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

Virginia, a state known for its diverse geography and rich history, is also home to an impressive variety of bird species. Among these feathered residents, the owls hold a special place.

These majestic, nocturnal creatures have fascinated people for centuries with their eerie calls, mysterious habits, and remarkable hunting abilities.

This guide aims to introduce you to the owls of Virginia, helping you to understand and appreciate these essential members of our state’s ecosystem.

Owl Species Found in Virginia

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Size: 46-63 cm (18-25 in) in length
  • Weight: 910-2500 g (2-5.5 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 101-145 cm (40-57 in)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

Known as the tiger of the skies, the Great Horned Owl is the heaviest and most powerful owl in Virginia. Its piercing yellow eyes, set against its large, rounded face, and its notable “horns” or “tufts” give it an unmistakable look.

The Great Horned Owl has a wide range of habitats, including mixed forests, woodlands, agricultural areas, and even urban parks. It has a diverse diet, feeding on a variety of creatures from rodents to other birds, and even reptiles.

Their deep hooting call, a series of 3-8 hoots: “hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo,” is a familiar sound in the night, sending a chill down the spines of the smaller animals, and even some humans.

Did you know? The Great Horned Owl doesn’t have actual horns! The “horns” are just tufts of feathers, known as plumicorns, which serve no known function. However, they do give this owl a distinct silhouette, contributing to its fearsome reputation.

Eastern Screech Owl

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

One of the smallest owls in Virginia, the Eastern Screech Owl is big on character. Despite its petite size, this owl has a large voice and a variety of calls, including whinnies and soft trills.

These owls can be found in a wide array of habitats, including deciduous forests, orchards, suburban parks, and even residential areas with mature trees. They prefer tree cavities for nesting, which they often steal from woodpeckers or other birds.

Despite being common, Eastern Screech Owls are often overlooked because of their excellent camouflage. They come in two primary color morphs, gray and red, which help them blend with the bark of trees.

Did you know? Eastern Screech Owls are not picky eaters. They’ll catch and consume everything from insects and small birds to rodents and reptiles.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl
  • 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 dark, soulful eyes and distinctive hooting call, is another resident of Virginia’s woodlands. It has a round head without ear tufts, and a pale face surrounded by a ring of dark feathers.

This owl loves deep, mature forests, swamps, and wooded river areas. However, they have adapted to various environments and can be seen in suburban areas and small woodlots. Barred Owls hunt by sitting and waiting on a perch, swooping down when they spot prey.

One of the most vocal owls, the Barred Owl’s call is a distinctive “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” which can be heard mainly at night.

Did you know? Unlike many owls, Barred Owls are very vocal during the day. This often helps birdwatchers locate these typically elusive creatures.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl
  • Scientific name: Tyto alba
  • Size: 33-39 cm (13-15.4 in) in length
  • Weight: 224-710 g (7.9-25.0 oz)
  • Wingspan: 80-95 cm (31.5-37.4 in)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Barn Owl, with its unique heart-shaped face, dark eyes, and pale coloring, stands out among Virginia’s owls. These owls have a cosmopolitan distribution, found nearly worldwide.

In Virginia, they can be seen in open habitats like farmlands, meadows, marshes, and fields. They are especially common in barns and other old structures, hence their name. They prefer hunting by flying low over open spaces, looking and listening for small mammals like mice and voles.

Their silent flight and keen hearing make them effective hunters even in the darkest nights.

Did you know? Barn Owls swallow their prey whole—skin, bones, and all—and they later regurgitate the indigestible parts in a compact pellet.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Size: 53-65 cm (20.9-25.6 in) in length
  • Weight: 1.6-2.9 kg (3.5-6.4 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 125-150 cm (49.2-59.1 in)
  • Time of the year: Winter (not every year)

Snowy Owls, famous for their stunning white plumage, are native to Arctic regions and only venture as far south as Virginia during irruption years, usually driven by a scarcity of food in their native territory. These are rare events, but when they happen, they cause quite a stir among birdwatchers.

These birds prefer open landscapes, like coastal dunes and fields, which resemble their tundra habitat. Being diurnal, they hunt both day and night, preying mainly on small mammals.

Did you know? Unlike most owls, Snowy Owls are diurnal and can often be spotted during the day, especially in the winter months.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
  • 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: Year-round

Northern Saw-Whet Owls are one of the smallest owl species in North America and are found in Virginia all year round. They prefer to reside in dense coniferous or mixed woodlands and are particularly fond of hemlock stands.

These secretive and elusive owls are named for their call, which resembles the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone. Despite their small size, they are fierce hunters, mainly preying on small mammals like mice and voles.

Did you know? Northern Saw-Whet Owls migrate, and many birds in Virginia are just passing through in their journey to and from breeding and wintering grounds.

Long-Eared Owl

Long-Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Size: 31-40 cm (12.2-15.7 in) in length
  • Weight: 178-435 g (6.3-15.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 90-100 cm (35.4-39.4 in)
  • Time of the year: Winter

Long-Eared Owls are medium-sized owls, notable for their long ear tufts which resemble “horns”. They are migratory in nature, spending winters in Virginia. These elusive birds are primarily nocturnal and roost in dense foliage during the day.

They prefer open country with small woodlots, and their diet mainly consists of small mammals, but they can also eat birds.

Did you know? When threatened, Long-Eared Owls elongate their bodies, and compress their feathers to appear like a branch, aiding in their camouflage.

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Size: 34-42 cm (13.4-16.5 in) in length
  • Weight: 206-475 g (7.3-16.8 oz)
  • Wingspan: 85-110 cm (33.5-43.3 in)
  • Time of the year: Winter

Short-Eared Owls are named for their tiny, often invisible ear tufts, and they are one of the most widely distributed owls in the world. In Virginia, they are mostly winter visitors.

These owls are open-country hunters and can be found in marshes, grasslands, and tundra. Unlike most owls, they are diurnal and can often be seen hunting low over fields in daylight, mainly for voles and mice.

Did you know? Short-Eared Owls are one of the few owl species that construct their own nests, usually on the ground in prairies, marshes, or other open habitats.

Where & How to Observe Owls in Virginia

Owls can be found in a variety of habitats across Virginia, from dense forests to expansive marshlands. Each species has its own preferred habitat and season, but with a little bit of patience and careful observation, you may be rewarded with a glimpse of these amazing birds. Here are some of the best places to spot owls in Virginia:

  1. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge: This refuge is home to a variety of owl species, including the Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl. The vast wetlands and dense forests provide ideal habitats for these species.
  2. Shenandoah National Park: The dense forests in this park are a good place to spot several species including the Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, and the Northern Saw-Whet Owl.
  3. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge: Located on the eastern shore, this refuge is a good place to spot the Short-Eared Owl, especially in winter.

Owls can often be found in forested areas near open fields, marshes, or wetlands. Barn Owls, as their name suggests, may also be found in rural areas with barns or other old buildings.

For specific species:

  • Barn Owls are often found in open fields and meadows, as well as in barns and other old buildings.
  • Barred Owls prefer old, dense forests near water bodies.
  • Northern Saw-Whet Owls and Long-Eared Owls can often be found in dense stands of conifers.
  • Short-Eared Owls are typically found in open country, such as grasslands or marshes.

Quick Tips For Owl Spotting

  • Time of Day: Many owls are most active during the night, but species such as the Short-Eared Owl can also be seen during the day.
  • Listen: Owls have distinctive calls which can often be heard from far away. Learn the calls of the local species to increase your chances of spotting one.
  • Patience and Silence: Owls are often shy and elusive. Be patient, move slowly, and keep noise to a minimum to avoid scaring them away.
  • Look for Signs: Keep an eye out for pellets or white-wash (owl droppings) on the ground. These are signs that an owl may be roosting in the area.
  • Use a Guide: Consider hiring a local guide or joining a bird watching group. Experienced birdwatchers can often provide invaluable knowledge and increase your chances of spotting an owl.

Owls in Other States

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