in clusters and even share roosts!
Since Long-eared Owls can be incredibly hard to see, the best way to locate them is to listen! During the mating season, males are quite talkative. Their typical call is repeated anywhere from 10 to 200 times and sounds like a low “hoo,” evenly spaced every few seconds.
Length: 31 and 40 cm (12 and 16 in)
Weight: 288 g – 327 g (10.2 oz – 11.5 oz)
Wingspan: 86 to 102 cm (34 in to 40 in)
Scientific Name: Asio otus
#7. Snowy Owl
Snowy Owls are one of the most stunning animals on the planet! Their white plumage stops almost everyone in their tracks, both birders and non-birders alike! Although they are mostly white, they have horizontal dark lines all over their bodies except the face and breast. Interestingly, individuals seem to get whiter with age.
Snowy Owl Range Map
Snowy Owls migrate with the changing seasons. During summer, they mate and breed in northern Canada on the tundra. But when winter arrives, these birds come south.
You never know how far south Snowy Owls will travel.
Most years, Snowy Owls only appear as far down as the northern USA. But some years, there is an “irruption” of Snowy Owls, and many more birds than normal migrate south.
When defending their territory or searching for a mate, males make a loud “hoo, hoo.” This hoot is so loud that it can be heard up to 7 miles away on the tundra! Females rarely hoot, but other noises (for both sexes) include cackles, shrieks, hissing, and bill snapping.
Length: 20.7–25.2 inches (52.5–64 cm)
Weight: 3.2–4 lb. (1,465–1,800 gram)
Wingspan: 48–60 inches (1.2–1.5 meters)
Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
#8. Burrowing Owl
Unlike most other owl species in California that spend their time in trees, Burrowing Owls live underground! They either excavate their homes themselves or, quite frequently, take over underground shelters from larger rodents. These underground dens provide a lot of space to gather food. They’ve been known to have hundreds of mice in storage in case of a food shortage!
Burrowing Owl Range Map
Since Burrowing Owls are prairie dwellers and inhabit areas with little vegetation, they have developed an interesting strategy to help find food. Believe it or not, these owls will gather the waste of other animals and spread it out like a welcome mat around the entrances to their den.
Now, who shows up to collect all of that poop?
Dung beetles and other juicy insects! It’s just like you placing a call to the pizza shop for delivery, hot fresh, and right to the door!
While Burrowing Owls can make a wide variety of sounds, they are not especially vocal. The most common is a two-syllable that sounds like “who-who” or “coo-coo-roo,” which is primarily made by males during mating and defending territories.
Length: 7.5–11.0 in (19–28 cm)
Weight: 5–8.5 oz. (147–240 gr)
Wingspan: 20–24 inch (51–61 cm)
Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia
#9. Western Screech-Owl
Once upon a time, Western Screech-Owls were thought to be the same bird as the Eastern Screech-Owl, but research has determined that they are distinct species. These owls have an almost bluish-gray, gray, or dark brown feathering, with females being generally larger than males.
Western Screech-Owl Range Map
Western Screech-Owls are found in a wide variety of habitats in California and are common in their range.
Their primary foods include rats, mice, and birds. But they are opportunistic hunters and will also eat fish, amphibians, and invertebrates, such as crayfish, insects, earthworms, and slugs. Interestingly, they have been known to occasionally pluck a trout out of the water at night or take on something as large as a duck or rabbit.
Despite their name, Western Screech-Owl sounds are not “screechy.” The most common sound is a rather quiet, pleasant trill (“hoo-hoo-hoo” or “cr-r-oo-oo-oo”), which speeds up at the end but maintains a constant pitch.
Length: 7.5–10 inches (19–28 cm)
Weight: 3.5–11 oz. (100–300 grams)
Wingspan: 22–24 inches (55–62 cm)
Scientific Name: Megascops kennicottii
#10. Northern Pygmy-Owl
The Northern Pygmy-Owl is a small, diurnal (daytime) bird. Its chest is white with vertical black stripes, while the remainder is medium to dark brown with spots. Look for two false eyes on the back of the head to dissuade attacks from behind.
Northern Pygmy-Owl Range Map
These owls generally prefer open coniferous forests or mixed forests at higher altitudes, primarily pine with a few deciduous trees.
The bird’s call is rather plain. It sounds a lot like a one-note tin whistle (“too-too-too”)!
But don’t let the unimpressive hoots fool you because the Northern Pygmy-Owl is a powerful little raptor. It will take on birds that are more than twice its size. Believe it or not, it has even been known to feast on chickens!
Length: 6½ inches (16cm)
Weight: 2.2-2.5 ounces(62–72 gr)
Wingspan: 15 inches (38 cm)
Scientific Name: Glaucidium californicum
#11. Flammulated Owl
A bird is called “flammulated” when it has flame-shaped markings. If you look closely at the Flammulated Owl, you can see where it gets its name. The feathering looks like an ash-covered log in a campfire where flecks of ember show through. It’s a beautiful coloration, but it also makes this small owl particularly hard to spot in California.
Flammulated Owl Range Map
Flammulated Owls live at the very top of the forest, specifically coniferous forests. They will also nest in deciduous forests, as long as there are some conifers as part of the mix. Tree cavities are always used for nesting, with no lining materials, which must be pretty uncomfortable for their babies!
Because of their small size, Flammulated Owls hunt almost exclusively for insects (butterflies, moths, crickets, and beetles) and invertebrates. But occasionally, small rodents are taken and eaten.
Flammulated Owls have a very large windpipe. This adaptation allows them to make a deep base hoot that sounds like a much larger bird. People seldom see these owls, but you can hear its strangely deep call from among the treetops.
Length: 6 inches (15 cm)
Weight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25uGhYOz04g1.8–2.3 oz. (50–65 grams)
Wingspan: 14 inches (36 cm)
Scientific Name: Psiloscops flammeolus
#12. Great Gray Owl
Great Gray Owls are one of the largest owls in California!
If you’re lucky enough to see one, they are stunning raptors. Many people think they look like they are wearing a grey suit with a bowtie around its neck!
These owls cover a lot of territory for their range, but they prefer to live in a forest near a clearing. It’s instrumental in the wintertime, as they need a lot of area for listening to rodents running beneath the snow so they can crash through and catch lunch! Because they are so big, they require a lot of food, eating up to 7 rodents every day.
Great Gray Owl Range Map
Grey Gray Owls NEVER build nests. They just use ones that other big birds made. Talk about being efficient! However, once they claim a used nest, these owls will defend it courageously, even against black bears!
Their call is reasonably distinctive, bold, and deep, sounding like “whooooo, woo, woo, woo.” They also have a soft double hoot that is used when providing food to their babies or defending a territory.
Length: 24 – 33 inches (61–84 cm)
Weight: 1.5 – 4 lb (580–1,900 grams
Wingspan: 5 feet (1.5 meters)
Scientific Name: Strix nebulosa
#13. Spotted Owl
Unfortunately, Spotted Owl populations continue to decline due to habitat loss and competition with Barred Owls. Spotted Owls only live in mature forests in California. So when the large trees that these owls prefer are cut down, the habitat can’t be replaced for potentially hundreds of years.
Spotted Owl Range Map
Like many other owls, this species doesn’t build its nests. Instead, Spotted Owls take over nests that were made by other birds in years past, or they just use a broken-off treetop or hollow tree cavity. They are monogamous, but they don’t breed every year. Like any long-term couple, they are comfortable spending long periods apart and generally only meet up during the mating season.
The most common sound that a Spotted Owl makes is a series of four-note soft hoots. This call is given by both sexes and used to defend and mark their territory, although it can also be heard when males deliver food to females. Some other sounds you may hear include grunts, chatters, groans, and various other hooting noises.
Length: 17 inches (43 cm)
Weight: 1.3 lbs (600 grams)
Wingspan: 39–49 inches (1–1.25 meters)
Scientific Name: Strix occidentalis
Do you need additional help identifying owls?
Here are a few books and resources you can purchase that will provide assistance! (Links below take you to Amazon)
- Owls of North America by Frances Buckhouse
- Hang one of these interesting posters up in your house!
Which owls have you seen before in California?
Leave a comment below!
Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which owls live near you! For each species, I have tried to include some photographs, along with their most common sounds, to help you identify any owls that appear near your home.