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Owls Of North America

Owls can be found in North America and belong to the Strigiformes order. The Strigiformes order consists of approximately 200 species of nocturnal birds of prey.

At least 22 owl species make their home in North America.

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Species Of North American Owl

  • Barn Owl
  • Barred Owl
  • Boreal Owl
  • Brown Hawk Owl
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Eastern Screech Owl
  • Elf Owl
  • Flammulated Owl
  • Gray Owl
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Long-eared Owl
  • Mountain Pygmy-owl
  • Northern Hawk Owl
  • North Pygmy-owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Oriental Scoop Owl
  • Ridgeway’s Pygmy-owl
  • Short-eared Owl
  • Snowy Owl
  • Spotted Owl
  • Western Screech Owl
  • Whiskered Screech Owl

Owls in North America belong to two families: the typical owl family or Strigidae and the barn owl family or Tytonidae

Owls that live in the United States, Canada, and Mexico include the barn owl, barred owl, boreal owl, brown hawk owl, burrowing owl, Eastern screech owl, elf owl, flammulated owl, gray owl, great horned owl, long-eared owl, mountain pygmy-owl, Northern hawk owl, North pygmy-owl, Northern saw-whet owl, oriental scoop owl, ridgeway’s pygmy-owl, short-eared owl, snowy owl, spotted owl, Western screech owl, and the whiskered screech owl.

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Different owls of North America can be identified by size. The elf owl is the continent’s smallest and most migratory owl. This owl’s body size is 5.1 – 5.5 inches. Other smaller owl species include the mountain pygmy-owl with a body size of 5.9 – 6.5 inches and the flammulated owl with a 5.9-6.7 inches body size.

In contrast, North American owls’ largest species are the great gray owl and the snowy owl. The great owl can range from 24-33 inches in size. The snowy owl measures 20-27 inches in length.

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Most owls of North America typically stand upright and have sharp talons. These birds have binocular vision, binaural hearing, and feathers for silent flight, though exceptions like the North hawk-owl and the burrowing owl exist. Owls typically eat insects, other birds, and small mammals. Some owls also hunt fish. 

Owls usually select bigger prey, so they do not have to hunt as often. The force of their talons is usually enough to immobilize their prey. Once they immobilize their prey, an owl flies off to consume their dinner. They do not chew their food but instead swallow it whole. They digest their meal immediately as they do not have a crop to store food for later.

Owls generally have flat faces with a hawk-like beak, forward-facing eyes, and ears. The owl’s forward-facing eye position is atypical of other birds of prey, which usually present with eyes on the side of their heads. The forward-facing allows owls better depth perception for low light hunting.

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Owls have facial disks surrounding each eye covered in feathers. These feathers can be adjusted to allow owls to hear sounds from far away by funneling noise into their asymmetrical ear cavities. Owls have flexible necks with 14 vertebrae that can rotate up to about 270 degrees. 

When a group of owls, a parliament, are together, you can quickly identify the females’ from the males because of their size. Typically female owls are larger than their male counterpart. Scientists theorize that the males are smaller to aid their ability to be efficient foragers.

With longer wing chords and smaller sizes, males can take on their more agile prey – usually the same size as the owl – and bring food back to the waiting nest where females typically sit with their eggs.

Owls breed in the spring and are usually monogamous with their partners. Male owls attract females to a nesting site by calling or gifting them food. If their advances are accepted, they begin copulation and preening. Babies are born soon after.

For more information on owls and other birds of North America, I recommend the following field guides.

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