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All 8 Owl Species Found in North Carolina (With Pictures & Info)

From the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks, North Carolina’s diverse landscapes and habitats offer a wonderful home to a variety of owl species.

Whether you’re a dedicated bird watcher or someone who appreciates the magic of wildlife, you’re sure to be fascinated by the owls of North Carolina.

In this guide, we explore the various owl species you can find in the state, where to spot them and tips for a successful owl-spotting adventure.

Owl Species Found in North Carolina

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
  • Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
  • Size: 45-63 cm (17.7-24.8 inches)
  • Weight: 910-2500 g (2-5.5 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 101-145 cm (39.7-57.1 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Great Horned Owl, or Bubo virginianus, is one of the most common owls in North Carolina, found throughout the state all year long. It’s a larger species, easily recognized by its prominent ear tufts, or “horns,” and its deep, resonating hooting call.

These owls are known for their adaptability, inhabiting a wide range of environments from dense forests to suburban areas. Their diet is as varied as their habitats, and they feed on a wide array of creatures including rodents, birds, and even larger prey such as raccoons.

Did you know? The Great Horned Owl doesn’t actually have horns! The “horns” are just tufts of feathers called plumicorns that can make the owl appear larger and more intimidating to potential predators.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl
  • Scientific Name: Megascops asio
  • Size: 16-25 cm (6.3-9.8 inches)
  • Weight: 121-244 g (4.3-8.6 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 46-61 cm (18.1-24 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Eastern Screech Owl, Megascops asio, is a relatively small, but captivating owl species residing throughout North Carolina all year round. Despite its name, it doesn’t screech but makes a ghostly, horse-like whinny and a series of soft trills.

These owls come in two primary color morphs: a gray phase and a reddish-brown phase, allowing them to blend seamlessly into their surroundings.

They occupy a broad range of habitats, from urban areas to wooded lands. Their diet mainly consists of small mammals and large insects, but they can occasionally eat small birds as well.

Did you know? Eastern Screech Owls are masters of disguise. When they feel threatened, they stretch their bodies and tighten their feathers to resemble a branch or tree trunk, effectively camouflaging themselves from predators.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl
  • Scientific Name: Strix varia
  • Size: 40-63 cm (15.7-24.8 inches)
  • Weight: 500-1050 g (1.1-2.3 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 96-125 cm (37.8-49.2 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Barred Owl, or Strix varia, is another prevalent species in North Carolina, known for its distinctive hoot that sounds like it’s saying “Who cooks for you?” These medium-to-large owls have rounded heads with no ear tufts, dark eyes, and a yellow beak.

Their name comes from the horizontal “barred” pattern on their chest. They are primarily forest dwellers favoring old-growth woodlands near water. Their diet is composed of small mammals, birds, amphibians, and invertebrates.

Did you know? Unlike many other owl species, Barred Owls have dark brown, almost black, eyes instead of the typical yellow or orange. This feature, along with their soulful hooting, has earned them the nickname “the owls of deep, dark woods.”

Barn Owl

Barn Owl
  • Scientific Name: Tyto alba
  • Size: 33-39 cm (13-15.4 inches)
  • Weight: 224-710 g (0.49-1.56 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 80-95 cm (31.5-37.4 inches)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

The Barn Owl, or Tyto alba, known for its distinctive heart-shaped face, is a resident of North Carolina throughout the year. It gets its name from its habit of nesting in human-made structures like barns, although they also make homes in hollow trees and caves.

Barn Owls have a pale, tawny body, a ghostly white face, and dark eyes. Their bodies are perfectly adapted for silent flight, enabling them to be stealthy hunters.

Barn Owls primarily feed on small mammals, especially rodents, making them particularly beneficial for controlling pest populations.

Did you know? Barn Owls are widely distributed and are found on every continent except Antarctica. Despite this, their population has been declining due to habitat loss, making their conservation a priority in many areas.

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: Winter

The Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus, is a remarkable winter visitor to North Carolina. Most commonly associated with the arctic tundra, these large owls migrate south during the harsher winter months.

The Snowy Owl is most recognizable for its stunning, thick, white plumage, with distinctive dark barring. It has a rounded head, yellow eyes, and a black beak.

This owl prefers wide, open areas such as fields or beaches, where it hunts for small mammals and birds during the day, unlike many other owl species.

Did you know? The Snowy Owl gained worldwide recognition through the “Harry Potter” series, where a female Snowy Owl named Hedwig played a crucial role. In reality, males are whiter than females, with mature males being almost pure white while females and young owls have more dark markings.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
  • Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Size: 18-20 cm (7-8 inches)
  • Weight: 54-151 g (1.9-5.3 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 42-56.3 cm (16.5-22.2 inches)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

Among the smallest of the owl species, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Aegolius acadicus, is a year-round inhabitant of North Carolina’s forested regions. Despite their small size, these birds have a large round head with a whitish face and yellow eyes.

Their feathers are a mottled brown color that aids them in blending seamlessly into their surroundings. They are elusive and are most often seen during night time, when they set out to hunt for small rodents and insects.

Their breeding season commences with a series of rhythmic toots that can go on for several hours without a break.

Did you know? The Northern Saw-Whet Owl got its name from its song’s similarity to a saw being sharpened with a whetstone. However, its most common call is a rhythmic, repetitive toot.

Long-Eared Owl

Long-Eared Owl
  • Scientific Name: Asio otus
  • Size: 31-40 cm (12-15.7 inches)
  • Weight: 178-435 g (6.3-15.3 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 86-100 cm (33.9-39.4 inches)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

Long-Eared Owls, Asio otus, are medium-sized owls recognized by their distinctive ear tufts and deep orange eyes. They are more slender than most owls and have long, rounded wings and a long tail.

Their overall coloration is a mixture of brown and grey, ideal for blending into their surroundings. These secretive birds are found in dense forests across North Carolina throughout the year. Long-Eared Owls mainly hunt small mammals, primarily rodents, and have the fascinating ability to locate their prey by sound alone.

Did you know? Unlike what their name suggests, the “ears” of Long-Eared Owls are not ears at all, but tufts of feathers called plumicorns. Their actual ears are located on the sides of their head, hidden by feathers.

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl
  • Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
  • Size: 34-43 cm (13.4-16.9 inches)
  • Weight: 206-475 g (7.3-16.8 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 85-110 cm (33.5-43.3 inches)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

Short-Eared Owls, or Asio flammeus, are a relatively large owl species with distinctive short ear tufts, hence the name. Their bodies are brown with a mottled pattern, and they have pale faces with large yellow eyes surrounded by black.

They prefer open areas like grasslands, marshes, and agricultural fields, where they fly low in search of prey, primarily small mammals. These owls are most active during dawn and dusk and are one of the few owl species regularly seen in flight during the day.

Did you know? Short-Eared Owls are one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. They even inhabit several oceanic islands.

Where & How to Observe Owls in North Carolina

North Carolina’s rich biodiversity and varied landscape make it an excellent habitat for a diverse range of owl species. These nocturnal birds can be found in different parts of the state, depending on the species and the time of the year.

Pisgah National Forest: A vast woodland area extending over 500,000 acres, this forest provides an ideal habitat for several owl species. Here, you could spot the Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, or Northern Saw-Whet Owl among the dense canopy.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge: Located in the Outer Banks, this refuge is an excellent spot to find the Barred Owl. The dense swamps and hardwood forests here offer these owls a perfect habitat.

Smoky Mountains National Park: This park, rich in its diversity of wildlife, is a great place to spot Northern Saw-Whet Owls and Barred Owls. Keep your ears open for their distinctive calls during the night.

Hanging Rock State Park: Nestled in the Sauratown Mountain range, this park is known to be a haven for Barn Owls. Look for them in abandoned buildings and tree cavities.

Owls are typically found in habitats like dense forests, open woodlands, swamps, and fields. Listening for their distinctive calls during the quiet of the night can often be the best way to locate these elusive creatures.

Quick Tips For Owl Spotting

  1. Time your visit: Owls are primarily nocturnal, so the best times to spot them are during dawn and dusk. Listen for their calls as night falls.
  2. Move quietly: Owls have exceptional hearing and can be easily startled by loud noises.
  3. Use binoculars: Owls can often be high up in trees or hidden in dense foliage. Having a pair of binoculars will help you spot them from a distance.
  4. Respect their space: If you find an owl, observe it from a distance. Getting too close could scare it off or disrupt its natural behavior.
  5. Join a birding group or guided tour: They can provide useful insights and increase your chances of spotting these magnificent birds.

Remember, patience is key when it comes to bird watching. Happy owl spotting!

Owls in Other States

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