8 Owls in North Carolina to see and hear

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Owls in North Carolina

Owls in North Carolina bring an air of mystery and fascination to the state’s landscapes, exciting birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

With their silent flight and haunting calls, these nocturnal creatures add a touch of spookiness to the darkened nights.

Whether exploring the woodlands, venturing into the marshy areas, or simply listening for their hoots from your backyard, encountering an owl in North Carolina is a truly memorable experience.

What Are The Most Common Owls In North Carolina?

The most common Owls in North Carolina include the Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Short-eared Owl, Barn Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Snowy Owl.

This blog post will cover the eight types of owls throughout the state, from the giant Great Horned Owl to the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Readers can learn about their unique features, appearance, intriguing behaviors, and preferred habitats.

Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or a newcomer to the hobby, we hope this post will boost your appreciation for the incredible owls that call North Carolina home.

We have organized our list from most likely seen to the least likely to be seen for your convenience.

North Carolina Owls

According to the latest data from ebird, there are eight observed species of Owls in North Carolina. This data has been compiled from over 41,400 dedicated bird watchers throughout the state.

Here are some quick facts:

  • The Barred Owl is the most commonly observed Owl in North Carolina
  • Snowy Owls are the least widely observed species in North Carolina
  • Snowy Owls are the largest in North Carolina
  • Northern Saw-whet Owls are the smallest Owls in the state

8 Types Of Owls In North Carolina

1. Barred Owl

The Barred Owl is a large wood owl native to North America. They are non-migratory and live in North Carolina all year round.

  • Length: 43-50cm (17-20 inches)
  • Weight: 470-1050g (16.5-37oz)
  • Wingspan: 99-110cm (39-43 inches)
  • Barred Owl Scientific Name: Strix varia

Appearance

Barred Owls are chunky looking, with large heads, no ear tufts, and round tails.

They are brownish-grey above with white spots and a buff color below, with dark vertical bars on their chest and belly, and their tails have brown and white barring.

Habitat

Barred Owls prefer to live in mature forests but can also be found in wooded swamps and along rivers. 

They can also be seen living in wooded residential areas and parks.

Diet

Barred Owls are nocturnal hunters feeding primarily on small mammals, such as mice, opossums, squirrels, and rabbits. They also eat birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians that live in swampy areas. 

They search for prey from an elevated perch and can sometimes be heard calling in the early morning or late evening.

Nesting

Barred Owls typically nest in large tree cavities but also use abandoned nests of other large birds, such as Hawks in North Carolina.

They lay 2-3 eggs per clutch, which hatch after about a month. Females incubate the eggs, and males provide the food for her and their young.

Interesting facts

  • Barred Owls have a unique call that sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” This call is often heard in forests at night. 
  • These birds have excellent hearing, which allows them to locate prey in complete darkness. 
  • Barred Owls have adapted well to suburban and urban areas and can often be found in parks and backyards. 
  • They are known to rival another owl species, the Spotted Owl, for nesting sites and territory. 
  • The Barred Owl is sometimes called the hoot owl because of their distinctive call.

2. Great Horned Owl

The Great Horned Owl is a large and powerful eagle owl found throughout North and South America.

They live in North Carolina all year round and are known for their distinctive ear tufts and intense yellow eyes.

  • Length: 46-63cm (18-25 inches)
  • Weight: 910-2500g (32-88oz)
  • Wingspan: 101-145cm (40-57 inches)
  • Great Horned Owl Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus

Appearance

Great Horned Owls are large-bodied owls with broad, round wings and distinctive ear tufts.

Their plumage can vary depending on geographic location, but they are primarily brown and gray above, with bars and speckling. They have reddish brown faces, white throats, and large yellow eyes.

Habitat

Great Horned Owls are adaptable, and you can spot them in various habitats, including forests, deserts, grasslands, and urban areas. 

They are found throughout North, Central, and South America and can thrive in cold or warm climates.

Diet

Great Horned Owls are night-time predators that eat a variety of mammals, including rodents, opossums, and rabbits. 

They will also eat giant insects, reptiles such as snakes and lizards, and other large birds such as ducks, geese, and sometimes unsuspecting raptors such as hawks, owls, or falcons.

They hunt from an elevated perch and swoop down onto prey. Their powerful talons and strong beak allow them to catch and kill their prey quickly.

Nesting

Great Horned Owls rarely build their own nest but instead, use abandoned nests of other large birds. 

They typically lay 2-3 eggs per clutch, which hatch after about a month. Females primarily incubate the eggs, and both parents take turns feeding their young.

Interesting facts

  • Great Horned Owls are known for their ability to take down prey larger than themselves.
  • These birds have excellent hearing and can locate prey in complete darkness.
  • They will store food away in winter and return later to feed. Often incubating their frozen meal to thaw it out.
  • Great Horned Owls have few natural predators and can live up to 30 years in the wild.

3. Eastern Screech-Owl

The Eastern Screech-Owl is a small nocturnal owl that is found in the eastern half of North America and is a year-round resident of North Carolina.

They are known for their distinctive ear tufts and ability to blend in with their surroundings.

  • Length: 16-25cm (6.3-9.5 inches)
  • Weight: 121-244g (4.3-8.6oz)
  • Wingspan: 48-61cm (19-24 inches)
  • Eastern Screech-Owl Scientific Name: Megascops asio

Appearance

Eastern Screech-Owls are small, stocky owls with large heads, rounded wings, and short square tails.

They have distinctive ear tufts on the top of their heads, bright yellow eyes, and a yellowy-green bill.

They have two color morphs, either gray or reddish-brown above, with intricate patterns that allow them to seem camouflaged against tree bark. 

Habitat

Eastern Screech-Owls prefer to live in wooded areas, including forests, parks, and suburban areas with mature trees throughout eastern North America, from southern Canada to Florida and Texas.

Diet

Eastern Screech-Owls eat a variety of prey, but they primarily eat small rodents and large insects such as moths, crickets, and beetles. 

They also eat birds and small reptiles like snakes, lizards, and frogs. They forage at night and prefer to scan for prey from a perch and swoop down to catch prey.

Nesting

Eastern Screech-Owls nest in tree cavities, abandoned woodpecker holes, and natural hollows in trees. 

They typically lay 4-6 eggs per clutch, which hatch after about a month.

The female primarily incubates the eggs, and the male provides food for her and their chicks.

Interesting facts

  • They are also known for their distinctive call, which sounds like whinnying. 
  • These birds have excellent hearing and can locate prey in complete darkness. 
  • Eastern Screech-Owls are known to regurgitate their prey’s bones, feathers, or fur.
  • They come in two color morphs, with gray being the most common.

4. Northern Saw-whet Owl

The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a tiny owl common throughout most of North America and is a resident of North Carolina during the colder non-breeding season.

  • Length: 18-21cm (7-8.3 inches)
  • Weight: 65-151g (2.3-5.3oz)
  • Wingspan: 42-48cm (16.5-19 inches)
  • Northern Saw-Whet Owl Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus

Appearance

Northern Saw-whet Owls are tiny birds of prey, with large rounded heads. They are about the same size as a Hairy Woodpecker.

They are reddish-brown above and white below with reddish streaks.

They have white streaks and spots on the edges of their reddish facial disks, yellow eyes, and a dark bill.

Habitat

Northern Saw-whet Owls prefer to live in wooded areas and forests, especially those with various kinds of coniferous trees throughout much of North America, including Canada and the United States.

Diet

Northern Saw-whet Owls primarily hunt small mammals that live in the forest, such as deer mice and voles, but will also prey on small birds and large insects.

They hunt almost exclusively at night by watching or hearing prey from a perch before swooping to grab it with their talons.

Nesting

Northern Saw-whet Owls nest in trees up to 60 feet above the ground, usually in a natural cavity or a large abandoned woodpecker hole.

The female lays 5-6 eggs, which hatch after about a month. The females incubate the eggs and feed the young with food provided by the male.

Interesting facts

  • Northern Saw-whet Owls are named for their “sawing” sound, which sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.
  • These birds are primarily nocturnal and are rarely seen during the day.
  • Northern Saw-whet Owls are sometimes preyed upon by larger owls, such as Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls. 
  • These birds are relatively long-lived for their size, with some individuals living up to nine years in the wild.

5. Short-eared Owl

The Short-eared Owl is a medium-sized owl common in many parts of the world.

They can be seen in North Carolina during the colder non-breeding season and are known for their distinctive facial disk and the tufts of feathers that resemble ears.

  • Length: 34-43cm (13.4-17 inches)
  • Weight: 206-475g (7.3-16.8oz)
  • Wingspan: 85-103cm (33.5-40.5 inches)
  • Short-eared Owl Scientific Name: Asio flammeus

Appearance

Short-eared Owls have large rounded heads, small ear tufts, short tails, broad wings, and yellow eyes.

They have brownish feathers with white and dark streaks and a distinctive facial disk with black markings around their yellow eyes that resemble mascara. 

Their chest and belly are pale with brown streaks, and females are larger and appear darker than the males.

Their “ear tufts” stick up from the top of their head, giving them a slightly comical appearance.

Habitat

You can spot Short-eared Owls in open habitats such as grasslands, marshes, prairies, farmlands, and tundra.

They are migratory owls whose range stretches across North America and parts of South America.

Diet

They feed primarily on rodents such as voles, mice and lemmings. They will also eat small mammals such as rabbits, gophers, shrews, and birds along the coast.

Short-eared Owls hunt by flying low over fields and grasslands, using their exceptional hearing to locate prey.

Nesting

Short-eared Owls females build their nest on the dry ground among tall grass or shrubs using feathers and grass.

They typically lay 3-11 eggs per clutch, which hatch after about a month. Females primarily incubate the eggs, and males provide food for the females and the young.

Interesting facts

  • They are known for their distinctive flight pattern and buoyant, moth-like style. 
  • They are considered a species of concern in many parts of the world due to habitat loss and degradation.
  • They are one of the few owl species that are active during the day and night.

6. Barn Owl

The Barn Owl is a beautiful and distinctive species of owl, known worldwide for its heart-shaped face and ghostly white appearance.

They can be seen throughout North Carolina all year round.

  • Length: 32-40cm (12.5-15.8 inches)
  • Weight: 400-700g (14-24.7oz)
  • Wingspan: 100-125cm (39.5-49.2 inches)
  • Barn Owl Scientific Name: Tyto alba

Appearance

Barn Owls are medium-sized owls with a distinctive heart-shaped facial disc outlined in white and bordered by a brownish-orange rim. They have long legs, long, rounded wings, and short tails.

They are a mottled rusty brown and gray above with fine black dots and streaks. Below they vary in color from white to light cinnamon.

Males are smaller than females, and the darkest colored Barn Owls are always female.

Habitat

You can spot a Barn Owl in low-elevation open habitats such as grasslands, agricultural areas, wetlands, and forests worldwide.

Diet

Barn Owls feed primarily on rodents like mice, voles, and shrews but will also eat other small animals such as rabbits, birds, and insects.

They hunt mainly at night by flying low over open areas using their exceptional hearing and vision to locate prey. 

Nesting

Barn Owls do not build their nests, instead rely on natural or artificial cavities for their nests. These include hollow trees, barns, caves, church steeples, and nest boxes.

They lay 3-8 eggs per clutch, which hatch after about a month. The female does most of the incubation, while the male brings food to the nest.

Interesting facts

  • Barn Owls are one of the world’s most widespread species of owls. They are sometimes called the “ghost owl” because of their silent flight and pale appearance. 
  • Barn Owls’ specialized hearing system allows them to locate prey in complete darkness.
  • They are considered to be a symbol of wisdom in many cultures around the world.

7. Long-eared Owl

The Long-eared Owl is a medium-sized owl found throughout North America and is a resident of North Carolina during the colder non-breeding season.

  • Length: 35-40cm (13.8-15.8 inches)
  • Weight: 220-435g (7.8-15.3oz)
  • Wingspan: 90-100cm (35.5-39.5 inches)
  • Long-eared Owl Scientific Name: Asio otus

Appearance

Long-eared Owls are medium-sized birds of prey with a wingspan up to three feet. They are slender-looking owls with narrow facial disks and long ear tufts.

Their feathers are a mix of brown, black, gray, white, and buff, which easily camouflage against their wooded habitats.

They have yellow eyes set in vertical dark patches, streaks, and bars on their chest and bellies, and their facial disks are rusty brown.

The female Long-eared owl coloration is the same but darker and more streaked than the male.

Habitat

You can find Long-eared Owls in wooded areas that border open spaces, such as forests, meadows, and groves, where they can roost and hunt.

They are migratory owls and can be seen worldwide, including in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Diet

Long-eared Owls are nocturnal hunters that feed on a variety of prey.

They primarily hunt small mammals, such as mice, rats, gophers, and voles, but will also prey on small birds and reptiles.

They hunt in open areas where they can fly back and forth from various perches, locating prey but sight or sound before swooping down to catch it with their powerful talons.

Nesting

Long-eared Owls nest in trees up to 30 feet above the ground. They do not build their own nest but instead use the abandoned nest of other large birds, such as crows, ravens, or hawks.

The female lays 4-6 eggs, which hatch after about a month. The female incubates the eggs, while the male provides food for her and their young.

Interesting facts

  • Long-eared Owls can be found roosting in groups called parliaments, especially during the winter months.

8. Snowy Owl

The Snowy Owl is a beautiful and iconic bird of prey that is native to the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia.

They are rare in North Carolina as their winter range typically reaches the northern US states, but it can sometimes extend into North Carolina.

  • Length: 52-71cm (20.5-28 inches)
  • Weight: 1600-2950g (56.4-104oz)
  • Wingspan: 126-145cm (49.6-57 inches)
  • Snowy Owl Scientific Name: Asio flammeus

Appearance

Snowy Owls are large birds of prey with large heads, yellow eyes, black bills, and heavily feathered legs that help keep them warm in frigid temperatures.

They have striking white feathers, which help them blend in with their snowy habitat.

Males have white feathers have narrow dark bars or spots.

Females have the same dark markings, but they appear darker and larger.

Their plumage gets lighter with age, and old males often have pure white feathers with no dark markings.

Habitat

You can find a Snowy Owl in open areas, such as tundra, prairies, marshes, fields, farmlands, and Arctic plains, where they can hunt their prey.

They are found in the northern parts of North America, Europe, and Asia and are known for their ability to survive in some of the harshest environments on the planet.

Diet

Snowy Owls feed on a variety of prey. They primarily hunt small mammals, such as lemmings, voles, and rabbits, but they also prey on large birds, such as geese and ducks, fish, and insects.

They are one of the few Owls that hunt during the day and will hunt by watching from a high perch, flying low to the ground, or hovering above a field before swooping down to catch prey with their powerful talons.

Nesting

Snowy Owls build their nests on the ground, usually on a small hill or mound, using their talons to create a shallow depression.

The female lays 3-11 eggs, which hatch after about a month. The female incubates the eggs, and the male provides food for her and their young.

Interesting facts

  • Snowy Owls have excellent eyesight, which helps them hunt in their dimly lit Arctic habitat.
  • They breed when the lemming population is high and may avoid breeding in years when they are scarce.
  • Snowy Owls are diurnal, which means they are more active during the day than at night.
  • In some cultures, the Snowy Owl symbolizes wisdom, prophecy, and spiritual guidance.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What Kind Of Owls Live In North Carolina?

Eight kinds of owl species live in North Carolina during the year. These include the Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Short-eared Owl, Barn Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Snowy Owl.

Are There Great Horned Owls In North Carolina?

Yes, the Great Horned Owl is a year-round resident of North Carolina and can be found in most habitats and regions throughout the state.

Are There Barred Owls In North Carolina?

Yes, the Barred Owl is a year-round resident of North Carolina and can be found throughout the state. They are widespread in mature forests with large trees and dense understory vegetation.

Keep An Eye Out For Owls In North Carolina

North Carolina is home to various owl species, which birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts can see throughout North Carolina’s diverse habitats.

These beautiful birds are an incredible sight, from the Great Horned Owl to the irregular Snowy Owl.

If you’re lucky enough to spot one of these nocturnal creatures, appreciate their unique features and habits.

Whether you’re an avid birdwatcher or just someone who enjoys learning about nature, taking some time to learn about the eight species of owls in North Carolina will provide you with the info you need to identify and appreciate them.

We hope this article has provided all the information you need. If you have questions about identifying more species of birds in North Carolina or finding out which ones live near you, let us know!

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I am an avid birdwatcher with a passion for learning all I can about these fantastic creatures. I love finding new species of birds in my backyard, neighborhood, or when I travel. I enjoy sharing everything I learn about how these creatures live their lives; feedback and experience is much appreciated!

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