The Sunshine State is a haven for wildlife, boasting some of the most iconic wilderness areas of North America. From the Florida Keys to the Everglades, Florida is a nature lover’s paradise. And between the forests, grasslands, wetlands, islands, and coastline, the diverse environment supports over 500 species of birds, including some rare and endemic species. Birdwatchers exploring this southeastern state will be spoilt for choice.
Hotspots include the iconic Everglades, the Dry Tortugas National Park, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge, and the Apalachicola National Forest. There is also the Great Florida Birding trail to explore. In this article, we take a look at the Owls of Florida. There are eight species of owls to look out for in Florida, two of which are rare in the region, but have been sighted and are worth a lookout.
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 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 Florida
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
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. Great horned owls occur year-round in Florida.
They 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. They can also be found in parks and quiet suburban areas.
Great horned owls have a wide range of nesting sites and often nest in the hollows of trees. 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 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.
These 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.
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.
2. Eastern Screech Owl
- Scientific name – Megascops asio
- Lifespan – 14 years (oldest recorded)
- Size – 6.5 – 10 in
- Weight – 4 – 8 oz
- Wingspan – 18 – 24 in
The eastern screech owl is a stocky raptor with broad wings and a short tail. It has a patterned plumage with streaked underparts. There are two color morphs of this species varying from gray to rusty-brown, with the gray variant similar to the closely related western screech owl. It has a large head with prominent ear-tufts, yellow eyes, and a yellowish bill. The legs are feathered, and it has large, powerful feet.
Eastern screech owls inhabit wooded environments such as mixed woodlands, deciduous forests, riparian woods, orchards, parks, and gardens. They are common throughout Florida. These owls adapt well to the presence of humans and are known to live in urban and suburban areas near human habitations, often nesting in neighborhood trees. Listen for their whining call at night, especially during spring and early summer. They can also be spotted roosting in shrubs or in the dense foliage of trees close to the trunk.
Eastern screech owls are opportunistic predators. They hunt nocturnally, typically from a perch. During the breeding season, insects, spiders, and other invertebrates such as crayfish, worms, and snails make up the majority of their diet. In winter, they prey on small birds and mammals such as mice and voles. The eastern screech owl is a resilient species capable of adapting its diet and habitat, making it possible to thrive in developed areas.
3. 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
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. 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.
Burrowing owls occur year-round in open areas throughout Florida. They inhabit open grasslands, prairie, and other open areas. 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 common call is a soft dual-note hoot.
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.
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. 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.
4. 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
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 the majority of the population breeding in the north. They migrate south for the winter, and this is when you may get a chance to spot one in Florida. 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.
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.
5. Barred Owl
- Scientific name – Strix varia
- Lifespan – 24 years (oldest recorded)
- Size – 16 – 25 in
- Weight – 17 – 35 oz
- Wingspan – 38 – 49 in
The barred owl is a large owl with a drab, barred plumage. It is brown above with cream-white barring and pale below with a scalloped mantle and brown streaks on the lower breast and belly. It has a large, rounded head and a pale facial disk with faint, concentric markings. Its large, dark eyes are close-set, and it has a pale yellow bill. The barred owl feathered legs and yellow feet with black talons.
Barred owls mainly inhabit mature deciduous and mixed forests but can also be found in coniferous forests, forest edges, semi-open woodlands, and large parks with old trees. They nest in hollow trunks of large trees or snags. Barred owls are fairly common in Florida. Look out for them in deep, wooded areas.
The barred owl is a vocal raptor with a wide repertoire of spectacular, far-reaching calls. The common call is the series of eight hoots that can be described mnemonically as hu hu hu hoo, hu hu hu huhoo. Other vocalizations include eerie cackling, grumbling, screeching, and cat-like screams. Barred owls prey on small mammals, birds, and amphibians, but they also take reptiles, fish, and invertebrates. They are opportunistic predators that hunt after sunset, typically from a perch.
Despite being one of the most common species of owls in North America, barred owls are sensitive to logging and the destruction of old forests, making them an excellent indicator species. Nonetheless, this is a resilient and adaptable species with an expanded range, and population numbers have increased over the past few decades.
6. 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
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.
Although they are widespread birds, barn owls are not common in Florida. If you do happen to come across one, you won’t miss it. The barn owl is a distinctive 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.
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.
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. 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.
7. Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Rare)
- 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
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 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. Northern saw-whet owls are uncommon in Florida, only occurring in the north during winter. 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.
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. Although the northern saw-whet owl is a common and widespread species, the population in the southern Appalachian is at risk. The main threat to this species is habitat loss due to deforestation, logging, and the destruction of mature forests.
8. Snowy Owl (Very Rare)
- Scientific name – Bubo scandiacus
- Lifespan – 10 (average) 23 years (oldest recorded)
- Size – 20 – 28 in
- Weight – 56 -104 oz
- Wingspan – 50 – 57 in
- Status – Vulnerable
Technically, Florida is not part of their natural range, but snowy owls have been known to veer as far south as the Sunshine State in some years. With its striking white plumage and bright yellow eyes, the snowy owl is one of the most unmistakable owls in the world. Although mostly white, the plumage is stippled with dark spots on the upperparts. Females are more spotted and have faint brown barring. Snowy owls have relatively small heads, short ear-tufts, and long feathering. They are perfectly camouflaged against the snowy arctic environment and often appear as a lump of snow on the ground.
Snowy owls are raptors of the Arctic tundra, where they inhabit open treeless environments. They nest in shallow scrapes on dry ground, often on elevated sites such as ridges, hummocks, hills, and outcrops. Snowy owls are nomadic birds with unpredictable migration patterns. During some winters, they erupt south. Their wintering habitat includes meadows, prairies, grasslands, lakeshores, and coastal habitats. They can also be found in crop fields, golf courses, and airport fields.
Unlike other owls, snowy owls have a far-carrying barking call instead of the typical hooting. The common call is a series of hoarse kru kru kru notes. Other vocalizations include clucking, squealing, grunting, hissing, and cackling.
Another unique characteristic of the snowy owl is their hunting activity, which unlike other owls can be during the day or night. They also lack the acute hearing typical of owls, so they rely mostly on their keen eyesight. They hunt from a perch or rise and swoop down on their prey on the ground. The main targets are small mammals, specifically lemmings. They also take other rodents, birds, and on occasion, the odd fish, amphibian or invertebrate.
Due to their erratic nature and the remoteness of their breeding habitat, it is difficult to keep track of the population dynamics of this species. They have few predators and a wide, relatively undisturbed breeding range. But it is estimated that their numbers of snowy owls have declined drastically. Possible threats include climate change which impacts their habitat and prey availability. During migrations and in winter, they are also prone to collision with cars, powerlines, and fences. They are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.
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.