Owls, these incredible, mysterious creatures of the night, are not just symbols of wisdom, but also critical players in our ecosystem. In the state of Texas, they are seen in many forms and sizes.
This diversity is due to Texas’s unique geographical location and varied ecosystems, making it a hospitable home for a variety of owl species. From the dense forests in the east to the dry desert in the west, owls have found a place to call home across the Lone Star State.
In this article, we will delve into the world of the owls of Texas, exploring different species, where to find them, and how to spot them.
Owl Species Found in Texas
Great Horned Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
- Size: 45-63 cm (17.7-24.8 in) in length
- Weight: 910-2500 g (2-5.5 lbs)
- Wingspan: 91-153 cm (36-60 in)
- Time of the year: Year-round
The Great Horned Owl, sometimes referred to as the ‘tiger of the skies,’ is a bird of prey commonly found throughout North America, including Texas. They are powerful and adaptable, inhabiting a range of environments, from dense forests to city suburbs.
Great Horned Owls have a distinct appearance with their large size, ear tufts, and their bright yellow eyes. Their bodies are covered in a mottled mix of gray, brown, and white feathers, providing perfect camouflage against tree barks.
These owls are fearsome nocturnal hunters, feeding on a diet primarily composed of rabbits, hares, mice, and other small mammals. However, they have also been known to take on larger prey such as raccoons and skunks.
Did you know? The Great Horned Owl is not named for its ‘horns,’ but for the tufts of feathers that sit atop its head. These tufts are thought to aid in their camouflage, breaking up their shape against the backdrop of the trees where they often roost during the day.
Eastern Screech Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops asio
- Size: 16-25 cm (6.3-9.8 in) in length
- Weight: 121-244 g (4.3-8.6 oz)
- Wingspan: 46-61 cm (18-24 in)
- Time of the year: Year-round
The Eastern Screech Owl, despite its name, doesn’t screech at all. Instead, it makes a soft, melodious trilling sound. These small, nocturnal owls are found across the eastern half of North America, including Texas, and are known for their distinct ear tufts and large, yellow eyes.
Eastern Screech Owls come in two different color morphs, red and gray. Both versions allow the owls to blend in perfectly with tree bark, making them nearly invisible to predators and potential prey. Their diet consists of a variety of animals, including insects, rodents, birds, and even small reptiles.
These owls prefer woodland areas and are commonly found in parks and suburban areas. Their compact size allows them to nest in a variety of places, including tree cavities, nest boxes, and sometimes even in the abandoned nests of other birds.
Did you know? Eastern Screech Owls have zygodactyl feet, meaning they have two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward. This unique foot structure helps them grip their prey more securely.
Western Screech Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops kennicottii
- Size: 22-24 cm (8.5-9.5 in) in length
- Weight: 141-244 g (5-8.6 oz)
- Wingspan: 54-61 cm (21-24 in)
- Time of the year: Year-round
A close relative to the Eastern Screech Owl, the Western Screech Owl can be found in the western parts of North America, and yes, that includes Texas. With their mottled gray-brown plumage and large yellow eyes, these owls are perfectly camouflaged to blend in with tree bark.
Western Screech Owls are nocturnal hunters. They sit quietly on low perches at night and swoop down on unsuspecting prey; their diet primarily includes small mammals, insects, and occasionally small birds. They make their homes in a variety of woodland environments, including deciduous forests, mixed woodlands, and along streams.
In contrast to their Eastern cousins, Western Screech Owls do not have a red color morph. Instead, they are predominantly gray, with some individuals exhibiting a brownish hue.
Did you know? The Western Screech Owl does not construct its own nest. Instead, it makes use of cavities in trees, crevices in rocks, and even the nests of other birds.
- Scientific name: Strix varia
- Size: 40-63 cm (16-25 in) in length
- Weight: 500-1050 g (1.1-2.3 lbs)
- Wingspan: 96-125 cm (38-49 in)
- Time of the year: Year-round
The Barred Owl, with its soulful brown eyes and unique barred plumage, is a common sight in the wooded areas of Texas. These owls are often recognized by their distinctive call, which sounds like they’re asking, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”
Barred Owls are quite comfortable living near humans, often nesting in tree cavities or abandoned nests in suburban and rural areas. They’re also known to be relatively sedentary, usually staying within 6 miles of their birthplace if the area has sufficient food supplies. Their diet is varied and includes small mammals, birds, amphibians, and invertebrates.
Unlike many other owl species, Barred Owls are often active during the day, particularly during the breeding season. However, they’re still primarily nocturnal and do most of their hunting at night.
Did you know? The Barred Owl doesn’t migrate. They’re year-round residents of their territory, which is a habit that helped them expand their range over the years.
- Scientific Name: Strix occidentalis
- Size: 43-50 cm (16.9-19.7 in)
- Weight: 500-750 g (1.1-1.7 lb)
- Wingspan: 105-112 cm (41.3-44.1 in)
- Time of the Year: Year-round
The Spotted Owl, found in the forested regions of Texas, is a medium-sized owl known for its short tail and large round head without ear tufts. They have brown eyes surrounded by dark “glasses” with white spots on the head and neck. They are quite distinctive and easily recognizable.
Spotted Owls are highly associated with old-growth forests where they usually choose the oldest, largest trees to nest. These owls are mostly nocturnal, preferring to rest on high perches during the day and hunt at night. They feed on a wide variety of small mammals, birds, and reptiles.
Did you know? Spotted Owls have one of the most prolonged juvenile dependency periods among birds. The young can rely on their parents for food and care for up to 5 months. This close-knit family dynamic is essential for their survival in the wild.
- Scientific name: Tyto alba
- Size: 33-39 cm (13-15 in) in length
- Weight: 224-710 g (0.5-1.6 lbs)
- Wingspan: 80-95 cm (31-37 in)
- Time of the year: Year-round
The Barn Owl is known for its distinctive heart-shaped face, beautiful golden-brown plumage, and long, slender body. This species can be found worldwide, and Texas is no exception.
Despite their delicate appearance, Barn Owls are fierce predators. Their diet mainly consists of small mammals, particularly rodents. Their ability to control rodent populations makes them beneficial to humans, especially for farmers who often provide nest boxes to encourage Barn Owls to stay.
Barn Owls have adapted well to human environments and are often found in farmlands, grasslands, and, as their name suggests, in barns or other abandoned buildings. They’re strictly nocturnal, hunting only at night.
Did you know? Barn Owls have one ear positioned higher than the other, which helps them locate their prey based on sound alone. This characteristic makes them incredibly efficient hunters, even in total darkness.
- Scientific name: Micrathene whitneyi
- Size: 12.5-14.5 cm (5-6 in) in length
- Weight: 40-55 g (1.4-1.9 oz)
- Wingspan: 27 cm (10.6 in)
- Time of the year: Mostly spotted during the warmer months (April-September)
The Elf Owl, the world’s smallest owl, is a remarkable species found in the desert regions of Texas. With its petite stature, short tail, and prominent white “eyebrows,” this tiny owl is easy to distinguish.
In Texas, the Elf Owl is predominantly a summer resident, migrating to Mexico for the winter. This nocturnal species is active at dusk and throughout the night, preying mainly on insects and small arthropods. During the day, they’re usually tucked away in a tree cavity or an old woodpecker hole, where they also make their nests.
Despite their size, Elf Owls are known for their courageous nature. They fiercely protect their nests and won’t hesitate to attack intruders, including snakes.
Did you know? The Elf Owl does not hoot like most owls. Instead, it communicates with a series of yaps and whinnying notes, somewhat like a small dog.
- Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
- Size: 15-16 cm (6 in) in length
- Weight: 45-63 g (1.6-2.2 oz)
- Wingspan: 35-40 cm (14-16 in)
- Time of the year: Can be spotted during the breeding season (May-August)
The Flammulated Owl is a small, elusive owl species found in the mountainous regions of Texas. It’s named for its flame-like markings and is notable for its dark eyes, which are unusual among owl species.
These owls are migratory, traveling to Mexico and Central America in the winter. They breed and nest in old woodpecker holes in mature forests, particularly those with a high density of insects, which make up the majority of their diet.
Flammulated Owls are strictly nocturnal and can be challenging to spot due to their excellent camouflage. During the day, they roost in tree cavities or against tree trunks, blending in seamlessly with the bark.
Did you know? The “flammulated” in Flammulated Owl comes from the Latin word ‘flammeolus’, which means “flame-colored”. It refers to the owl’s distinctive reddish-brown feathers that give it a flame-like appearance.
- Scientific name: Asio otus
- Size: 31-40 cm (12-16 in) in length
- Weight: 200-435 g (7-15 oz)
- Wingspan: 90-100 cm (35-39 in)
- Time of the year: Year-round, though less commonly seen during the summer months.
The Long-Eared Owl, aptly named for its long ear tufts that resemble mammalian ears, is another fascinating species that resides in Texas. These owls favor open woodlands and forest edges for their habitats, but can occasionally be seen in dense forests or even suburban areas.
Long-Eared Owls primarily prey on small mammals, especially voles and mice, but they will occasionally consume birds and reptiles. They’re known to be excellent mousers and often roost in old crow or hawk nests. Their secretive behavior and excellent camouflage make them difficult to spot, but they can sometimes be seen at dusk as they venture out to hunt.
Did you know? Despite its name, the Long-Eared Owl’s ‘ears’ are not ears at all but tufts of feathers that serve to break up the owl’s outline and provide camouflage.
- Scientific name: Asio flammeus
- Size: 34-43 cm (13-17 in) in length
- Weight: 206-475 g (7.3-16.8 oz)
- Wingspan: 85-110 cm (33-43 in)
- Time of the year: Mostly spotted during the colder months (October-April)
The Short-Eared Owl, with its barely visible ear tufts, contrasts starkly with its long-eared cousin. It is one of the most widely distributed owls globally and is commonly seen in open country, including grasslands, marshes, and agricultural fields.
Like the Long-Eared Owl, the Short-Eared Owl’s diet primarily consists of small mammals, particularly voles. They’re unique among owls for their diurnal and crepuscular behavior, often seen flying low over open fields during the day or at dusk, in search of prey.
Despite being more visible than other owl species, their numbers are declining due to habitat loss, making any sighting a special experience.
Did you know? Short-Eared Owls are one of the few owl species known to be nomadic, moving around in response to fluctuations in prey abundance.
Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
- Scientific name: Glaucidium brasilianum
- Size: 15-17 cm (6-7 in) in length
- Weight: 50-70 g (1.8-2.5 oz)
- Wingspan: 35-38 cm (14-15 in)
- Time of the year: Year-round
The Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, a tiny but fierce raptor, is found in Texas. Their preferred habitats include thorny scrub and woodlands where they perch and wait to ambush prey. Despite their small size, they’re known to hunt creatures much larger than themselves, including birds and reptiles, but their diet is primarily composed of insects and small mammals.
These owls have a bold attitude and are not easily intimidated by larger birds, often taking over nests abandoned by other species. Their primary defense mechanism is their unique coloration that mimics the face of a much larger predator when viewed from behind, deterring potential threats.
Did you know? The Ferruginous Pygmy Owl has false “eye spots” on the back of its head. When threatened, it fluffs its feathers to highlight these spots and confound predators.
- Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
- Size: 19-28 cm (7.5-11 in) in length
- Weight: 140-240 g (5-8.5 oz)
- Wingspan: 50-61 cm (20-24 in)
- Time of the year: Year-round
The Burrowing Owl, named for its unusual habit of nesting in burrows on the ground, is another interesting owl species found in Texas.
These owls can be found in open, treeless areas such as grasslands, deserts, agricultural fields, and airports. Unlike many other owl species, they’re diurnal and are often active during the day, though they primarily hunt at dusk and dawn.
Their diet mainly consists of insects and small mammals, but they’ll also eat birds and reptiles. Their populations have been declining due to habitat loss and pest control measures that reduce the availability of prey.
Did you know? Burrowing Owls are one of the few owls that are active during the day, particularly in the cooler hours. However, they still do most of their hunting from dusk until dawn, like most owls.
Snowy Owl (Accidental)
- Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
- Size: 52-71 cm (20-28 in) in length
- Weight: 1.6-2.9 kg (3.5-6.4 lb)
- Wingspan: 125-150 cm (49-59 in)
- Time of the year: Mostly spotted during the winter months
Snowy Owls are not a regular sight in Texas, and their presence is usually considered accidental. Native to the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia, they’re the heaviest owl species in North America. They have beautiful white plumage that helps them blend into their snowy surroundings. They prefer open fields, beaches, or airport fields.
Snowy Owls are diurnal, meaning they hunt both day and night. Their diet consists primarily of lemmings and other small mammals, but they also eat a fair amount of birds.
Did you know? Snowy Owls are among the most nomadic bird species in the world. Their movements are largely tied to the abundance of their primary food source, lemmings.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Accidental)
- Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
- Size: 18-21 cm (7.1-8.3 in) in length
- Weight: 54-151 g (1.9-5.3 oz)
- Wingspan: 42-56.3 cm (16.5-22.2 in)
- Time of the year: Mostly seen during the winter months, but very rare
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is another species that’s not commonly found in Texas. They’re small owls that prefer dense forests and are quite elusive due to their nocturnal habits and well-camouflaged plumage. These owls primarily eat small mammals, especially mice, and they’re known for their distinctive rhythmic tooting song.
Did you know? The Northern Saw-Whet Owl gets its unusual name from its call, which some people think sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone.
Northern Pygmy Owl (Accidental)
- Scientific name: Glaucidium gnoma
- Size: 16-18 cm (6.3-7.1 in) in length
- Weight: 61-73 g (2.2-2.6 oz)
- Wingspan: 38 cm (15 in)
- Time of the year: Sightings are rare and irregular
The Northern Pygmy Owl is rarely seen in Texas, making any sighting a notable event. Despite their small size, they’re ferocious hunters that can take on prey much larger than themselves. They inhabit forested and semi-open habitats where they primarily hunt small birds and rodents.
These owls have a false set of “eyes” on the back of their heads – spots that are meant to fool potential predators into thinking the owl is always watching.
Did you know? Although small in size, Northern Pygmy Owls are known for their bravery. They’re not afraid to take on prey several times their size, including large birds and mammals.
Where & How to Observe Owls in Texas
Texas, with its varied landscapes and ecosystems, offers several great locations for spotting owls. Some of the best places to see these fascinating birds include:
- Bastrop State Park: This park’s diverse habitats make it a good spot to look for the Eastern Screech Owl and Barred Owl.
- Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: Great Horned Owls and Barn Owls have been spotted here. It’s an excellent place for bird-watching in general.
- South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center: This area is known for a wide array of bird species, including the occasional spotting of owls like the Great Horned Owl.
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park: This national park, with its rugged landscapes and wooded areas, is a great place to see Western Screech Owls and the occasional Long-Eared Owl.
Most owl species in Texas prefer forested habitats or semi-open landscapes with trees. They can be found near bodies of water, in woodland edges, in marshes, and in desert regions. Some, like the Burrowing Owl, prefer more open, grassy fields.
Some owls are year-round residents in Texas, while others may only be present during certain times of the year. For example, the Snowy Owl and Northern Saw-Whet Owl are mostly spotted during the winter months, whereas the Flammulated Owl can only be seen during its spring and summer breeding season.
Quick Tips For Owl Spotting
- Time of day: Many owls are most active during dawn and dusk, so these can be the best times to look for them.
- Listen: Often, the first clue to an owl’s presence is its call. Learning the different sounds can help you identify the species.
- Look up: Owls often perch high in trees during the day. Look for silhouettes or shapes that seem out of place.
- Be patient: Spotting owls can take time and patience, but the reward of seeing these magnificent birds is well worth the effort.
- Respect the wildlife: Remember to observe owls from a distance to avoid disturbing them. Use binoculars or a telescope for a closer look.
- Guided tours: Consider joining a bird watching tour led by a local guide who knows the area and the habits of the local owls.
Remember, some owl species in Texas are more elusive and difficult to spot than others. It may take a few trips and some patience to spot them, but the experience of seeing these amazing birds in their natural habitat is well worth the effort.
Owls in Other States
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia