“What types of owls can you see in North Carolina?”
The above question is common, so I thought I’d help by making a list of all the individual owl species that live in North Carolina.
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 6 owl species you can find in North Carolina.
#1. Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owls are common in North Carolina.
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 North Carolina 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 North Carolina 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 North Carolina, 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 North Carolina. 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. Eastern Screech-Owl
Screech-owls may remind you of professional wrestlers since they are short, stocky, and have no necks! These owls can either be grey or red, with about a third of all individuals being red.
Eastern Screech-owls have “fake” ear-tufts on the top of their head.
Fake, of course, because owls have REAL ears on the sides of their heads, below their feathers, in parallel with their eye line. The tufts may simply be camouflage to break up their silhouette but can also be moved to communicate with other owls, such as “This is a safe spot” to a mate or “Back off!” to a competitor.
Eastern Screech-Owl Range Map
These small owls will settle in almost any wooded area in North Carolina. Screech-owls avoid areas populated by other larger owls, most notably the Great Horned Owl. They don’t seem to mind people too much as they are comfortable nesting on top of streetlamps, next to busy roadways/highways, or inside spaces in populated buildings.
Eastern Screech-owls make various hoots, calls, and songs, but their most popular is an even pitched trill, often called a tremolo. The tremolo is used by pairs to keep in contact with each other and lasts between 3 to 6 seconds. I think this tremolo call sounds a lot like mating toads, and I sometimes get the two confused!
Length: 6.3– 9.8 in (16–25 cm)
Weight: 4.2–8.6 oz. (120–244 g)
Wingspan: 18–24 in (46–61 cm)
Scientific Name: Megascops asio
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 North Carolina?
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.