14 Owls in California

14 Owls in California

California’s diverse landscapes provide a haven for a fascinating array of owl species. From the towering Redwood forests to the arid deserts, these enigmatic birds have carved their place in the Golden State’s ecosystems.

This article delves into the captivating world of owls in California, exploring their unique behaviors, habitats, and the conservation efforts undertaken to safeguard their presence amidst the changing landscapes of this dynamic region. Join us on a journey to discover the allure and wonder of California’s captivating owls.

1. 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

Adorned in brown-speckled plumage, the Great Horned Owl emerges as an adaptable marvel, thriving in diverse realms like deserts, wetlands, grasslands, urban enclaves, and forests. As creatures of the night, their camouflage skills are unmatched, seamlessly blending into their surroundings.

Extending far beyond North America, they traverse southern lands as distant as Brazil. Their enigmatic “horns,” fashioned from feathers known as plumicorns, potentially serve as cryptic signals or a means of avian communication, though their true significance lingers shrouded in mystery.

A suspicious-looking Great Horned Owl has spotted the cameraman

In the realm of North American early breeders, the Great Horned Owl’s courtship commences as early as January, where male prowess shines in finding the perfect nesting spot. Elaborate aerial displays and stomping performances woo potential mates, while a peculiar preference for abandoned nests of larger birds, like eagles and hawks, becomes evident. Their nesting choices vary, spanning from caves and cliffs to the unforgiving arms of cacti.

Being shrewd predators, they boast adaptability in their diverse hunting menu. California witnesses their diet fluctuating with seasons and prey availability, where small mammals like voles, mice, and rabbits form the staple. However, their palates extend beyond, encompassing birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Sharp talons and beaks play their part in this nocturnal hunting spectacle.

Though not classified as threatened, the Great Horned Owl population in North America has witnessed a profound decline over four decades, largely influenced by human activities. Distressingly, 65% of owl fatalities find their roots in human actions, including shootings, trapping, car collisions, power line electrocution, and the insidious clutches of rat poison. Centuries of persecution as poultry predators and small game hunters have unfairly bestowed upon them a legacy of being viewed as pests, a sentiment perpetuated even to this day by illicit poachers.

2. 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 captivating and enigmatic bird, stands out with its stunning and otherworldly appearance. Embracing its nocturnal nature, it dwells concealed within dense foliage or hollow tree trunks during the day, only venturing out at night to hunt for prey. This remarkable species, belonging to a subspecies group alongside the Western and Eastern Barn Owls, boasts striking physical traits. Its upper body and wings are adorned in a delicate pale brown hue, while its face, chest, and belly dazzle with a creamy white color.

A curious American Barn Owl looking at something.

The stunning and mysterious American Barn Owl is a nocturnal bird, concealing itself during the day in trees or vegetation and hunting exclusively at night. During the nesting season from March to June, they form monogamous pairs for life. The male diligently searches for an ideal nesting spot, establishing his territory with energetic flights.

They mainly feed on small mammals like voles, shrews, and mice, using their asymmetrically placed ears to locate prey in complete darkness.

Despite facing population declines due to pesticide and rodenticide use, the American Barn Owl has demonstrated resilience and the potential for short-term recovery.

3. 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

In a comprehensive analysis of 158 marked Barred Owls, it was found that they typically maintain small, non-migratory territories, spanning no more than 6 miles from their original location. Despite this, Barred Owls are widespread throughout the eastern United States and southern parts of Canada. These owls are easily recognized by their striking brownish-grey feathers, accentuated by dark stripes on their underparts.

A puffy Barred Owl with blank eyes taking a break on a mossy branch

Barred Owls, akin to American Barn Owls, display a tendency to form lifelong monogamous pairs during mating. During courtship in February, the male spreads its wings, awaiting the female’s acceptance. Their nests are crafted within hollow tree trunks, nestled amidst dense forests.

Feasting primarily on small mammals like mice and voles, Barred Owls also target smaller birds, reptiles, and insects. Occasionally, larger prey like rabbits and squirrels becomes part of their diet. Relying on acute hearing, they deftly locate prey in forest rivers, wetlands, and even scavenge carrion when available.

With an estimated global population of 3 million, Barred Owls are considered widespread in North America, enjoying a “Least Concern” classification on the IUCN Red List. Nevertheless, akin to other owl species, they encounter challenges like prey contamination and habitat destruction or disruption in the deep, dark forests they inhabit.

4. 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, a widely distributed and abundant bird, thrives in diverse environments worldwide. Distinguished by its black small beak, spotted brown body, and striking wings and tail adorned with distinctive brown bars, it boasts a unique feature – a preference for daytime hunting, setting it apart from other nocturnal owls.

A Short-Eared Owl sitting on the grass

Short-Eared Owls in California construct ground nests in low-vegetated areas, including grasslands, meadows, and tundras. During the breeding season, starting in March, they form flocks and mate serially for a single season, exhibiting unique nesting habits.

Short-Eared Owls in California primarily feed on small mammals such as voles, shrews, and rodents. Additionally, they prey on reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds like sparrows and larks. Their opportunistic hunting occurs primarily during daylight hours.

Conservation efforts for Short-Eared Owls in California focus on preserving their diverse habitats, including grasslands and meadows. While they are not globally threatened, maintaining suitable environments and monitoring populations are essential to ensure their continued well-being in the region’s ecosystem.

5. 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 showcases a remarkable talent for blending into dense pine tree foliage with its intricate camouflaging of brown and black feathers. Abundantly found worldwide, this species emits haunting calls that can resonate up to a mile in dense forests, rendering it a distinctive and easily recognizable sound for visitors to its habitats.

This Long-Eared Owl seems like it was surprised by the cameraman

During the breeding season starting in March, male Long-Eared Owls establish their territory through distinct singing and wing-flapping patterns. Unlike many other owls, they occupy available hawk nests or tree trunks with cavities instead of building their own nests.

Their diet mainly comprises small mammals like mice, voles, shrews, and rodents, along with insects and small birds. They patiently wait for prey while perching or flying low to search the ground.

Despite facing habitat destruction and vehicle collisions, the Long-Eared Owl is expanding its range globally. Classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN’s Red List, these owls are known for their exceptional camouflage and haunting calls, making them a familiar presence in wooded areas.

6. 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, a petite species commonly found throughout North America, including California, is celebrated for its elusive nature. This owl boasts a unique appearance, with a circular cream-colored face adorned with brown streaks, a sharp dark beak, and striking yellow eyes. Its underbelly features delicate brown markings over a light white hue, while its back and wings exhibit a deep brown color with bright white spots. The owl’s name is believed to stem from its distinct call, akin to a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.

A close-up photo of the shy Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owls in California nest in tree cavities or abandoned woodpecker holes, showing a preference for coniferous forests. Breeding season typically starts from March to June, and they lay a small clutch of eggs in well-hidden locations.

The Northern Saw-Whet Owls’ diet in California primarily consists of small mammals such as mice, voles, and shrews. They are skilled nocturnal hunters, relying on their sharp talons and beaks to capture prey in the dark.

Conservation efforts for Northern Saw-Whet Owls in California focus on preserving their forest habitats and nesting sites. Although not considered globally threatened, maintaining suitable environments and monitoring populations is crucial for their long-term well-being in the region.

7. Burrowing Owl

  • Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
  • Life span: 6-8 years
  • Size: 8-11 inches (20-28 cm)
  • Weight: 5.3-8.5 oz (150-240 g)
  • Wingspan: 20-24 inches (51-61 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Burrowing Owl, a captivating and charismatic species, thrives across North and South America. Distinguished by their long legs and small size, they often reside in burrows dug by prairie dogs or other burrowing mammals. Active day and night, they delight birdwatchers. Interestingly, they decorate their burrows with manure and animal dung, luring insects for a delectable meal.

A couple of Burrowing Owls peeking out from their hole

Burrowing Owls in California inhabit burrows created by mammals like prairie dogs. They often dig their own burrows or modify existing ones. Breeding occurs from March to July, with the female laying eggs in the underground nest.

Burrowing Owls’ diet in California mainly comprises insects, small mammals, and birds. They are skilled hunters, relying on their excellent vision and stealth to catch prey during both day and night.

Burrowing Owls have faced habitat loss and threats from human activities, leading to population declines in some areas. Conservation efforts in California focus on preserving open spaces and protecting nesting sites. Monitoring populations and habitat restoration are vital for their continued survival.

8. Flammulated Owl

  • Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
  • Life span: 6-8 years
  • Size: 6-7 inches (15-18 cm)
  • Weight: 1.1-2.2 oz (31-62 g)
  • Wingspan: 14-17 inches (36-43 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Flammulated Owl, a discreet and diminutive bird, thrives in North America’s dense forests. With reddish-brown feathers and dark eyes, they expertly blend into their surroundings, making them challenging to spot, as depicted in the picture below. Their name originates from the Latin word “flammula,” referring to the flame-like markings on their feathers. Despite their unassuming appearance, these owls possess a unique vocalization, emitting a series of hoots resembling a bouncing ball’s sound.

A Flammulated Owl hiding in a hole in a tree

During the breeding season, Flammulated Owls exhibit monogamous behavior and nest in tree cavities or repurposed woodpecker holes. Both parents incubate a clutch of 2-4 eggs for about a month, and the young are cared for by both until they fledge after four weeks.

Their diet mainly consists of insects like moths, beetles, and grasshoppers, but they occasionally consume small rodents and birds. With exceptional night hunting skills, they rely on sharp eyesight and acute hearing to capture prey.

In California, Flammulated Owl populations have declined due to habitat loss and fragmentation, prompting conservation efforts involving habitat restoration and nest box installation. Despite their challenges, they remain classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN red list.

9. Northern Pygmy Owl

  • Scientific name: Glaucidium gnoma
  • Life span: 7-10 years
  • Size: 6-7 inches (15-18 cm)
  • Weight: 2.1-2.5 oz (60-70 g)
  • Wingspan: 14-16 inches (36-41 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Northern Pygmy Owl, a captivating and small owl, thrives across North America, stretching from Alaska to Mexico. With a distinctive round head, striking yellow eyes, and contrasting dark bill, their appearance stands out. Their plumage varies, ranging from grey to brown and white, adapting to their habitat. Renowned for their formidable hunting prowess, they fearlessly prey on birds larger than themselves, including quails and jays.

A Northern Pygmy Owl sitting in a tree

The nesting habits of Northern Pygmy Owls involve using natural cavities, abandoned woodpecker nests, and nest boxes, laying 3-7 eggs and incubating them for around a month. After about four weeks, the young owls leave the nest.

In California, Northern Pygmy Owls have a diverse diet, consuming small birds, mammals, and insects. Their unique ability to hunt during both day and night offers them an advantage over their prey, similar to the Short-Eared owl.

Despite being considered “Least Concern” on a global level by IUCN, Northern Pygmy Owls face threats in California due to habitat loss and fragmentation from human activities and climate change. Ongoing conservation efforts are crucial to ensuring their survival in the region.

10. Western Screech Owl

  • Scientific name: Megascops kennicottii
  • Life span: 6-8 years
  • Size: 8-10 inches (20-25 cm)
  • Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz (122-244 g)
  • Wingspan: 18-24 inches (46-61 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Western Screech Owl, a compact and stout bird, resides across the western regions of North America, spanning from Mexico to Canada. With striking ear tufts, piercing yellow eyes, and a blend of mottled brown and grey feathers, they captivate onlookers. Surprisingly, despite their small size, their resounding call can be heard from afar! A delightful quirk of the Western Screech Owl is their unique call, resembling a bouncing ball or a muffled whistle.

A Western Screech Owl well camouflaged on a dead tree trunk

Western Screech Owls in California nest in tree cavities, old woodpecker nests, and even nest boxes. They typically lay 2-5 eggs and incubate them for about a month. Once hatched, the young owls remain in the nest for several weeks before fledging.

The Western Screech Owl’s diet primarily consists of small mammals like mice and voles, insects, and occasionally small birds. They are skilled nocturnal hunters, relying on their excellent night vision and hearing to locate prey.

In California, the Western Screech Owl faces habitat loss and fragmentation due to urbanization and deforestation. Conservation efforts involve protecting nesting sites and creating suitable habitats through reforestation projects. Monitoring and education programs aim to raise awareness and ensure their survival.

11. Snowy Owl

  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Life span: 9-10 years
  • Size: 20-28 inches (52-71 cm)
  • Weight: 3.5-6.5 lb (1600-2950 g)
  • Wingspan: 4.2-4.8 ft (130-150 cm)
  • Status: Vulnerable

The Snowy Owl, an iconic and regal bird of the Arctic tundra, boasts pure white feathers and striking yellow eyes. Found in northern regions of North America, Europe, and Asia, they have unique feathers on their legs and feet for temperature regulation. These magnificent creatures possess exceptional hearing, enabling them to locate prey even beneath thick layers of snow.

This Snowy Owl seems to have spotted the cameraman

Snowy Owls in California typically nest on the ground in open areas, using shallow depressions as nests. They lay 3-11 eggs and incubate them for about a month. Once hatched, the young owls remain in the nest for a few weeks before they start to explore.

Snowy Owls mainly feed on small mammals like lemmings, mice, and voles. They are skilled hunters, relying on their keen eyesight and excellent hunting abilities to catch prey, even in snowy conditions.

Snowy Owls are not common residents of California but are occasionally spotted during irruptions, which are periodic movements caused by changes in food availability. While they are not listed as threatened in California, monitoring their sightings and protecting their habitats are essential conservation efforts.

12. Great Grey Owl

  • Scientific name: Strix nebulosa
  • Life span: 8-10 years
  • Size: 24-33 inches (60-84 cm)
  • Weight: 24-60 oz (680-1700 g)
  • Wingspan: 54-60 inches (137-152 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Great Grey Owl, a stunning inhabitant of North American woodlands, commands the skies with its silent flight and piercing yellow eyes. Its remarkable size and distinctive facial disc, akin to feathered headphones, exude majesty. With a wingspan of up to 5 feet, it effortlessly blends into dense forests. A captivating detail is its asymmetrical ear openings, facilitating prey detection under thick snow.

Great Grey Owl sitting on a log

In California’s majestic woodlands, the Great Grey Owl finds solace, favoring old-growth forests for nesting. Their stick nests perch on sturdy branches, providing a secure haven for their young.

Under the veil of darkness, they stealthily hunt, targeting small mammals like voles and mice, and occasionally larger prey like rabbits.

Threatened by human development and habitat fragmentation, conservation efforts and public awareness have fueled their resurgence, allowing the Great Grey Owl to soar once again through California’s skies, a testament to the power of preservation.

13. Northern Spotted Owl

  • Scientific name: Strix occidentalis
  • Life span: Up to 15 years
  • Size: 43-48 cm (17-19 in)
  • Weight: 500-900 g (1.1-2.0 lb)
  • Wingspan: 107-127 cm (42-50 in)
  • Status: Near Threatened

In the enchanting woodlands of the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Spotted Owl reigns supreme. With its alluring dark eyes, graced by delicate white spots, it embodies elegance and grace. Here’s a fascinating tidbit: The Northern Spotted Owl is a creature of habit, faithfully returning to the same roosting spots year after year, akin to a devoted patron of a beloved café. A loyalist of the forest, a symbol of unwavering dedication it remains.

Northern Spotted Owl

In California, Northern Spotted Owls select old-growth forests, crafting intricate nests of twigs. A delightful detail: Their young receive royal treatment, nestled in fluffy down bedding.

These owls of California delight in forest delicacies, from mice to flying squirrels. An intriguing tidbit: They hunt with ballet-like grace, swooping silently on unsuspecting prey.

Conservationists passionately safeguard the dwindling forest habitat, involving communities to secure a bright future for these majestic owls in California. And with their enchanting hooting calls, they add a symphony to the wilderness.

14. Elf Owl

  • Scientific name: Micrathene whitneyi
  • Life span: Up to 3 years
  • Size: 5.5 inches (14 cm)
  • Weight: 1.4 ounces (40 grams)
  • Wingspan: 9 inches (23 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The elf owl, a captivating species, dwells in the southwestern regions of North America, predominantly found in California. Despite its diminutive size, it boasts unique features, including a rounded head with striking yellow eyes, and a feather pattern adorned with brown and white spots.

Surprisingly, these enchanting creatures possess a distinctive characteristic—they possess a surprisingly loud and melodious call that resonates through their habitats, adding a touch of musical charm to the arid landscapes they inhabit.

An Elf Owl sitting in the night on a tree branch.

Elf Owls in California often nest in tree cavities or abandoned woodpecker holes. They may also use cacti, palm fronds, or man-made structures as nesting sites.

The elf owl’s diet primarily consists of insects, such as moths, beetles, and grasshoppers. They are skilled nocturnal hunters, relying on their keen vision and sharp talons to catch their prey.

Due to habitat loss and fragmentation, elf owls face conservation challenges. Conservation efforts focus on protecting their nesting sites and ensuring sufficient insect prey availability. Their population status in California is currently stable, but continued efforts are vital for long-term conservation.

Where to look for Owls in California

To spot owls in California, explore diverse habitats like forests, woodlands, wetlands, and urban areas. Venture out during dusk or dawn when they are most active. Keep a keen eye and listen for their hoots. Four recommended areas are:

  • Los Padres National Forest
  • Joshua Tree National Park
  • Yosemite National Park
  • San Francisco Bay Area.


California’s diverse landscapes offer a haven for various owl species, making it an ideal destination for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. From the enchanting hoots of the Northern Spotted Owl to the majestic flight of the Great Grey Owl, these feathered creatures add charm and mystery to the state’s wilderness.

Exploring and protecting their habitats ensures the continued presence of these fascinating beings for generations to come.

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