9 Owls of Tennessee

9 Owls of Tennessee

The United States is home to 19 different species of owls and due to Tennessee’s climate and biodiversity, 8 of these species can be found in the state, making it a very owl-filled state in the country!

The owls found in Tennessee vary greatly in size, shape, and way of life. There are many common owls in Tennessee, but some of the rarer species are also to be found in the forests of Tennessee.

Usually living in deep forests, these animals produce some otherworldly sounds that will make every birdwatching trip worthwhile, should you be lucky enough to spot them.

In this article, we will look at the 9 different owl species of Tennessee and learn about their ways of life and how to find them.

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

The remarkably versatile Great Horned Owl is undeniably one of the most adaptable birds throughout all North America, effortlessly utilizing deserts, wetlands, grasslands, cities, and forests as its domicile, and can be spotted from northern Alaska to southern Brazil.

This nocturnal creature is proficiently active during the night while dozing during the day. The Great Horned Owl is outfitted with impeccable camouflage, thanks to its mottled brown feathers, enabling it to seamlessly blend into the surroundings of forests.

Interestingly, the owl’s “horns” are merely feather-like plumicorns, and their purpose remains partially unexplained.

Nonetheless, they are believed to serve as a visual signal and social spectacle for other birds.

Close-up photo of a Great Horned Owl

As one of the earliest breeding creatures in North America, the Great Horned Owl meticulously selects their mates in January. Males, with the utmost care, choose the nesting site, enticing the female by circling it and forcefully stomping on the nest.

This avian species prefers to use open and deserted nests left by other larger birds, such as hawks, rather than constructing their own. Their diverse habitats also result in a vast array of nesting areas, with instances of nests located in caves, cacti, cliffs, and many other locations.

Thanks to their vast range of habitats, the Great Horned Owl is an omnivore and will consume nearly anything that crawls, flies walks, or swims. Their stool analysis reveals that this bird species has one of the least picky diets on the planet.

Although they do eat a variety of prey, the majority of their diet consists of small mammals such as mice, jackrabbits, and small birds.

The Great Horned Owl is not presently considered a threatened species. However, their North American population has significantly declined in the past 40 years.

Human intervention is the most significant threat to the species, with over 65% of deaths attributed to shooting, trapping, electrocution by power lines, and being hit by vehicles.

Large numbers of deaths are also caused by poisoning from dead rats killed by rat poison. In culture, the Great Horned Owl has been perceived as a pest for centuries due to their predation of domestic chickens and small game, leading to their killing by hunters and farmers.

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, as one of the subspecies of the Barn Owl species, is recognized alongside the Western Barn Owl and Eastern Barn Owl.

This exclusively nocturnal bird species hides in hollow tree trunks and dense vegetation during the daytime. Its creamy white face, chest, and belly contrast sharply with its pale brown upper body and wings.

Its striking countenance has led to the development of numerous legends around the world, portraying the bird as divine or otherworldly.

American Barn Owl close up

American Barn Owls typically engage in monogamous relationships and remain with the same partner throughout their lifetime.

During the breeding season between March and June, the male searches for a suitable nesting location such as a nesting box, a large cavity in a tree trunk, or a cliffside.

He marks his territory by flying around the area, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the female.

When the female arrives, he woos her by chasing and swooping around her until it’s time to mate. I’ve tried for many years to get a pair of Barn Owls to make my owl boxes their home without any luck, unfortunately.

In North America, American Barn Owls primarily hunt voles and shrews, which make up approximately 90% of their diet, exclusively at night.

Their asymmetrically placed ears enable them to accurately locate their prey based on sound, making it possible for them to hunt in complete darkness. With a higher metabolic rate than other owls of similar size, the American Barn Owl requires more sustenance to survive.

The American Barn Owl isn’t globally endangered, but their population has dwindled in North America due to the proliferation of pesticides and rodenticides.

The chemicals not only harm their prey but also poison the owls themselves. Nevertheless, the American Barn Owl has the ability to recover from such losses in the short term.

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

The Barred Owls exhibit little migratory behavior, and their territories are remarkably small compared to other owl species. In a study involving the banding of 158 owls, not a single individual had travelled beyond 6 miles when later found.

Despite their extremely sedentary tendencies, the Barred Owl is widely distributed throughout the eastern United States and southern Canada. These owls display a predominantly brownish-grey hue, with distinctive dark striping on their underside.

A Barred Owl waiting patiently for its prey on a branch

Similar to the American Barn Owl, Barred Owls are devoted to their partners and exhibit monogamous behavior. During the mating season that starts in February, the male owl nods and bows with outspread wings to woo his potential mate.

The Barred Owls build their nests in deep, dark forests using hollow tree trunks as their preferred nesting location.

Barred Owls hunt in the forests with great precision. They patiently perch on branches like in the picture, swiftly swooping from tree to tree until they find their prey.

Their diet mainly comprises small mammals, but they are also known to catch fish and small birds. They prefer hunting around forest rivers and wetlands.

The Barred Owl is widely distributed in all of North America, and their population is estimated to be approximately 3 million individuals globally. Nevertheless, the poisoning of their prey is a significant threat to the Barred Owl, as with other owl species.

They are also threatened by habitat destruction and disruption and are thus highly detrimental to the Barred Owl, as they thrive in deep, dark forests.

4. 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

The Eastern Screech-Owl is remarkably comfortable around humans, having adapted adeptly to our development. It inhabits the eastern states and extends all the way down to Mexico.

This bird presents with two different color morphs, with the southern population having a more reddish hue and the northern population having a more greyish appearance.

This alteration in color seems to be a direct result of the color of the woodlands where they live.

This Eastern Screech-Owl doesn’t seem to mind its picture getting taken

During most of the year, the Eastern Screech-Owl is a solitary bird, but during mating season in April, pairs may be seen together. These owls usually make their nests in hollow tree trunks within deep and dark forests.

The Eastern Screech-Owl is typically monogamous and pairs for life, though some males are known to mate with two different females in the same season. In such cases, the second female often replaces the first female and lays her eggs in the nest.

The Eastern Screech-Owl typically hunts around open woodlands, along the edges of open fields or wetlands. Unlike the other owls on the list, a significant portion of the Eastern Screech-Owls’ diet consists of insects and worms.

Small mammals, however, remain a stable part of their diet.

The Eastern Screech-Owl has adapted well to human development and can be found in the eastern states all the way down to Mexico.

However, like other owls, poisoning their prey is a major threat, and habitat destruction and disturbance are also very harmful to this species since they prefer forests. Additionally, the Eastern-Screech Owl is prey for many mammals and larger birds.

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 is a globally common and abundant species. Its brown and black plumage blends seamlessly with the pine trees, providing excellent camouflage in dense foliage.

Its distinct calls can be heard up to 1 mile away, even in dense forests, making it a familiar sound to visitors of the woods.

long eared owl

Long-Eared Owls are monogamous and start their breeding season around March. The male will fiercely claim its territory by singing and clapping its wings, while the female will diligently search for suitable nesting areas.

Like most other owls, they don’t build their nests themselves and often use old hawk nests or cavities in old tree trunks as their nests, blending seamlessly into the dense foliage. I happen to live very close to a nest that has been used for a couple of years now.

Nesting in such dense vegetation, the Long-Eared Owl will stealthily move out to more open areas at night to hunt. Almost their entire diet is based on voles, and only in extremely scarce years for voles will they reluctantly change their diet to other small mammals and birds.

The Long-Eared Owl is very common and numerous, but the population is unfortunately in decline due to widespread habitat loss and unfortunate roadside killings.

However, its distribution globally is fortunately expanding, and as a result, it is only listed as Least Concern on IUCN’s red list.

6. 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 is widely distributed across the globe and is known to be one of the most prevalent owl species. Its short, black bill complements its dotted brown body which features a barred tail and wings.

The feathers on its breast are a shade of brown, while its belly is light in color. Unlike its nocturnal counterparts, the Short-Eared Owl is predominantly active during daylight hours, using this time to hunt.

The Short-Eared Owl is a well-known inhabitant in many of the nature areas that I frequently visit and is always a welcoming sight.

A Short-Eared Owl gliding effortlessly over open waters

The Short-Eared Owl engages in serial monogamy, forming pairs that remain together for a single breeding season, which typically commences around March.

Unlike other owls, this bird congregates in flocks and constructs their nests on the ground in sparsely vegetated areas such as prairies, meadows, or tundras.

Hunting both during the day and at night, the Short-Eared Owl flies low over open fields in search of prey. Dotted brown feathers with a barred tail and wings, and a brownish breast with a light belly, this bird’s short and black bill is a notable feature.

While voles are their preferred meal, like many other owls, they also eat other small mammals and even birds and amphibians when vole populations are scarce.

Despite being one of the most common owls in the world, the Short-Eared Owl’s population is declining due to habitat loss and roadside fatalities.

However, its distribution globally is expanding, and therefore it is currently listed as Least Concern on the IUCN’s Red List.

7. 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

“Tiny” and “shy” are two fitting adjectives to describe the Northern Saw-Whet Owl, one of the smallest and most elusive bird species in North America. This owl boasts a round, whitish face adorned with brown streaks, and its dark beak contrasts sharply with its yellow eyes.

Its belly is pale, with brownish patches, while the upper part is a darker shade of brown, dotted with whitish spots. The name of the owl is believed to have originated from the sound of its call, which resembles that of a saw being sharpened by a whetstone.

A tiny Northern Saw-Whet Owl sitting on a glove

During the breeding season which typically starts in March, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is serially monogamous, forming pairs that stay together until the end of the season. When a lot of prey is available, males may mate with multiple females.

They make their nests in old woodpecker holes, tree trunks with holes, or nest boxes in wooded areas.

This elusive bird almost exclusively preys on mammals, particularly deer mice, and voles. In wetter areas near rivers and wetlands, their diet appears to shift to include crustaceans, frogs, and insects more frequently.

Described as tiny and shy, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is one of the smallest and most elusive bird species in North America.

Despite being very common, their population is decreasing due to habitat loss and competition with Boreal owls, starlings, and squirrels for nesting sites.

Being a small bird, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is also vulnerable to predators such as mammals and larger birds.

8. Snowy Owl

  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Life span: 10 to 28
  • Size: 52.5 to 64 cm (20.7 to 25.2 in)
  • Weight: 1706 to 2426 g (3.76 to 5.34 lb)
  • Wingspan: 146 to 183 cm (4ft 9in to 6ft 0in)
  • Status: Vulnerable

The stunning Snowy Owl is undeniably one of the most distinguishable owl species, breeding in the Arctic and spending its winters in North America. As the name suggests, the Snowy Owl is immaculately white, making it one of the most pristine white creatures in the world.

The males, in particular, are predominantly white, while the females have more mixed dark feathers blended with the white ones, adding a touch of elegance to their appearance. Unlike other owls on this list, the Snowy Owl is crepuscular, meaning it can be active both during the day and night.

This trait is possibly due to its habitat in the Arctic, where the days are long in the summer and short in the winter.

The Snowy Owl is exceedingly nomadic, traveling vast distances from its breeding grounds to wintering grounds, displaying irregularities in how far south they venture during each winter.

Snowy Owl

The Snowy Owl makes its way to the arctic tundras by April, where it engages in its breeding rituals. The male carefully selects a spot, usually a shallow hole in the open tundra, and begins singing while performing aerial acrobatics to impress the females.

He also presents interested females with food, bowing before them while showcasing the nesting area. The owls do not construct a proper nest, but the female may scrape the floor of the nesting area to create a slight hole for the eggs to be laid in.

As their habitat shifts from breeding season to winter, so does their diet. In the winter, they mostly hunt at night and prey on small mammals such as rats and water birds like Teal and Northern Pintails.

During the summer, while at their breeding grounds, the majority of their diet consists of lemmings as this is the main available food source for the owl.

Due to its nomadic nature, estimating population numbers is challenging, but it is believed that the global population is declining. It is widely agreed that climate change is the driving force behind the decline of the Snowy Owl.

Where to find owls in Tennessee

The rising temperatures and decreased snowfall are negatively affecting lemming populations at their breeding grounds, which in turn impacts the Snowy Owl population. Additionally, the high temperature reduces the amount of sea ice that the Snowy Owls depend on.

Tennessee is home to a variety of owl species that birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts can spot with some tips and tricks. Like most owls, they are predominantly nocturnal, so it’s essential to know where and when to look for them.

One way to increase your chances of seeing an owl is by visiting specific locations where they’re commonly found. Many state parks and wildlife refuges in Tennessee have trails that are designed for optimal wildlife viewing.

These trails are usually safe and offer guided tours by experienced birdwatchers who can help spot owls hidden by brush or camouflaged against their surroundings.

Investing in a good pair of binoculars is another way to spot owls, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Second-hand or thrift stores often carry used binoculars that are of great quality, allowing you to get started with a reliable brand.

Some libraries or birdwatching organizations also rent out or loan binoculars at a low cost.

If you want to encourage owls to take up residence in your neighborhood, there are several ways to do it. One is by avoiding the use of rodent poison, which is inhumane and can harm other wildlife species, including pets.

Owls are great natural pest controllers and encouraging them to be present in your area can be an effective method of pest control.

You can make your property habitat friendly by leaving brush piles for small creatures to burrow in, planting food-bearing plants, and allowing dead trees to remain on your property, as long as they are not a potential danger.

When going birding at night to spot owls, it’s crucial to be safe. Avoid exploring bumpy trails or areas prone to larger predators.

Bring a flashlight and/or headlamp to see where you’re going and familiarize yourself with owl calls before you go out. Learning the different calls of each species will increase your chances of spotting them in the field.

Good areas to look for owls in Tennessee include:

  • Cherokee National Forest
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge
  • Catoosa Wildlife Management Area


Tennessee is an incredibly promising state for owl-watching. With its diverse range of habitats, spanning from the winding rivers of the west to the majestic mountains in the east, the state provides sanctuary to a multitude of owl species that are native to the United States.

It is virtually impossible to not catch a glimpse of at least one of these fascinating creatures. Some species are more conspicuous than others, and a number of them can be spotted with relative ease, even during daylight hours and in close proximity to human settlements.

For those who yearn to see some of the rarest owls like the Snowy Owl, seasoned owl enthusiasts will have ample opportunities to search for them here.

Join the discussion

  • Two more excellent places to see owls are Coalmont ATV park, and my favorite, Cedars of Lebanon. I was lucky enough to be on one of the deeper trails during the first hours of the day and caught a few seconds of flight of what I believe to have been a mature great horned owl. I was taken by surprise because even though it was probably 200 to 250 feet ahead, it was obviously the biggest one I’ve ever seen, fully confident it had the famous 5 foot wing span.
    I live in a little community called Kittrell, 2 or 3 miles from the famously known Readyville Mill, which was sadly destroyed by the tornado that came through the town of Readyville recently and left a substantial path of destruction behind it. I very often hear chatter between owl couples and really enjoy listening as I am doing things at night. They constantly move closer and farther apart all around me, almost as if they play the game “Marco Polo”. About 2 weeks ago, my boyfriend caught a picture of one of the beauties behind my barn, and my guess is that it’s a Barn Owl.