“What types of owls can you see in New Mexico?”
The above question is common, so I thought I’d help by making a list of all the individual owl species that live in New Mexico.
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 12 owl species you can find in New Mexico.
#1. Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owls are common in New Mexico.
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 New Mexico 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 New Mexico 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 New Mexico, 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. 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 New Mexico!
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
#6. Burrowing Owl
Unlike most other owl species in New Mexico 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
#7. 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 New Mexico 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
#8. 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
#9. 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 New Mexico.
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: 1.8–2.3 oz. (50–65 grams)
Wingspan: 14 inches (36 cm)
Scientific Name: Psiloscops flammeolus
#10. 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 New Mexico. 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
#11. Boreal Owl
The Boreal Owl is an incredibly small owl found in New Mexico.
They can be tricky to identify because they have a variety of colors (from reddish-brown to gray) and patterns, even though it is genetically the same owl. They can possess either dots or streaks, and sometimes both on the top or bottom of the body.
Boreal Owl Range Map
Boreal Owls live in the boreal forests and can be seen in stands of aspen, poplar, spruce, fir, and birch trees. Because of their remote locations, these owls are relatively uncommon and hard to study and see, and not much is known about their population trends.
These owls like to perch low in coniferous forests and alpine areas and tilt their heads back and forth to scan for prey sounds with their extremely directional hearing. Once they have a target, they swoop in, and dinner is served. Since Boreal Owls are small, voles, bats, frogs, beetles, birds, and baby squirrels are their primary foods.
Their call is a small series of whistled toots that gets progressively louder. Males typically only hoot during the breeding season to attract a female.
Length: 9–10.5 inches (22–27 cm) long
Weight: 3.2–7 oz. (90-200 gr)
Wingspan: 20–24 inches (50–62 cm)
Scientific Name: Aegolius funereus
#12. Elf Owl
This species is the smallest owl found in New Mexico!
Elf Owls are only the size of sparrows, and they like to raise their young in old woodpecker nests located in cacti and poplars. Building a nest in a cactus makes it more difficult for predators such as the ringtail, bobcat, or coyote to reach them. Unfortunately, bigger owls are one of the biggest dangers to the Elf Owl.
Elf Owl Range Map
Since it ONLY hunts bugs, the Elf Owl doesn’t need to be silent when it flys. This trait is extremely rare among owl species.
These small owls subsist almost exclusively on insects, such as moths, centipedes, and beetles. Interestingly, they will also eat scorpions, but they make sure to remove the stinger before eating. Elf Owls have adapted to humans by hunting clouds of bugs that have been attracted to bright, artificial lights!
Lastly, a fun fact about Elf Owls is they have stolen a trick from opossums! If threatened, the owl will play dead rather than fight!
Length: 4.9–5.7 in (12.5–14.5 cm)
Weight: 1.4 oz. (40 grams)
Wingspan: 10½ inches (27 cm)
Scientific Name: Micrathene whitneyi
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 New Mexico?
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.