Missouri is home to a diverse array of wildlife, including some of the most fascinating and elusive creatures in the animal kingdom: owls.
These majestic birds of prey have long captured the imagination of humans, with their striking appearances, unique calls, and impressive hunting skills. Missouri is home to 8 different species of owls, each with its own unique characteristics, hoots, and behaviors.
Despite their popularity, owls remain somewhat mysterious to many people, possibly due to their appearance. In this article, we will explore the world of owls in Missouri, exploring their nesting behavior, diets, and conservation histories.
Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or simply curious about the natural world, join us as we uncover the secrets of Missouri’s fascinating owls.
1. American Barn Owl
- Scientific name: Tyto furcata
- Life span: 10 years
- Size: 34 to 38 cm (13 to 15 in)
- Weight: 400 to 600 g (0.88 to 1.3 lbs)
- Wingspan: 29 to 36 cm (11 to 14 in)
- Status: Least Concern
The American Barn Owl, a fascinating bird with a striking and mysterious appearance, is known for its ghostly beauty. This nocturnal predator typically spends its daylight hours concealed in thick vegetation or hollow tree trunks, emerging only at night to search for prey.
The American Barn Owl belongs to a subspecies group that includes the Western and Eastern Barn Owls, and its stunning appearance is noteworthy. Its upper body and wings are a pale brown color, while its face, chest, and belly are a creamy white hue.
The unique facial features of the American Barn Owl have inspired numerous myths and legends, often portraying the bird as a mystical or divine creature.
The American Barn Owl is a stunning and mysterious bird that is primarily active at night, spending most of its daytime concealed in vegetation or tree trunks, emerging only at night to hunt for prey.
During the breeding season, which occurs between March and June, American Barn Owls establish monogamous pair bonds that last a lifetime. The male owl diligently searches for the ideal nesting location, such as a tree cavity or cliffside, and vigorously flies around the area to establish his territory.
Courtship behaviors such as chasing and sweeping are exhibited towards the female before breeding occurs.
The American Barn Owls’ diet primarily consists of small mammals such as voles, shrews, and mice, which are abundant in the agricultural landscape of Missouri.
Their asymmetrically placed ears enable them to locate prey through sound, and they can hunt in complete darkness. Interestingly, these owls have a higher metabolic rate than other owls of their size, requiring a more significant amount of food.
They may also consume small birds and insects, but small rodents are the mainstay of their diet.
Despite being a non-threatened species globally, the North American populations of the American Barn Owl have declined due to the widespread use of pesticides and rodenticides.
These chemicals can contaminate the owl’s food sources, leading to significant fatalities. However, the species has demonstrated resilience and has the ability to recover from losses in the short term.
2. Barred Owl
- Scientific name: Strix varia
- Life span: 8 years
- Size: 40 to 63 cm (15 to 25 in)
- Weight: 610 to 1,150 g (1.34 to 2.54 lb)
- Wingspan: 96 to 125 cm (38 to 49 in)
- Status: Least Concern
According to an extensive analysis conducted on 158 marked Barred Owls, these birds have relatively small non-migratory territories that do not exceed 6 miles from their initial location. Despite their restricted range, Barred Owls can be found in many areas of the eastern United States and southern Canada.
They are notable for their recognizable brownish-grey feathers, which are highlighted by dark stripes on their undersides.
Similar to American Barn Owls, Barred Owls also form lifelong monogamous pairs during mating season. Their courtship rituals typically occur in February, and they construct their nests in hollow tree trunks within dense forests.
Barred Owls primarily feed on small mammals like mice and voles, as well as birds, reptiles, and insects. Although they occasionally consume larger prey such as rabbits and squirrels, they typically use their acute hearing to locate their prey around forest rivers and wetlands. They may also scavenge for carrion when available.
The global population of Barred Owls is estimated to be around 3 million, and they are widespread throughout North America. They are currently classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, although they face potential threats such as prey contamination and habitat disturbance in the deep, dark forests they inhabit.
3. Long-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio otus
- Life span: 10 to 27 years
- Size: 31 to 40 cm (12 to 16 in)
- Weight: 160 to 435 g (5.6 to 15.3 oz)
- Wingspan: 86 to 102 cm (2ft 10in to 3ft 4in)
- Status: Least Concern
The Long-eared Owl is a species that displays remarkable camouflage with its brown and black feathers, which can resemble the surrounding pine trees. Due to this, they are known for their remarkable stealth in blending into the thick foliage.
This species is widely distributed and is considered abundant globally. Their haunting calls can be heard up to a mile away in dense forests, making them an easily recognizable sound for visitors to their habitats.
The Long-Eared Owl’s breeding season typically starts in March, and males stake out their territory through distinctive singing and wing-flapping patterns, while females search for suitable nesting sites. Unlike many other owl species, Long-Eared Owls do not build their own nests but rather inhabit hawk nests or tree trunks with cavities.
As a carnivore, the Long-Eared Owl’s diet in Missouri mainly consists of small mammals such as mice, voles, shrews, and rodents, as well as insects and small birds. When food is scarce, these owls can also prey on small amphibians and reptiles.
Their hunting strategy involves perching and waiting patiently for prey to come within range, although they can also fly low to the ground to search for food.
Despite its global distribution, the Long-Eared Owl’s population is declining due to habitat loss and collisions with vehicles.
Nevertheless, the species is expanding its range worldwide, and it is classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List. Furthermore, the Long-Eared Owl is famous for its excellent camouflage and haunting calls, which can be heard up to a mile away, making it a recognizable and familiar presence in wooded areas.
4. Eastern Screech-Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops asio
- Life span: 8 to 10 years
- Size: 16 to 25 cm (6.5 to 10 in)
- Weight: 121 to 244 g (4.25 to 8.5 oz)
- Wingspan: 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 in)
- Status: Least Concern
The Eastern Screech-Owl is a versatile bird that is commonly spotted in the eastern regions of North America, including Mexico. It possesses the exceptional ability to flourish in areas that have undergone human development and are seemingly unfazed by human activity.
A curious fact about this owl is that it presents two different color morphs – southern populations exhibit a reddish tint, while northern populations have a greyish plumage. According to experts, this divergence is likely due to the color of the owl’s woodland habitats.
The Eastern Screech-Owl is recognized for its tendency to live in solitude, coming together in pairs only during the breeding season in April. During this time, the owls exhibit bonding behaviors to establish a lifelong connection.
Following mating, they nest in hollow tree trunks situated in dense, shadowy forests. Although they are generally faithful to their partners, some male owls have been observed mating with multiple females in the same season, resulting in the removal of the initial female and the laying of a fresh set of eggs.
As a versatile predator, the Eastern Screech-Owl consumes a variety of prey, relying on the resources in its surroundings. It primarily feeds on small mammals such as voles, mice, shrews, and rats in Missouri. In addition, a significant portion of its diet comprises of insects, including but not limited to beetles, moths, spiders, worms, and snails.
In addition, it feeds on small reptiles, birds, and amphibians, and occasionally consumes fruits and berries. The owl’s hunting activity occurs mainly at night, relying on its exceptional hearing to locate its prey. After swallowing its prey whole, the owl ejects the indigestible portions, such as bones, fur, and feathers, in the form of pellets.
Despite not being classified as endangered the Eastern Screech-Owl is vulnerable to poisoning from its prey and habitat destruction or disturbance, similar to many other owl species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List categorizes the Eastern Screech-Owl as “Least Concern.”
5. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
- Life span: 25 – 50 years
- Size: 43 to 64 cm (17 to 25 in)
- Weight: 1200 to 1600 g (2.64 to 3.52 lbs)
- Wingspan: 91 to 153 cm (3ft 0in to 5ft 0in)
- Status: Least Concern
The Great Horned Owl is an adaptable bird species and inhabits several environments, including deserts, wetlands, grasslands, cities, and forests, not only in North America but also as far south as Brazil.
These creatures are primarily active at night and possess the capacity to blend in with their surroundings because of their brown-speckled feathers. The owl’s recognizable “horns” are actually plumicorns (feathers), which could function as visual markers or a means of communication with other birds, although their exact purpose is not yet fully comprehended.
The Great Horned Owl is an early breeder in North America, with the breeding process beginning as early as January. The male owls take the lead in locating the ideal nesting site and courting potential mates by exhibiting elaborate aerial performances and often stomping on the selected site.
These owls do not build their own nests but prefer to use abandoned nests left behind by other large birds such as hawks or eagles. Their nesting sites are highly diverse and range from caves and cliffs to cacti.
Great Horned Owls are adaptable predators known for their hunting versatility. In Missouri, their diet varies with the seasons and prey availability, with small mammals such as voles, mice, and rabbits being their primary food source. They mainly hunt under the cover of darkness, using their sharp talons and beaks to capture prey.
The Great Horned Owl population in North America has significantly declined in the past 40 years, most likely due to human activities. Human activities account for 65% of owl fatalities, including being shot, trapped, hit by cars, electrocuted by power lines, and poisoned by rat poison.
Unfortunately, in the past, these owls have been considered pests due to their predation on domestic chickens and small game, leading to them being hunted and killed by farmers and hunters for centuries. Even today, illegal poachers continue to hunt them. Although not classified as a threatened species, their population decline is a cause for concern.
6. Snowy Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
- Life span: 10 to 28
- Size: 52.5 to 64 cm (20.7 to 25.2 in)
- Weight: 1706 to 2426 g (3.76 to 5.34 lb)
- Wingspan: 146 to 183 cm (4ft 9in to 6ft 0in)
- Status: Vulnerable
The Snowy Owl is a well-known avian species, breeding in the Arctic and spending its winters in North America. The owl’s pure white coloration distinguishes it from other animals and is considered one of the purest in the animal kingdom.
The male Snowy Owls have more white feathers than the females, which have a mix of white and dark feathers. The Snowy Owl is unique among owls in that it is active during both the day and night.
This may be due to its Arctic habitat, where the length of the day varies greatly throughout the year. The Snowy Owl is highly mobile, covering long distances from its breeding grounds to its wintering grounds, which can vary considerably from year to year.
The Snowy Owl is known for its striking white appearance and its nomadic nature, breeding in the Arctic and wintering in North America. Breeding typically starts in April, with the male performing aerial displays and singing to attract females.
The male also presents food and shows the nest area to interested females. Unlike other owl species, Snowy Owls do not construct nests, and the female only scrapes the ground to create a shallow hole for her eggs.
In Missouri, the Snowy Owl’s diet primarily consists of small mammals such as lemmings, voles, and mice, as well as other small animals like birds and fish. Their hunting behavior is opportunistic, and they use their sharp talons and beaks to capture and kill prey. With their large size, Snowy Owls are capable of taking down prey larger than themselves.
They are typically active during the daylight hours and can be seen hunting over open ground, near the tundra’s edge, or along the coast.
The Snowy Owl’s highly nomadic nature makes it challenging to estimate their population, but it is believed to be decreasing due to climate change.
Rising temperatures and decreased snow negatively impact lemming populations, on which Snowy Owls heavily rely at their breeding grounds, ultimately leading to population decline. Additionally, the decreasing amount of sea ice also poses a threat to the species.
7. Short-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio flammeus
- Life span: 12 years
- Size: 34 to 43 cm (13 to 17 in)
- Weight: 206 to 475 g (7.3 to 16.8 oz)
- Wingspan: 85 to 110 cm (33 to 43 in)
- Status: Least Concern
The Short-Eared Owl is a widely distributed and plentiful bird that inhabits different environments across the world. It is identified by its small black beak and brown-speckled body, along with its remarkable wings and tail that feature prominent brown bars.
What makes this owl stand out from the others mentioned is its habit of hunting during the daytime, rendering it a distinctive species of owl.
The Short-Eared Owl has distinctive nesting habits, as they form temporary mating pairs for a single breeding season, which typically begins in March, and congregate in groups. Unlike most other owl species, the Short-Eared Owl constructs its nests on the ground in low-vegetated areas such as prairies, meadows, and tundras.
The Short-Eared Owl’s diet primarily consists of small mammals such as voles, shrews, and rodents, as well as other creatures like rabbits, weasels, and hares. They also consume small reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds such as sparrows and larks.
Being opportunistic hunters, they actively fly low to the ground to prey during daylight hours in grasslands, meadows, and other open habitats.
Regrettably, the population of the Short-Eared Owl has decreased due to habitat destruction and collisions with vehicles. Nevertheless, the species is presently expanding its distribution globally and therefore have been categorized as “Least Concern” on the IUCN’s Red List.
8. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
- Life span: 7 to 17 years
- Size: 17 to 22 cm (6.7 to 8.7 in)
- Weight: 54 to 151 g (1.9 to 5.3 oz)
- Wingspan: 42 to 56.3 cm (16.5 to 22.2 in)
- Status: Least Concern
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a small and elusive species of owl that can be found in various parts of North America, including Missouri.
Its appearance is quite distinctive, with a round cream-colored face marked with brown streaks, a dark pointed beak, and striking yellow eyes. Its upper body is a deep brown color with white spots, while its belly is light-colored with delicate brown markings. The species is believed to have gotten its name from its unique call, which has been compared to the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a bird species that pair up monogamously during the breeding season, which typically begins in March. However, males may mate with multiple females when there is an abundance of prey. These owls tend to nest in existing holes, such as those created by woodpeckers or in human-made nest boxes.
In Missouri, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl mainly feeds on small mammals like voles, mice, and shrews, as well as insects, birds, and other small creatures.
They are opportunistic hunters and use their sharp talons and beaks to capture prey, even in tight spaces, and can hunt and kill prey that is larger than themselves.
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl faces various threats, such as habitat loss, competition for nesting sites, and predation by larger birds and mammals. Nevertheless, the species is still classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN Red List.
Where to look for Owls in Missouri
A good first tip is to know that owls are most active during the early morning and late evening hours. They can be found in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, forests, parks, and fields. Look for areas with tall trees, dense brush, and open areas that provide good visibility.
One effective way to locate owls is to listen for their calls. Each species has a unique call that can help you identify them. The best time to hear owls calling is during the breeding season, which usually starts in late winter or early spring.
Four good areas to find owls in Missouri include:
- Katy Trail State Park – located in central Missouri, this park offers several miles of wooded trails that are perfect for owl spotting.
- Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge – situated in the northwest corner of Missouri, this refuge is home to a variety of owls, including the Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl.
- Mark Twain National Forest – located in southern Missouri, this forest offers miles of hiking trails through woodlands and along streams that are great for owl watching.
- Smithville Lake – located north of Kansas City, this lake is surrounded by wooded areas that are known to be good spots for Eastern Screech-Owls.
When searching for owls, it’s important to be patient and quiet, as these birds can be easily disturbed. It’s also a good idea to bring binoculars and a field guide to help with identification.
By following these tips and exploring these areas, you may be able to spot one of Missouri’s beautiful and elusive owls.
Missouri is a wonderful destination for birdwatchers and enthusiasts of owls. The state’s diverse landscape, which ranges from forests and swamps to grasslands and meadows, provides a home to several owl species, each with their unique features and behaviors.
Coming across an owl while walking through the woods is an extraordinary experience, as their calls add to the ambiance of being deep within a forest, providing an opportunity to connect with nature.
Whether it’s the tiny and secretive Northern Saw-Whet Owl or the magnificent Great Horned Owl, there’s always something to admire for every owl lover.