6 Species of Owls Found in North Carolina

North Carolina is home to a diverse array of owl species, each with its own unique characteristics and behaviors. Among these six species are the Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Eastern Screech-owl. The Barn Owl stands out as the only owl in North America from the Tytonidae family, while the rest belong to the Strigidae or “true owls” family. One fascinating trait of owls is their ability to rotate their heads remarkably far and utilize asymmetrical ear openings to detect sound sources. The Great Horned Owl is a prevalent species across North America due to its varied diet, which includes large prey. Meanwhile, the Barred Owl is distinguished by its distinctive call and tendency to remain in a specific area. Despite its diminutive size, the Northern Saw-whet Owl can undertake long flights over bodies of water. Lastly, the Eastern Screech-owl can be found in suburban areas and showcases three different color morphs. For those wishing to increase their chances of spotting these fascinating creatures, having binoculars or a spotting scope on hand can be highly beneficial.

Barn Owl

Physical Characteristics

The Barn Owl is a unique species among North American owls as it belongs to the Tytonidae family, whereas other owl species belong to the Strigidae or “true owls” family. This owl has a distinctive heart-shaped face, with white or light brown feathers covering its body. Its wingspan can reach up to 44 inches, making it one of the largest owl species in North Carolina. The Barn Owl also has long legs and sharp talons that help it catch its prey.


Barn Owls are known for their stealth and silent flight. They have specialized feathers that allow them to fly in near-silence, making it easier for them to surprise their prey. These owls are primarily nocturnal and are most active during the night. They have exceptional hearing abilities, thanks to their asymmetrical ear openings. This allows them to pinpoint the exact location of sound sources, even in complete darkness. Barn Owls mainly feed on small mammals like mice, rats, and voles, which they catch with their sharp talons.

Short-eared Owl

Physical Characteristics

The Short-eared Owl is a medium-sized owl species that can be found in North Carolina. It has a wingspan of around 40 inches and is known for its short, feather-like ears, which are actually just plumage. Its body is covered in brown feathers with intricate patterns, helping it blend in with its surroundings. The Short-eared Owl has a round face with bright yellow eyes, giving it a distinguishable appearance.


Short-eared Owls are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day as well as at night. They can often be seen flying low over open areas like grasslands, marshes, and meadows. Unlike other owl species, Short-eared Owls do not rely solely on their hearing to locate prey. They also use their keen vision and excellent hunting skills to catch small mammals, such as voles and mice. During breeding season, Short-eared Owls perform aerial displays, showcasing their agility and skill in flight.

Great Horned Owl

Physical Characteristics

The Great Horned Owl is one of the most widespread and recognizable owl species in North America. It is a large owl with a wingspan that can exceed 4 feet. This owl has distinct ear tufts or “horns” on its head, which are actually feathers and not ears. The Great Horned Owl’s body is covered in grayish-brown feathers, with a white throat patch and dark bands on its chest. It has sharp talons and a powerful beak, perfectly adapted for hunting.


Great Horned Owls are known for their adaptability and versatility. They can be found in various habitats, including forests, deserts, and urban areas. These owls are primarily nocturnal and have excellent night vision. They can detect movement from a long distance and silently swoop down on their prey. Great Horned Owls have a diverse diet, which can include small mammals, birds, reptiles, and even other owls. Their strong grip allows them to catch and carry prey larger than themselves.


Great Horned Owls are opportunistic predators and have a wide-ranging diet. They primarily prey on small to medium-sized mammals like rabbits, squirrels, and rats. However, they are also known to hunt birds, including other owls, as well as reptiles, amphibians, and even fish. Their powerful talons and beaks enable them to secure and consume a variety of prey, making them skilled and efficient hunters.

Barred Owl

Physical Characteristics

The Barred Owl is a medium-sized owl species found in North Carolina’s forests and wooded areas. It has a rounded head with dark brown eyes and lacks ear tufts. Its body is covered in brown feathers with vertical barring, which gives this owl its name. The Barred Owl has a stocky build and a wingspan of around 42 inches, making it slightly smaller than the Great Horned Owl.


Barred Owls are known for their distinctive call, often described as “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.” This owl species tends to be sedentary and stays in the same area year-round. They are primarily active during the night but can sometimes be seen during the day. Barred Owls are skilled hunters and mainly feed on small mammals, birds, and amphibians. They have sharp talons that help them capture their prey, and their ability to fly silently allows them to surprise their targets.

Distinctive Call

The Barred Owl’s call is one of its most recognizable features. It has a distinctive vocalization that sounds like a series of hoots, often compared to the phrase “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.” This call is primarily used by males to establish territory and attract mates. The call is loud and can carry over long distances, making it easier to locate and identify Barred Owls in their habitat.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Physical Characteristics

The Northern Saw-whet Owl is one of the smallest owl species in North Carolina, with a height of only 7-8 inches and a wingspan of about 17 inches. It has a round head with large, bright yellow eyes. Its body is covered in brown feathers with white spots, providing excellent camouflage in its natural habitat. The Northern Saw-whet Owl has short, stocky wings and a small, hooked beak.


Northern Saw-whet Owls are mainly nocturnal and are most active during the night. They rely on their exceptional hearing to locate prey, which primarily consists of small mammals such as mice, voles, and shrews. Despite their small size, Northern Saw-whet Owls are capable of long flights, even over bodies of water. They have been known to migrate long distances during certain seasons, making them fascinating and elusive to spot in the wild.

Flight Abilities

Despite being small and compact, Northern Saw-whet Owls have impressive flight abilities. They have maneuverable wings that allow them to navigate through dense vegetation and tight spaces, making them well-suited for hunting in forests. These owls have been observed flying long distances during migration, traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles. Their flight is swift but silent, thanks to specialized feathers that aid in noise reduction, making them highly effective hunters under the cover of darkness.

Eastern Screech-owl

Physical Characteristics

The Eastern Screech-owl is a small owl species commonly found in North Carolina’s woodlands and suburban areas. It has a rounded head with striking yellow eyes. This owl has two distinct color morphs – gray and red. The gray morph has a predominantly gray plumage with intricate patterns, while the red morph has reddish-brown feathers that blend with tree bark.


Eastern Screech-owls are primarily nocturnal and are rarely seen during the day. They are skilled hunters and feed on small mammals, birds, and insects. These owls are known for their ability to camouflage themselves, using their feathers to blend seamlessly with their surroundings. Eastern Screech-owls are cavity dwellers and often make their nests in tree holes or use abandoned nests created by other birds. They have adapted well to suburban environments and can be found nesting in parks or residential areas.

Color Morphs

One fascinating aspect of Eastern Screech-owls is their color morphs. The gray morph is more prevalent and provides excellent camouflage in urban and woodland settings where tree trunks and branches are predominantly gray. The red morph, on the other hand, is less common and is better suited for areas with reddish-brown bark. These different color variations within the species showcase their adaptability to various habitats and provide a visual disparity among individuals.

How to Increase Chances of Spotting Owls

Using Binoculars or a Spotting Scope

Spotting owls in the wild can be a thrilling experience, but these elusive creatures can be challenging to locate. However, there are ways to increase your chances of spotting owls in their natural habitat. One effective method is using binoculars or a spotting scope. These optical instruments allow you to observe owls from a distance without disturbing their behavior. By scanning tree branches, forest floors, or open areas, you can spot owls perched or in flight, revealing their stunning physical characteristics and behaviors. It is important to be patient and persistent when searching for owls, as they can be well-camouflaged and blend into their environment.


Owls are fascinating creatures with unique physical characteristics, behaviors, and hunting abilities. From the stealthy Barn Owl to the powerful Great Horned Owl, each species has its own distinct qualities that make them worthy of admiration. Whether you spot a Barred Owl calling in the distance or catch a glimpse of a Short-eared Owl hovering low over an open field, observing these magnificent birds in their natural habitats is an unforgettable experience. By understanding their physical characteristics and behaviors, using the appropriate equipment, and exploring suitable habitats, you can greatly increase your chances of encountering these captivating owls. So head out into nature, keep your eyes and ears open, and immerse yourself in the enchanting world of owls.


Nature Blog Network

NatureBlogNetwork.com is the leading birding research and information website. Serving the birding community since 2010.

Recent Posts