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The 9 Owl Species of South Carolina: Common Natives and Rare Winter Visitors

The 9 Owl Species of South Carolina: Common Natives and Rare Winter Visitors

South Carolina (SC) is in the United States, situated on the southeastern coast of North America. This relatively small state has a subtropical climate and is composed of a wide range of habitats, from coastal environments to highlands – resulting in a bird species list of almost 450. Species include a range of raptors, including nine owl species.

Owls are nocturnal raptors belonging to the Strigidae and Tytonidae families, who use their incredible hearing and sharp eyesight to stealthily swoop down onto unsuspecting animals in the depths of the night.

Although nine species of owls have been recorded in South Carolina, only four are breeding residents. The owls native to South Carolina are namely the Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Barred Owl and Barn Owl. One of the remaining five migratory species, the Short-eared Owl, is a regular, uncommon winter visitor.

At the same time, the other four (Snowy Owl, Long-eared Owl, Burrowing Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl) are rare winter visitors and vagrants. Below, we’ll look deeper into the four resident owls and the five winter visitors in The Palmetto State.

Breeding Owls

1. Great Horned Owl

  • Wingspan: 101 – 145 cm
  • Length: 46 – 63 cm
  • Mass: 910 – 2500 g
  • Maximum Lifespan: 28 years

The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is one of North America’s most common owl species and the largest breeding owl in South Carolina. This owl is greyish brown with mottled patterning on most of the body, a reddish-brown face, a white throat patch, large ear tufts and yellow eyes. The typical call given out by this owl consists of deep hoots.

Great horned owl

This owl occurs in many habitats, including forests, wetlands, grasslands, deserts, and urban environments. Therefore, one may see this species throughout the state, but a visit to Santee National Wildlife Refuge should provide the best chance of seeing this species.

It has a highly diverse diet and is a mighty hunter, making this owl a formidable predator. Their diet consists principally of birds and mammals such as rabbits, mice, voles, gophers, ducks, grebes, coots, doves, and many more. They can capture mammals and birds bigger than themselves, and they are known to take down raptors such as Peregrine and Prairie Falcons, other owls and Ospreys.

Great Horned Owls nest in trees, often using stick nests constructed by other bird or mammal species, but they also use cavities in trees, cliff ledges and abandoned buildings. The nest is usually lined with feathers, leaves, and pieces of bark. The female produces one brood per season and lays between one and four eggs. The eggs are incubated for 30 to 37 days.

2. Eastern Screech Owl

  • Wingspan: 48 – 61 cm
  • Length: 16 – 25 cm
  • Mass: 121 – 244 g
  • Maximum Lifespan: 14 years

The Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) is the smallest breeding owl in the state, looking like a scaled-down version of the Great Horned Owl. This owl has two colour morphs, grey and rufous.

Both morphs have yellow eyes, short ear tufts and dark streaks with light barring on the underparts. The rest of the body is either rufous or grey, colour morph dependent. The rufous morph has white feathers on the underside, which are absent on the grey morph. Their most common call is a whinny trill, from which they got their name.

Eastern screech owl

Eastern Screech Owls inhabit almost any area with tree cover and available nesting sites. Their ideal habitat is wooded areas with open forest understories, but they have adapted well to living in suburban environments, particularly where nest boxes have been placed.

With that being said, this owl can be found all over the state, but the best areas to look for them are Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, Francis Marion National Forest and Congaree National Park.

These owls do not build their nests but use tree cavities excavated by woodpeckers and squirrels instead. They also make use of nest boxes, and even mailboxes or crates found lying on the ground. The chosen nesting hole does not get lined with any material, and the female lays two to six eggs that she incubates for 27 to 34 days.

The Eastern Screech Owl has a variable diet, feeding on various animals from birds and mammals to earthworms and crayfish. Mammalian prey includes moles, squirrels, rabbits, mice and rats, while their bird prey includes swallows, finches, grouse, woodpeckers and doves. They may even feed on other members of their species.

3. Barred Owl

  • Wingspan: 99 – 110 cm
  • Length: 43 – 50 cm
  • Mass: 470 – 1050 g
  • Maximum Lifespan: 27 years

The Barred Owl (Strix varia) is the most commonly seen owl in SC since they are often active during dawn and dusk. It is a large, round-headed owl with no ear tufts and a reasonably long, rounded tail.

The back is mottled brown, the belly is buff coloured with vertical streaking, and the chest is horizontally barred. It has a yellow bill and dark eyes.

The Barred Owl call is distinct and can be described as saying: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”.

Barred owl

The Barred Owl occurs in old forests near swamps and streams. They use cavities, stick nests made by other animals or nest boxes for nesting. They usually choose cavities six to twelve metres above the ground in tall trees. Females lay up to five eggs during the single brood of the season and incubate the eggs for 28 to 33 days.

Barred Owls can be found in many areas around the state. Still, the best places to find this owl are Sumter National Forest, Francis Marion National Forest, and Clemson Experimental Forest.

Barred Owls feed on small mammals, including squirrels, mice, voles, rabbits and chipmunks, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects.

4. Barn Owl

  • Wingspan: 100 – 125 cm
  • Length: 32 – 40 cm
  • Mass: 400 – 700 g
  • Maximum Lifespan: 15 years

The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is a medium-sized owl with a white face and underside. Its back is coloured with a mixture of cinnamon and grey. The most distinct feature of this owl is its heart-shaped face with dark eyes, which make this species easily recognisable. The call from this species is different to most owls, as it is a raspy scream.

This widespread species is the most likely to be seen in urban areas in South Carolina. They occur in open spaces, including deserts, agricultural land, grassland, marshes, suburban areas and cities. The best specific spots to look for them are Francis Marion National Forest, Congaree National Park and Oak Ridge Greenway.

Barn owl face

Barn Owls nest in buildings (often derelict), nest boxes, tree cavities, cliff crevices, holes in river banks and caves. The female constructs the nest using regurgitated pellets that she breaks up with her feet and lays out in a cup shape to form the nest. The female lays between two and eighteen eggs per brood and can have up to three broods in a season. The eggs are incubated for 29 to 34 days.

Barn Owls feed almost exclusively on small mammals, namely, mice, voles, lemmings, bats, and rabbits. On occasion, they may feed on birds such as meadowlarks and starlings.

Non-breeding Owls

5. Short-eared Owl

  • Wingspan: 85 – 103 cm
  • Length: 34 – 43 cm
  • Mass: 206 – 475 g
  • Maximum Lifespan: 12 years

The Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is a medium-sized owl with small ear tufts – after which it is named. It has a substantially streaked body, a round head and a whitish face with dark patches around the eyes. This quiet owl produces a series of hoots during courtship but is not often vocal during winter.

This uncommon winter visitor behaves unusually for owls as it is often active during the day, particularly after sunrise and before sunset. They inhabit diverse habitats, including coastal grasslands, prairie grasslands, meadows, tundra, dunes, marshes and agricultural land.

In SC, One can search for them at Congaree National Park, J. Strom Thurmond Lake, Francis Marion National Forest, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and Clemson Experimental Forest.

Short-eared owl

Short-eared Owls feed mainly on small mammals. Their main prey items are mice and voles, but they also feed on shrews, lemmings, rabbits, bats, weasels and pocket gophers, to name a few.

This owl feeds on birds such as terns, gulls, songbirds and even pelagic storm petrels too.

6. Snowy Owl

  • Wingspan: 126 – 145 cm
  • Length: 52 – 71 cm
  • Mass: 1600 – 2950 g
  • Maximum Lifespan: 24 years

The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) is a large, unmistakable white owl that sometimes shows black or brown markings, has penetrating yellow eyes, and tiny to absent ear tufts. Their vocalisations consist of deep, raspy hoots.

Snowy Owl

These owls are very rare non-breeding winter vagrants to South Carolina from further north but may be seen in vast open fields or dunes. The best places to look for Snowy Owls are Francis Marion National Forest, Congaree National Park and ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge.

They feed on birds such as ducks, geese, grebes and seabirds. Small mammals, including lemmings, rabbits, squirrels, hares, weasels and many rodents, compose a large percentage of their diet.

7. Long-eared Owl

  • Wingspan: 90 – 100 cm
  • Length: 35 – 40 cm
  • Mass: 220 – 435 g
  • Maximum Lifespan: 27 years

The Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) is a medium-sized owl that gets its name from its long ear tufts. These owls have a brown-grey body, with streaked whitish underparts, an orangeish face, and yellow eyes. The call produced during the breeding season is a series of ‘whoo’ notes.

Long-eared owl

The Long-eared Owl occurs in forests and open woodland that have adjacent open grasslands and shrublands. They feed on small birds and mammals, including mice, shrews, kangaroo rats, pocket gophers and young rats.

This rare winter visitor may go unnoticed in the state since this species does not often call outside the breeding season. The best place to look for this owl is Congaree National Park, while the area around Clemson University is also a good location to find them.

8. Burrowing Owl

  • Wingspan: 55 cm
  • Length: 19 -25cm
  • Mass: 150 g
  • Maximum Lifespan: 10 years

The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) is a long-legged, small migratory owl that infrequently wonders into the state from the west during migration. The underside of the body is whitish, with brown spots on the breast and brown barring on the belly.

They have a brown upperside with sand-coloured marks. The eyes are yellow, the throat is white, and it has white eyebrows. This species is not very vocal, but they do produce a ‘coo’ call which is most common.

Burrowing owl

These owls live in open, sloping areas with scattered vegetation such as grasslands, agricultural fields, deserts and steppe environments. They feed on small mammals, including mice and voles, reptiles, and birds. The bulk of their diet comprises insects. They commonly feed on grasshoppers, dragonflies, beetles and moths.

To stand a chance of seeing one of these rare vagrants to South Carolina, it is worth visiting Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, Francis Marion Forest Reserve and ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge.

9. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Wingspan: 42 – 48 cm
  • Length: 18 – 21 cm
  • Mass: 65 – 151 g
  • Maximum Lifespan: 9 years

The Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) is a small, brown-backed owl with a white-spotted brown head, a whitish face, yellow eyes and a mottled brown, whitish underside. Their call is loud and distinctive – a series of ‘too-too-too’ notes.

Northern saw-whet owl

This tiny owl is a rare winter vagrant that inhabits various woodland habitats, including riverside forests, savannahs and deciduous woods. They winter in thick forests, where they are most likely to be found in South Carolina. Specific locations include Francis Marion National Forest and Clemson Experimental Forest.

Northern Saw-whet Owls feed on small mammals – most commonly White-footed Mice and deer mice. Birds such as sparrows and robins are also preyed upon, along with insects.

Conclusion

South Carolina has a small number of resident owls, but they all have unique characteristics and are special to see or even hear. One may even be lucky enough to bump into an enigmatic vagrant Snowy Owl in the state, which would be a big tick for any birder, especially this far south.

Francis Marion National Forest is arguably the best location to find owls in South Carolina since almost all of the recording species in the state have been seen there. The best way to know if owls are present in the area is to listen out for their distinct calls that travel through the often quiet night sky, sending chills down the spines of tiny organisms foraging under the stars.

The resident owls of South Carolina are all widespread species with little conservation concern. Still, it is always important not to disturb these beautiful creatures when one encounters them in their natural environment.