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The 13 Owls Of Arizona
The owls of Arizona

The 13 Owls Of Arizona

The picturesque state of Arizona is a haven for birdlife, particularly in the southeast which features some of the best birding sites in the world. Although it is one of the mountain states, Arizona boasts a diverse environment and a wide range of climates and habitat types. From painted deserts to national forests, majestic mountains, and breathtaking canyons, including the world-famous Grand Canyon, this southwest state vaunts a plethora of magnificent landscapes.

This environmental assortment supports a diversity of birds and wildlife. Some birding hotspots in Arizona include the Madrean Sky islands, the Ponderosa Pine Forest, and Madera Canyon – a resting place for migrating birds. Madera Canyon is also known for its owls. Owl species that can be heard through the canyon include the whiskered screech owl, the elf owl, and the great horned owl.

There are 13 species of owls that occur in Arizona. Owls live in a variety of habitats. They are nocturnal raptors, specialized for hunting in the dark, and are equipped with excellent night-vision, hearing, and stealth.

Although they are strongly associated with nocturnal behavior, some species are active during the day, while others may hunt diurnally depending on the season. And many owls are crepuscular – meaning they are active at dawn and dusk. Owls are split into two families, the Strigidae, which are the true owls, and the Tytonidae – the barn owls.

Spotting Owls

Spotting owls can be tricky since most species are not active during the day. And owls, by nature, are shy and elusive creatures. Here are some tips for successful owling:

  • Learn – find out about the species of owls in the area you are looking.
  • Listen – familiarize yourself with the calls of different owls you can come across and listen actively. You are more likely to hear them before seeing them.
  • Look carefully – Owls have excellent camouflage, and their plumages are adapted to blend into the night.
  • Signs – Also look out for their pellets which are oblong or spherical and brown or grey in color. A large number of pellets indicates a nearby nesting or roosting owl.
  • Be respectful – Be still and silent, and refrain from using bright lights, so as not to disturb or frighten them away.

Types Of Owls In Arizona:

1. Great Horned Owl

  • Scientific name – Bubo virginianus
  • Lifespan – 28 (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 17 to 25 in
  • Weight – 2.6 to 3.5 lb
  • Wingspan – 3 to 5 ft
  • Status – Least concern

Also known as the tiger owl, the great horned owl is a large raptor, named for its sizable tufts. Its plumage is mottled greyish-brown above and pale below with brown barring. It has a reddish-brown or grey facial disc and a white throat patch. Great horned owls have long feathers covering the legs and feet. They are the most widespread of the true owls, occurring all across North America, extending to parts of Central and South America. These owls need a combination of wooded habitats for nesting and roosting and open areas for hunting.

They have a wide range of nesting sites and often nest in the hollows of trees. In mountainous regions and canyons, they nest along cliff ledges, within boulders, or in caves. They may also nest in human-made structures, on the ground, or even in the burrows and dens of mammals.

Great Horned Owls have an incredibly diverse diet comprising over 200 species of mammals and around 300 bird species. They also take invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even carrion. Their most common prey are rodents, lagomorphs, and ground-feeding birds. Great horned owls hunt nocturnally but are occasionally active during the day.

Great horned owl

The great horned owl is a highly adaptable bird with a wide range. However, surveys reflect that the populations have declined. Historically, they were intensively hunted. Another threat is the indirect poisoning by harmful pesticides targeted toward their prey.

Great horned owls do not typically migrate and usually remain in the same territory for life. Look for them perched around woodland and forest edges, orchards, and farmlands, often near open fields. They also occur in deserts and other dry environments where they nest on cliffs or scattered trees. Hotspots for great horned owls in Arizona include the Sonoran Desert region and Madera Canyon. They can also be found in parks and quiet suburban areas.

Great horned owls have an array of vocalizations, many of which sound strange and sinister. They can be described as a startling combination of hoots, screeches, growls, mews, and squawks. The song is a low-pitched repetitive series of hoots.

2. Barn Owl

  • Scientific name – Tyto alba
  • Lifespan – 2 – 4 years (wild); 25 years (captivity: maximum recorded)
  • Size – 13 to 15 in
  • Weight – 8 to 25 oz
  • Wingspan – 31 to 37 in
  • Status – Least concern

Owing to their peculiar appearance and eerie call, the barn owl is often given monikers such as the demon owl, the ghost owl, and even the death owl. Yet barn owls are incredibly useful animals that help keep rodents at bay.

The barn owl is an unusual beauty. It is a medium-sized owl with a heart-shaped face and a characteristic pale, speckled plumage. The upperparts are rusty-brown with dark patches. The face and underparts range from cream to white. It has slender, feathered legs and long, broad wings that enable sharp, agile movements.

Barn owls occur in the open countryside at lower altitudes. They inhabit grasslands, farmlands, open woodlands, and woodland edges. They are strictly nocturnal. In North America, they consume a large number of voles. They also eat other rodents, insects, lizards, amphibians, bats, and birds.

Barn owl perched

Barn owls often nest in barns and old buildings – behavior for which they are named. They also nest in tree holes or in cavities and crevices along cliffs or ridges. They sometimes use the nests of other birds and readily take to nest boxes. The female shreds up dried, regurgitated pellets as nesting material for the chicks. The barn owl is the most widely occurring owl and one of the most widespread birds. But many localized populations are declining due to habitat loss, collision with vehicles, and indirect poisoning from pesticides.

Barn owls can be found in open areas all across Arizona. It is an unmissable bird. Look out for a flash of white in the open country at night. Barn owls have an undulating flight pattern. They hunt by gliding low above the ground, scanning for prey. They may also be spotted taking off from a perch or flying to and from the nest. They are sometimes seen during the day flying between roosting sites. Barn owls do not hoot. The call is a piercing, shrill screech.

3. Flammulated Owl

  • Scientific name – Psiloscops flammeolus
  • Lifespan – 8 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 6 to 7 in
  • Weight – 1.5 to 2 oz
  • Wingspan – 14 to 16 in
  • Status – Least concern

This little owl has flame-like markings on its wings, for which it is named. However, greyer variants lack this feature. Its plumage is a mix of dark brown, gray, buff, and white providing the perfect camouflage. It has large, dark eyes and small ear tufts that are often held flat against the head.

Flammulated owls are migratory. They breed in the western parts of the country and winter in Mexico, Central America, and the Southern United States, including Arizona. Flammulated owls inhabit mature mountain forests. They nest in tree holes, often the old nests of other birds such as woodpeckers or flickers.

Flammulated owl

Insects such as moths, crickets, and beetles make up most of their diet, but they also eat small rodents, birds, and bats. Populations of flammulated owls are declining in some regions. They are heavily dependent on mature forests. Threats include habitat loss and indirect poisoning by harmful pesticides.

A keen observer may spot this owl between September and March in Arizona around old Ponderosa Pine, Douglas fir, and Aspen forests at higher elevations. Flammulated owls are challenging to find as they are well-camouflaged. They have a range of vocalizations, including twittery noises, screams, and mews. The song of the male is a low hoot that is often closer than it sounds.

4. Whiskered Screech Owl

  • Scientific name – Megascops trichopsis
  • Lifespan – Unknown
  • Size – 6 to 8 in
  • Weight – 2.4 to 4.2 oz
  • Wingspan – 16 to 20 in
  • Status – Least concern

The whiskered screech owl is named for the wispy bristles at the base of the beak. It is a small owl with a streaked plumage and a rounded head with short ear tufts. There is a grey morph and a rufous-colored red morph. It has golden-yellow eyes and a yellow-green bill.

Whiskered Screech Owl

Whiskered screech owls occur from the south of Arizona to Central America. They inhabit dense oak woodlands and mountain forests. Whiskered screech owls are active from dusk through the night. They mainly prey on arthropods, including locusts, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, moths, caterpillars, centipedes, spiders, and scorpions. They occasionally prey on small vertebrate mammals.

The whiskered screech owl is a mysterious bird, not often sighted. They occur in mountainous areas such as the Madrean Sky Islands. They are often heard in Madera Canyon. In Arizona, your best chance of spotting a whiskered screech owl may be amidst sycamore groves alongside canyons. Look out for a small owl around dusk, similar in appearance to the western screech owl. Listen for the evenly-spaced, morse code-like boo hoots.

5. Northern Saw-Whet Owl

  • Scientific name – Aegolius acadicus
  • Lifespan – 7 years (wild); 16 years (captivity)
  • Size – 7 to 9 in
  • Weight – 2.2 to 5.4 oz
  • Wingspan – 17 to 22 in
  • Status – Least concern

The northern saw-whet owl is one of the smallest and most adorable owls on the continent. It has a large, round head and a compact body. Its plumage is a rich brown with small white spots on the upperparts and blotchy white streaks below. The facial disc is paler brown, and it has a white Y-shape from the brows to the bill, between its huge yellow eyes.

Northern saw-whet owl

Northern saw-whet owls mainly inhabit coniferous forests. During winter, they also take to deciduous or mixed woodlands. They nest in tree holes excavated by woodpeckers or in the old nests of other birds. They are nocturnal owls with exceptional hearing and can detect prey purely by sound. Rodents make up the vast majority of their diet. To a lesser extent, they also take small birds, bats, amphibians, and insects.

Northern saw-whet owls are fairly common, but they are not easy to spot. In Arizona, they are more numerous in winter as northern populations migrate south. They occur in forests in the north and central regions. Listen for the call which can be heard from a distance. It is a whistly, repetitive toot that can be described as a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone, hence the name.

6. Western Screech Owl

  • Scientific name – Megascops kennicottii
  • Lifespan – 13 (wild); 19 (captivity)
  • Size – 7 to 10 in
  • Weight – 3.5 to 10.8 oz
  • Wingspan – 21 to 25 in
  • Status – Least concern

A well-camouflaged owl with large ear tufts and a streaked plumage in variations of brown or grey. Western screech owls occur all across North America, and their range extends into Central America. They inhabit forests, open woodlands, deserts, shrublands, and open fields in the countryside. They nest in tree holes and even in cacti in desert regions.

Western screech owl

Western screech owls are active from dusk, through the night, into dawn. They are opportunistic predators but mainly prey on rodents, birds, and insects. Deforestation and development are threatening the habitats for these owls.

You can find them in open areas during twilight periods and at night. Their call can be heard year-round. They appear similar to the eastern and whiskered screech owls. In Arizona, they can be encountered in the Sonoran Desert region and in forests alongside lower canyons. They can also be found in parks and gardens in residential areas. They have a whistling call and a high-pitched screech. The song is a series of descending hoots.

7. Long-Eared Owl

  • Scientific name – Asio otus
  • Lifespan – 12 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 14 to 16 in
  • Weight – 7.8 to 5.3 oz
  • Wingspan – 35 to 39 in
  • Status – Least concern

The long-eared owl is named for its prominent ear tufts. It has a dark, patterned plumage which is a mix of brown, grey, and buff. The underparts are buff with dark brown streaks. Its facial disc is buff with white in the middle. It has orange-yellow eyes and a greyish-black bill.

Long-eared owls have a wide distribution across the continent. Arizona lies within their breeding range. They inhabit forests and woodlands near densely vegetated open areas such as grasslands and shrublands. They can also be found in farmlands, orchards, parks, cemeteries, and gardens. In Arizona and other southwestern states, they have adapted to semi-desert environments where they nest and roost in oases and hunt across the dry, open landscape.

Long-eared owl

Long-eared owls use the abandoned stick nests of other large birds. They also nest in tree holes or on the ground. In Arizona, you may also find them nesting in forks or cavities of the saguaro cactus.Populations of the long-eared owl may be declining due to habitat loss.

This shy, elusive owl is not easy to spot. They have a wide range of sounds that vary regionally. The male has a deep whooping song. Females have a high-pitched, nasal whistle. They also make cat-like yelping noises. They are silent during winter but often roost communally, making them easier to spot despite their excellent camouflage.

8. Northern Pygmy Owl

  • Scientific name – Glaucidium californicum
  • Lifespan – 3 years
  • Size – 6 to 7 in
  • Weight – 2.1 to 2.5 oz
  • Wingspan – 14 to 16 in
  • Status – Least concern

The northern pygmy is a small, plump owl with a large, round head and a fairly long tail. It is brown above with white spots and white below with dark brown streaks. As with other pygmy owls, it has eye-spots on the back of the neck which may function to deter predators attacking from behind. The northern pygmy has feathered legs down to the toes.

Northern pygmy owl

They are found all across North America and inhabit forests and woodlands. They nest in tree holes, often excavated by woodpeckers. Pygmy owls are diurnal but also hunt at dawn and dusk. They eat small birds, mammals, and insects.

They are most prevalent in the southeast and are active during the day, making them easier to spot than most owls. Still, they often go unnoticed. The call of the northern pygmy is a high-pitched trill. It also has a hollow, hooting song.

9. Elf Owl

  • Scientific name – Micrathene whitneyi
  • Lifespan – 3 – 6 years
  • Size – 5 to 6 in
  • Weight – 1.4 oz
  • Wingspan – 10.5 in
  • Status – Least concern

This tiny raptor is one of the smallest owls in the world. It is a small, sparrow-sized owl. The plumage of the elf owl is patterned grey, brown, and white. It has a buff-colored face and large, yellow eyes. Elf owls are nocturnal and mainly insectivorous, feeding on insects and other invertebrates. Prey includes moths, beetles, crickets, and arachnids. They may occasionally take lizards and small vertebrate animals.

Elf owl

Many elf owls breeding in the southwestern United States migrate south to Mexico for the winter, where sedentary populations reside. These are owls of dry habitats and can be found in brushy woodlands, deserts, and canyons. They nest in tree-holes of hardwoods and often in saguaro cacti. Look out for them in the Sonoran Desert region in the south around dusk. The call is a high-pitched whiny or a throaty chuckle.

10. Burrowing Owl

  • Scientific name – Athene cunicularia
  • Lifespan – 9 years
  • Size – 7 to 11 in
  • Weight – 4.8 to 8.5 oz
  • Wingspan – 20 to 24 in
  • Status – Least concern

The burrowing owl is a small, spotted owl with long, grey legs. Its plumage is brown above and pale below with brown streaks. It has large yellow eyes, hooded by thick, pale brows. Although they have a wide and variable diet, they mainly prey on insects and rodents. They also take amphibians, lizards, and small birds. These owls hunt at night and during the day. They are native to the Americas. Most burrowing owls are sedentary, but birds that breed in the northernmost parts of their range migrate south during winter.

They inhabit open grasslands, prairie, and other open areas. As the name suggests, they nest and roost in burrows, usually made by ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and other burrowing animals. This is a defensive strategy to mimic the behavior of rattlesnakes. Like the rattlesnake, they also make rattling and hissing noises to ward off potential threats.

Burrowing owl

Though they are classified as least concern, burrowing owls are endangered in parts of their range. They are threatened by habitat loss and declines in populations of burrowing mammals upon which they depend. They are also often killed by vehicles and domestic animals.

Burrowing owls are often active during the day and are fairly tolerant of human presence. They are often found around airports, roads, golf courses, parks, and farmlands. The best places to spot them are around the Phoenix Valley. They are not particularly vocal owls. The common call is a soft dual-note hoot.

11. Spotted Owl

  • Scientific name – Strix occidentalis
  • Lifespan – 21 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 18 to 19 in
  • Weight – 17.6 to 24.7 oz
  • Wingspan – 39 to 45 in
  • Status – Near-threatened

The spotted owl is a medium-sized forest owl. Its plumage is dark brown with white spots. The spots on the underparts are oblong, giving it a barred appearance. It has a prominent white X-shape on the face against the brown facial disc. Spotted owls have large, dark brown eyes.

They occur in the far west and southwest of North America, where they inhabit old, primary forests with dense canopies. In the southwest, they are also found in pinyon woodlands and canyons. They nest in tree-holes made by woodpeckers, abandoned nests of other birds, cliffs, or ledges.

Spotted owl

Spotted owls hunt mostly at night and occasionally during the day. They are essentially ambush predators and typically hunt from a perch, where they wait for prey to draw close enough to launch a surprise attack. They mainly prey on small mammals such as woodrats and flying squirrels. They may also take bats, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

Populations of spotted owls are in decline due to the destruction of primary forests, wildfires, and competition with barred owls. They are classified as near-threatened. The spotted owl may be tricky to spot. Listen for the signature four-note hoot and look out for a heavily spotted owl among mature forest stands or around canyons.

12. Short-Eared Owl

  • Scientific name – Asio flammeus
  • Lifespan – 4 years
  • Size – 13 to 17 in
  • Weight – 7.3 to 16.8 oz
  • Wingspan – 33 to 40 in
  • Status – Least concern

The short-eared owl is a medium-sized owl of the grasslands. It has a rounded head with small ear tufts for which it is named. Its plumage is mottled brown, buff, and white above and buff below with dark streaks on the breast. The face is white in the center, with a brown facial disc edged with a pale rim. Its piercing yellow eyes are encircled by dark eye patches. They occur all across North America, with majority of the population breeding in the north and migrating south for the winter.

Short-eared owl

Short-eared owls inhabit large, sparsely vegetated open areas. They nest on the ground, partially concealed amidst low vegetation. Unlike other owls, short-eared owls build their own nests. The female constructs a bowl-shaped nest using grasses, weeds, and feathers.

Short-eared owls mostly eat rodents, especially voles, rats, and mice. They also take birds and their nestlings. Populations of short-eared owls appear to be in decline due to habitat loss.

Look out for them in open fields and grasslands around dawn or dusk in winter. They may be on the ground or flying low. They have a floppy, bat-like flight. The common call is a raspy bark, but they are mostly silent during winter.

13. Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

  • Scientific name – Glaucidium brasilianum
  • Lifespan – Unknown
  • Size – 5.9 to 7.8 in
  • Weight – 2.2 to 2.7 oz
  • Wingspan – 14.5 to 16 in
  • Status – Least concern

The ferruginous pygmy is a small, stocky owl with large feet relative to its size. The plumage coloration ranges from brownish grey to rufous. It has lightly spotted upperparts and pale, streaked underparts. They are native to Central and South America, where they are common and widespread. The breeding range extends into Arizona and Texas. They inhabit wooded deserts, mesquite thickets, and other semi-open areas. They nest in tree holes or cavities in cacti.

Ferruginous owls are mostly crepuscular but are often active during the day. Their diet is varied, consisting of birds, small mammals, lizards, and invertebrates.

Ferruginous pygmy owl

Though they are classified as least concern by the IUCN, the ferruginous owl is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act due to its precariously vulnerable, especially in Arizona where wildfires pose the main threat.

They can be found in the Sonoran Desert region in the south, especially among saguaro cacti. They have a woodpecker-like undulating flight-pattern and can be spotted during the day as well as at dawn and dusk. The call is a four-note whistly hoot.

Conclusion

The southwest state of Arizona has a healthy diversity of owl species. Owls are invaluable to humans as they consume more rodent pests than any other animal giving them high economic and ecological value. They are especially useful in agricultural areas as they are arguably more efficient in controlling pests than pesticides. Ironically, the use of pesticides is one of the main threats that owls face as they are indirectly poisoned by the toxic ingredients accumulated in their prey.

Most North American owls have stable populations, but some are in decline. In addition to pesticide use, habitat loss is another major threat. Owl boxes are a great way to invite owls into your backyard to help control rodents and provide much-needed nesting sites for these invaluable birds.