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All 15 Owl Species Found in California (With Pictures & Info)

With its vast range of habitats, from its towering forests and expansive deserts to its bustling cities, California is home to an impressive array of owl species.

These fascinating birds of prey, with their unmistakable hoots and mesmerizing gazes, are a captivating part of the state’s wildlife.

In this article, we’ll explore the fifteen owl species that can be found in the Golden State, discussing their unique traits, the best times to spot them, and the regions they inhabit.

Owl Species Found in California

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Size: 46-63 cm (18-25 inches)
  • Weight: 910-2500 grams (2-5.5 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 91-153 cm (36-60 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Great Horned Owl, also known as the “tiger owl,” is a common and adaptable bird found all across California. Characterized by its large size, ear tufts, and deep, resonant hooting, this owl can be found in various habitats, including forests, deserts, parks, and even in the suburbs.

These owls are skilled predators with a diverse diet, consuming a range of prey from small rodents to larger mammals and birds. Their excellent hearing and strong talons allow them to locate and catch prey, even in dense cover or complete darkness. The Great Horned Owl’s hooting, a series of four to five hoots, “hoo-hoo-hoo hoo hoo,” is a familiar sound in the California nightscape.

Did you know? Great Horned Owls have remarkable grip strength, with crushing power comparable to that of much larger raptor species. This allows them to catch and kill prey larger than themselves, making them one of the most formidable bird predators.

Western Screech Owl

Western Screech Owl
  • Scientific name: Megascops kennicottii
  • Size: 19-25 cm (7.5-9.8 inches)
  • Weight: 100-210 grams (3.5-7.4 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 55-61 cm (21.6-24 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Western Screech Owl, a small but formidable hunter, can be found year-round throughout much of California. Despite its name, it doesn’t screech, but rather emits a series of whistles and hoots that can carry a long distance. These owls prefer a variety of woodland habitats, and can also adapt to urban areas where they often take over tree cavities for nesting.

Western Screech Owls are nocturnal, emerging from their roosts at dusk to hunt for insects, small mammals, and birds. Their cryptic plumage provides excellent camouflage against tree bark, making them a challenge to spot during the day.

Did you know? Unlike many other owl species, Western Screech Owls are known to be quite tolerant of human activity and often nest in boxes provided by humans.

Northern Spotted Owl

Northern Spotted Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix occidentalis caurina
  • Size: 43-50 cm (16.9-19.7 inches)
  • Weight: 600-700 grams (1.3-1.5 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 114-125 cm (44.9-49.2 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Northern Spotted Owl is a large, dark brown owl with a barred tail and spotted underparts, found primarily in old-growth forests in northern California. They are year-round residents, preferring to stay in the same area year-round.

These owls are predominantly nocturnal, roosting in hidden, shaded locations during the day. They feed on a variety of small mammals, with flying squirrels making up a significant portion of their diet in many areas. Northern Spotted Owls have a distinctive call, often described as a “hoot” sound.

Did you know? The Northern Spotted Owl is often at the center of habitat conservation efforts due to its preference for old-growth forests. It has been listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1990.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl
  • Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
  • Size: 19-28 cm (7.5-11 inches)
  • Weight: 140-240 grams (4.9-8.5 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 50.8-61 cm (20-24 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

Unlike most owl species, the Burrowing Owl is active during the day, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. This small, long-legged owl prefers open landscapes such as grasslands, deserts, and agricultural areas. As its name implies, it often nests in burrows on the ground, particularly those abandoned by ground squirrels or prairie dogs.

Burrowing Owls feed primarily on insects and small rodents, and can often be seen perched near their burrow during daylight hours, keeping a watchful eye for predators and potential prey. They are found in California year-round, particularly in the southern parts of the state.

Did you know? Burrowing Owls have a unique defense mechanism. When threatened, they produce a hissing sound that closely mimics the rattling of a rattlesnake, deterring potential predators from entering their burrow.

California Spotted Owl

California Spotted Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix occidentalis occidentalis
  • Size: 43-50 cm (16.9-19.7 inches)
  • Weight: 600-675 grams (1.3-1.5 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 114-124 cm (44.9-48.8 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The California Spotted Owl, a subspecies of the Spotted Owl, is a year-round resident of California, primarily inhabiting old-growth forests and mixed coniferous forests. These owls have dark brown bodies with pale spots and a barred tail, and like their Northern Spotted Owl cousins, they are known for their dark eyes.

California Spotted Owls are primarily nocturnal, but are occasionally active during the day. They feed on small mammals, with flying squirrels and woodrats making up a significant part of their diet.

Did you know? The California Spotted Owl is one of the few owl species that do not build their own nests. Instead, they use cavities in trees, broken-topped trees, or the abandoned nests of other species.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl
  • Scientific name: Tyto alba
  • Size: 33-40 cm (13-15.7 inches)
  • Weight: 430-620 grams (0.94-1.36 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 80-95 cm (31.5-37.4 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Barn Owl, with its distinctive heart-shaped face and white underparts, can be found across California throughout the year. Adaptable to a wide range of habitats, these owls are known for roosting and nesting in human structures, such as barns and other buildings.

Barn Owls are primarily nocturnal, hunting for small mammals like rats and mice from the air. They have a silent flight, which along with their excellent hearing, makes them effective hunters. While not as vocal as some owl species, they emit a harsh screech and a variety of hissing sounds.

Did you know? Barn Owls swallow their small prey whole and then regurgitate the indigestible parts, such as bones and fur, in the form of compact pellets. These owl pellets can provide valuable information about the diet of the owl.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Size: 40-63 cm (16-25 inches)
  • Weight: 470-1050 grams (1-2.3 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 96-125 cm (38-49 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Barred Owl, known for its distinctive hoots, is a year-round resident of California, especially its northern parts. This large owl has a rounded head with no ear tufts, dark eyes, and vertical barring on the underside contrasted with horizontal barring on its upper breast.

Barred Owls are known to inhabit dense forests near water bodies and are active mainly at night. They feed on a diverse diet, including small mammals, birds, amphibians, and invertebrates.

Did you know? Barred Owls are often considered one of the easiest owls to spot due to their preference for hunting during the day, especially during the dawn and dusk hours.

Great Grey Owl

Great Grey Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix nebulosa
  • Size: 61-84 cm (24-33 inches)
  • Weight: 790-1450 grams (1.7-3.2 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 142-152 cm (56-60 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Great Grey Owl, the world’s largest species by length, is a rare and majestic sight in the northern regions of California. This owl has a large, rounded head with a grey face and yellow eyes surrounded by concentric rings. Despite their size, they only weigh about half as much as the Great Horned Owl.

These owls are found in dense evergreen forests and are most active at night. However, they have been known to hunt during the day, especially in the winter. Great Grey Owls feed mostly on small mammals, particularly voles.

Did you know? Great Grey Owls are known to have excellent hearing, so much so that they can locate prey even under two feet of snow.

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Size: 34-43 cm (13.4-16.9 inches)
  • Weight: 206-475 grams (7.3-16.8 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 85-110 cm (33.5-43.3 inches)
  • Time of the year: Primarily in the winter

The Short-Eared Owl is a medium-sized owl characterized by its round head with tiny ear tufts and large yellow eyes. They prefer open areas like grasslands, marshes, and agricultural fields. These owls are often seen in California during the winter months.

Unlike most owl species, the Short-Eared Owl is active during the day, particularly around dawn and dusk. They have a unique flight style, with slow wingbeats and long glides. Their diet primarily consists of small mammals, particularly voles and mice.

Did you know? When Short-Eared Owls feel threatened, they have a unique defense tactic: they stretch out their body and feathers to appear larger and more intimidating to potential predators.

Long-Eared Owl

Long-Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Size: 31-40 cm (12.2-15.7 inches)
  • Weight: 178-435 grams (6.3-15.3 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 90-100 cm (35.4-39.4 inches)
  • Time of the year: Primarily winter, but some year-round

Long-Eared Owls, with their tall, erect ear tufts and piercing yellow eyes, are primarily winter visitors to California, though some may stay year-round. They prefer dense forests or groves and are often found roosting in the dense foliage during the day.

These owls are nocturnal hunters, preying mainly on small mammals, especially rodents, but will also take small birds. They have a distinctive hoot, which sounds like “whoop” notes emitted in a sequence.

Did you know? Long-Eared Owls are very social birds, particularly in winter, when they roost communally, often in groups of a few to several dozen birds.

Flammulated Owl

Flammulated Owl
  • Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
  • Size: 15-17 cm (5.9-6.7 inches)
  • Weight: 45-63 grams (1.6-2.2 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 34-40 cm (13.4-15.7 inches)
  • Time of the year: Spring and summer

The Flammulated Owl, named for the flame-like markings on its face, is a small, tree-dwelling owl found in the mountainous regions of California during the spring and summer months. These owls inhabit open coniferous forests and are primarily insectivorous, hunting for beetles, moths, and other insects.

Flammulated Owls are migratory, spending the winter in Central America and returning to the United States for the breeding season. They have a low, pulsating hoot, and their small size and nocturnal habits can make them a challenge to spot.

Did you know? Flammulated Owls are one of the smallest owl species in North America. Despite their diminutive size, they undertake a long migration each year, flying thousands of miles to spend the winter in Central America.

Northern Pygmy Owl

Northern Pygmy Owl
  • Scientific name: Glaucidium gnoma
  • Size: 16-18 cm (6.3-7.1 inches)
  • Weight: 60-70 grams (2.1-2.5 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 38 cm (15 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Northern Pygmy Owl, one of the smallest owl species, is a year-round resident in the forests of California. Despite their small size, these owls are fierce hunters, taking a variety of prey including birds, small mammals, and insects.

Northern Pygmy Owls are active during the day, especially at dawn and dusk. These owls are gray or brown with a round head and no ear tufts, and they have distinctive white “eye” spots on the back of their neck.

Did you know? The Northern Pygmy Owl is known to take on prey up to three times its size. They often consume part of their prey and then hang the remaining part in a tree to eat later.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Size: 18-20 cm (7.1-7.9 inches)
  • Weight: 54-151 grams (1.9-5.3 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 42-56.3 cm (16.5-22.2 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round, but more common in the winter

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a small, forest-dwelling owl that can be found year-round in California, although they are more common during the winter months. Despite being widespread, these owls are often overlooked due to their small size and nocturnal habits.

These owls have a reddish-brown body, a white face, and large yellow eyes. They are named for their distinctive call, which resembles the sound of a saw being sharpened.

Did you know? Northern Saw-Whet Owls get their unique name from one of their calls that was thought to sound similar to a saw being sharpened with a “whetting” stone. However, many people compare their most common call to the backup beeper of a truck.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Size: 52-71 cm (20.5-28 inches)
  • Weight: 1.6-3 kg (3.5-6.6 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 125-150 cm (49.2-59.1 inches)
  • Time of the year: Occasional winter visitor

The Snowy Owl, known for its dazzling white plumage, is a rare sight in California, typically only making appearances during particularly harsh winters in what is known as an irruption. These owls are native to the Arctic tundra and are one of the largest and most powerful owl species.

Snowy Owls are unique amongst owls for their diurnal habits, being active both at night and during the day. Their diet mainly consists of lemmings and other small mammals, but they will also prey on a variety of birds.

Did you know? Snowy Owls have been known to follow polar bears around, taking advantage of scraps left behind from the bear’s meals.

Elf Owl

Elf Owl
  • Scientific name: Micrathene whitneyi
  • Size: 12.5-14.5 cm (4.9-5.7 inches)
  • Weight: 40-55 grams (1.4-1.9 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 27 cm (10.6 inches)
  • Time of the year: Spring and summer

The Elf Owl, the smallest owl species in the world, can be found in California during the spring and summer months. These tiny owls prefer desert habitats with saguaro cacti and mesquite forests, where they often nest in old woodpecker holes.

Despite their diminutive size, Elf Owls are fierce predators, feeding on a variety of insects and small invertebrates. They are known for their unique, high-pitched call, which is often described as a yipping sound.

Did you know? Elf Owls are so small that they often use the old nesting holes of woodpeckers, particularly those made by Gila Woodpeckers in saguaro cacti.

Where & How to Observe Owls in California

California’s vast and varied landscapes provide ample opportunities to spot these remarkable birds. Here are some top locations:

  1. Yosemite National Park: Home to a variety of owl species, including the Great Grey Owl and the Northern Spotted Owl.
  2. Mojave National Preserve: A fantastic place to spot desert-dwelling owls like the Burrowing Owl and Elf Owl.
  3. Point Reyes National Seashore: Known for its rich birdlife, including the Barn Owl and Short-Eared Owl.
  4. Redwood National and State Parks: Here, you may spot the Northern Spotted Owl and Barred Owl in the towering old-growth forests.
  5. Joshua Tree National Park: Desert habitats here are ideal for spotting the Western Screech Owl and Burrowing Owl.

Quick Tips For Spotting Owls

  • Learn the calls: Familiarize yourself with the distinct calls of different owl species to identify them, especially during night walks.
  • Dawn and dusk: These are prime times for owl activity, so plan your birdwatching expeditions accordingly.
  • Look for signs: Spotting owls can be difficult, but looking for signs such as pellets and whitewash can indicate an owl’s presence.
  • Respect their space: If you spot an owl, maintain a respectful distance and never disturb their nest.
  • Join a birdwatching tour: Local guides can provide expert knowledge and increase your chances of spotting these elusive birds.

Exploring California’s wild landscapes in search of these enigmatic owls can be an enriching adventure. With patience, a keen eye, and a bit of luck, you’ll be rewarded with the sight of these magnificent birds.

Owls in Other States

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