6 Owls in North Carolina (With Pictures)

6 Owls in North Carolina (With Pictures)

Owls, the enigmatic rulers of the night sky, have long captivated the imagination with their silent flight and haunting calls. In North Carolina, these nocturnal birds of prey are an integral part of the ecosystem, thriving across varied landscapes from the misty Appalachian Mountains to the coastal plains.

This article delves into the mysterious world of North Carolina’s owls, exploring their habits, habitats, and the unique role they play in the state’s biodiversity.

We’ll journey through dense forests, serene wildlife refuges, and hidden corners of national parks to uncover the lives of these elusive creatures. Whether you’re a bird enthusiast, a wildlife photographer, or simply someone who appreciates the wonders of nature, this exploration of North Carolina’s owls offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these majestic birds.

Get ready to embark on a nocturnal adventure as we unveil the secrets of the owls of North Carolina.

1. 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           
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Eastern Screech Owl, found throughout Eastern North America, is notable for its adaptability, thriving in both wooded and urban areas. Its plumage, varying from gray to red to brown, provides excellent camouflage against tree bark.

The owl’s yellow eyes and ear tufts are distinctive features. Known for its trilling calls at dusk, the Eastern Screech Owl is a common, yet often unseen, inhabitant of its range. Observing this owl offers insights into the diverse adaptations of urban wildlife.

An Eastern-Screech owl looking out its cavity

Eastern Screech Owls are cavity nesters, utilizing natural tree hollows or abandoned woodpecker holes. They also readily adapt to human-provided nest boxes. This flexibility in nesting sites allows them to thrive in both rural and urban environments.

The female owl arranges the nest, using feathers to create a soft bedding for the eggs. This behavior underscores the owl’s ability to thrive in diverse environments by adapting to available resources.

The Eastern Screech Owl’s diet is varied, including insects, small rodents, birds, and even fish and amphibians. Their hunting strategy involves waiting silently on a perch before swooping down on unsuspecting prey. This varied diet and hunting method reflect the owl’s adaptability as a nocturnal predator and its role in controlling a variety of small animal populations in its ecosystem.

Conservation of the Eastern Screech Owl involves habitat preservation and encouraging the use of nest boxes in areas where natural cavities are scarce. These owls face challenges from habitat loss, particularly in urban and suburban areas. Conservation history has shown that with proper habitat management and public education, Eastern Screech Owls can coexist successfully with human development.

2. 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
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Great Horned Owl, a widespread resident across the Americas, makes its home from the Arctic regions of Alaska to the southernmost parts of South America. Characterized by its mottled brown, white, and black feathers, this owl is easily identifiable by the prominent feathered tufts on its head, resembling horns. Its face is encircled by a distinct array of feathers, forming a facial disc that focuses sound to its ears.

The piercing amber eyes of the Great Horned Owl stand out, providing keen night vision. This owl adapts to a variety of environments, including forests, deserts, and urban areas. Its presence is often noted by its deep, resonating hoots, echoing through its habitat.  

A suspicious-looking Great Horned Owl sitting in a tree

The Great Horned Owl is a resourceful nester, often taking over abandoned nests of other large birds such as hawks or eagles. These nests are typically found high up in trees, offering a strategic vantage point for the owl and its young. They may also nest on cliff ledges or in cavities in trees.

Great Horned Owls do not heavily modify these nests, preferring to use them as they find them. This opportunistic approach to nesting demonstrates the owl’s adaptability and resilience in various environments.

Great Horned Owls are formidable predators with a diverse diet. They hunt at night, silently swooping down on a wide range of prey including rabbits, rodents, and even other birds. Their powerful talons and acute sense of hearing make them efficient hunters in the dark. Occasionally, they may also prey on reptiles, amphibians, and insects. This varied diet is a testament to the owl’s status as a top predator in its ecosystem.

Conservation efforts for the Great Horned Owl have focused on preserving their natural habitats and mitigating human-related threats. Being at the top of the food chain, they are less affected by population fluctuations of specific prey species.

However, they are vulnerable to secondary poisoning from rodenticides and collisions with vehicles. Conservation history has seen a positive turn with increased awareness and legal protection, ensuring these majestic birds continue to thrive in North Carolina’s diverse habitats.

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
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Barred Owl, native to Eastern North America’s woodlands and swamps, features striking plumage with brown and white barring. It lacks ear tufts, and its dark eyes give it a unique look among owls.

Known for its variety of vocalizations, including the classic hoot, the Barred Owl is a symbol of the forest. Its presence is indicative of healthy woodland ecosystems, and encountering one is often considered a sign of a thriving natural environment.

A close up photo of a Barred Owl

Barred Owls are cavity nesters, often choosing large tree hollows to lay their eggs. They may also take over abandoned nests of other large birds. Their preference for deep forest habitats is reflected in their nesting choices, often in mature forests with large trees.

The Barred Owl’s nesting behavior, involving minimal alterations to the chosen site, indicates a harmonious relationship with its forest environment.

Barred Owls have a varied diet, feeding on small mammals like squirrels and rabbits, as well as birds, reptiles, and amphibians. They are opportunistic hunters, adapting their diet based on prey availability in their habitat. This varied diet showcases the Barred Owl’s adaptability as a predator and its important role in controlling different animal populations within its ecosystem.

Conservation efforts for Barred Owls include preserving mature forests and monitoring populations. They are relatively adaptable and have expanded their range in recent years.

However, habitat loss and competition with other owl species, like the Spotted Owl in the western United States, pose challenges. Conservation history has seen an increased focus on understanding the dynamics between Barred Owls and other species to inform management strategies.

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
  • State status: Migratory and rare

The Short-Eared Owl, found across open habitats in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and some Pacific islands, is known for its elusive nature. This owl has minimal ear tufts that are often not visible, setting it apart from other species. Its yellow eyes are rimmed with black, contrasting with its pale face.

The plumage is predominantly a mix of browns and tans, offering camouflage in grasslands and marshes. This owl is crepuscular, being most active during twilight, when it can be seen gliding over open fields.

A Short-Eared Owl in flight

Short-Eared Owls have a unique approach to nesting. They build their nests on the ground, often in open areas like grasslands or marshes. The nest is a simple scrape in the earth, lined with grass, feathers, and other soft materials. This ground-level nesting makes their eggs and chicks vulnerable to predators, but it also reflects the owl’s strong connection to the earth and its open habitat preferences.

The diet of the Short-Eared Owl mainly consists of small mammals like voles and mice, reflecting their adaptation to open grassland habitats. They may also hunt small birds and insects. Their hunting strategy involves flying low over fields, using their keen hearing and sight to locate prey.

This diet, focused on small ground-dwelling animals, underscores the owl’s role as a natural controller of rodent populations in their habitats.

Conservation efforts for Short-Eared Owls are largely centered on habitat preservation. As ground nesters in open areas, they are particularly susceptible to habitat loss due to agricultural expansion and urban development. Efforts to maintain and restore grasslands and marshes are crucial for their survival. Conservation history for these owls highlights the need for integrated land-use planning that considers the needs of wildlife in open landscapes.

5. 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
  • State status: Breeding and uncommon

Inhabiting the coniferous forests of North America, from Canada to Mexico, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a small, secretive bird. It has a plumage patterned with browns and whites, featuring vertical streaks and spots, aiding in camouflage.

The owl’s large, round, yellow eyes give it an expressive look. It is named for its call, reminiscent of a saw being sharpened. This owl is often hidden in dense foliage, making sightings a rare and special occurrence.

The tiny Northern Saw-Whet Owl sitting on a glove

Northern Saw-Whet Owls nest in cavities, often those created by woodpeckers or natural processes in trees. They may also use nest boxes. Their preference for tree cavities as nesting sites reflects their reliance on forest habitats.

The female prepares the nest by lining it with feathers and wood shavings, creating a cozy environment for her eggs. This nesting behavior emphasizes the owl’s connection to the dense, wooded environments of North Carolina.

The diet of the Northern Saw-Whet Owl mainly includes small rodents, with a particular preference for mice. They also consume insects and small birds occasionally. Hunting primarily at night, they use their acute hearing and silent flight to ambush prey. This diet, focusing on small forest-dwelling creatures, underlines the owl’s role as a nocturnal predator in woodland ecosystems.

Conservation efforts for Northern Saw-Whet Owls involve preserving their forest habitats and monitoring their populations through banding and tracking programs. These owls are sensitive to habitat fragmentation, making conservation of large, contiguous forest areas vital.

Conservation history has seen increased interest in studying these elusive birds, contributing to better understanding and protection efforts.

6. 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
  • State status: Breeding and rare

The American Barn Owl, native to the Americas from the United States to Argentina, is recognized for its distinctive appearance. It features a heart-shaped, white face and contrasting golden-brown back. Its large, black eyes are adapted for nocturnal hunting.

Preferring open habitats like farmlands, grasslands, and deserts, this owl is often seen in rural settings, perching silently on barns or fence posts at night. The American Barn Owl is noted for its eerie calls and ghostlike flight.

The American Barn Owl and its otherworldly look

American Barn Owls are known for their adaptability in nesting locations. They often nest in barns, abandoned buildings, or hollow trees. Their choice of nesting sites reflects a coexistence with human-altered landscapes.

These owls line their nests with regurgitated pellets, creating a soft bed for their eggs. This nesting behaviour shows their ability to find and repurpose safe havens in a variety of environments.

The American Barn Owl’s diet primarily includes rodents, particularly voles and mice, making them a friend to farmers by controlling pest populations. They hunt at night, using their exceptional hearing to locate prey even under cover of darkness or vegetation. This dietary preference for small mammals highlights their role in maintaining ecological balance in their habitats.

Conservation efforts for the American Barn Owl have been largely focused on promoting awareness and providing safe nesting sites. As these owls often cohabit with humans in agricultural landscapes, conservation programs include installing nest boxes in barns and other structures.

This has helped maintain their population levels, despite challenges such as habitat loss and the use of pesticides which reduce their prey availability.

Where to look for Owls in North Carolina

North Carolina is a great place to observe them in their natural habitat. To find owls in North Carolina, you need to know where to look and how to do it respectfully.

Firstly, it’s important to understand that owls are nocturnal, so your best chances of seeing them are during dusk or dawn. They are also more vocal during mating season, which is generally in late winter or early spring.

Here are four excellent areas in North Carolina where you can spot owls:

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park: This vast park is home to several owl species, including the Great Horned Owl and the Eastern Screech-Owl. Nighttime guided tours often offer opportunities to hear and sometimes see owls.
  • Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge: Located in Eastern North Carolina, this refuge is a haven for migratory birds, including owls. The serene surroundings of the lake provide a perfect backdrop for owl spotting.
  • Pisgah National Forest: This forest offers a diverse habitat suitable for Barred Owls and others. Hiking in the forest, especially near streams and wooded areas, can lead to owl encounters.
  • Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge: Situated on the Outer Banks, this refuge is known for its rich birdlife, including owls. The quiet trails and boardwalks are ideal for an evening stroll to listen for the distinctive calls of owls.

When searching for owls, it’s crucial to maintain a respectful distance and avoid disturbing them, especially during nesting season. Using a flashlight with a red lens can help minimize disturbance while walking at night. Moreover, joining organized birdwatching groups or tours can be a more effective and educational way to observe these majestic birds.


The owls of North Carolina are more than just symbols of wisdom and mystery; they are vital components of the state’s rich biodiversity. By understanding their behaviors, respecting their habitats, and appreciating their presence, we can ensure these magnificent creatures continue to thrive.

Whether seen soaring silently under a moonlit sky or heard calling in the twilight, the owls of North Carolina remain enduring and enchanting residents of this diverse region.

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