Thanks to Alaska’s huge diversity of natural habitats, vast wildlands, and boundless location on migratory routes, this destination is considered a bird’s paradise.
From the southeastern rainforests to the Arctic ice pack and all the way to the windswept Aleutian Islands, almost 500 bird species populate Alaska. They go through the Great Land looking for resting, overwintering, breeding, and refueling sites.
Migratory and resident owls seek shelter in the state’s expansive forests, and owls that wander off course commonly end up in Alaska and into the view of delighted bird watchers.
Alaska is home to 10 very different species of owls, and today, we’ll shed a bit of light on all of them.
- Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
- Length: 25-28.7 inches
- Weight: 70.5 ounces
- Wingspan: 48-60 inches
Snowy owls are truly one of the most wonderful creatures on Earth. Whether or not you’re an avid birdwatcher, their beautiful white plumage is enough to stop you in your tracks to take a good look at them.
These birds of prey are large, white members of the true owl family. Some also call them the Arctic or polar owl. Snowy owls are native to the Arctic regions of both the Palearctic and North America, breeding mostly in the Alaskan tundra.
Snowy owls are one of the largest species of owls, and it’s the only one in the world to have a mostly white plumage. Their heads are rounded with no ear tufts, and their bodies are bulky with thick feathering on their legs. They also have varying amounts of brown and black markings on their wings and bodies.
Females have thicker feathers with a pattern that gives off a salt-and-pepper look, while males are paler and get whiter as they age. Both sexes sport yellow eyes.
As seasons change, snowy owls migrate. During the summer, they mate and breed in the Last Frontier, but when winter arrives, these birds come to southern Canada. You’ll regularly find them perched on fence posts, crests of dunes, hay bales, and telephone poles. In the winter, however, they like staying in oceans, lakes, airport lands, and agricultural fields.
When they fly, they stay near the ground to see and grab prey more easily. Their prey mostly includes small mammals, particularly lemmings. They may eat more than 1,600 of them in a single year. Their diet also includes fish, ducks, birds, rodents, squirrels, hares, and rabbits.
- Scientific Name: Aegolius funereus
- Length: 8.7-10.6 inches
- Weight: 3.3-7.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 20-24 inches
Boreal owls are common but rarely seen birds in the northern portion of Alaska’s boreal forest. They’re seen throughout the forested areas of the Interior, Upper Kobuk Valley, Alaskan peninsula, western southcentral Alaska, and Kodiak Island. However, they frequently hunt at night, which makes them generally difficult to see.
The boreal owl is Interior Alaska’s smallest owl, with a squarish disc plate on its face that’s outlined with black shades, yellow eyes, and a light-shaded beak. Like most raptors, the female of this species is significantly heavier and bigger than the male.
The ear openings of this owl’s skull are asymmetrical, which implies one opening is in the upper skull and the other is lower. The different ear position helps them determine exactly where the sounds are coming from, helping them locate their prey.
Their diet mostly includes small mammals, like mice, voles, pocket gophers, and shrews, but they also eat various species of birds and insects.
Great Horned Owl
- Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
- Length: 18.1-26 inches
- Weight: 50 ounces
- Wingspan: 55.2 inches
You may have seen this owl appearing in many posters and promotional content for the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
The great horned owl is otherwise called the hoot or tiger owl. Their name comes from early naturalists’ description of them as the “winged tiger” or “tiger of their air,” as they strongly resemble the jungle cat.
This species of owls are the only large bird with ear tufts that are found in Alaska. These birds are very common in the state, which isn’t surprising since they can be found almost anywhere in North America, from the Arctic south to the tropics.
The big, thick-bodied owls, who have two feathered tufts on their heads and broad, rounded wings, generally eat larger animals to sustain their notably huge bodies. They feed on mammals, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and even other raptors! Plus, they’ll even eat skunks — their sense of smell is so extremely weak, the musky odor doesn’t bother them.
Should you catch a glimpse of these birds from above, note their leafy tree color that makes them good at camouflaging in their environments.
- Scientific Name: Glaucidium californicum
- Length: 6.5 inches
- Weight: 2.2-2.5 ounces
- Wingspan: 15 inches
Northern pygmy-owls are commonly found from the southern part of Alaska to Central America. They’re known to be one of the smallest owls in the state, and they lean toward coniferous forests or any mixed forest at a higher altitude, primarily staying in trees.
They’re mostly dark brown and white with smoothly rounded heads, piercing yellow eyes, and long tails. And even though they look cute and tiny, don’t let them fool you; the northern pygmy-owl is a powerful and ferocious little raptor. It’ll take on birds that are twice their size and have even been known to devour chickens and northern quails!
Despite being unafraid of anything larger than itself, this bird mostly feasts on little birds, like hummingbirds and sparrows, as well as mammals like moles and shrews. They also like to eat bugs, including butterflies and dragonflies.
- Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
- Length: 13-17 inches
- Weight: 7.3-16.8 ounces
- Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches
Short-eared owls are the only Alaskan owl species that relocates and migrates south every year. They can be identified through their pale facial disks and black-rimmed yellow eyes. Their bellies are white with a few vertical black bars.
The short-eared bird can travel extremely long distances over the ocean. Witnesses have reported that they’ve seen these owls descending on ships hundreds of miles from land. They prefer hunting during the daytime, flying low over vegetation, grasslands, or open areas in utter silence. Mid-flight, they flap their rounded wings, giving them a moth-like look.
Their favorite foods are voles and mice, but they’re not too picky and can eat any mammal that’s smaller than they are.
What’s interesting about these owls is that they’re very protective over their species. The female short-eared owl usually doesn’t leave its nest, but if it does, it’ll defecate on its eggs to repel predators.
- Scientific Name: Strix varia
- Length: 16-25 inches
- Weight: 26 ounces
- Wingspan: 38-49 inches
The barred owl, a member of the true owl family, is the easiest species to see in Alaska, as they’re very common to the state. It gets its name from the alternating dark and light brown horizontal stripes on its tail, back, and wings.
These are incredibly inquisitive and curious creatures, and a lot of times, you’ll find them watching you while you walk past them. If you try to approach them, they’ll get nervous, and they’ll typically fly off to a different branch to keep looking and observing.
Their hoots are the classic sounds you hear featured in scary Halloween films. These cries are very recognizable because they sound like they’re asking, “who cooks for you?”
Barred owls usually feed on mice and other tiny rodents, yet they can eat pretty much anything with meat in it.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
- Length: 6.5-9 inches
- Weight: 1.9-5.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 16.5-22.2 inches
Our friend the northern saw-whet owl is normally found in wooded or forested territories, and though this uncommon owl has been recorded settling in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska, it hasn’t been seen inhabiting any other place in the state.
This species is probably the smallest owl on earth, and they can also be commonly found in abandoned woodpecker holes building nesting boxes.
These owls get their name from the sound they make when frightened, which resembles that of sharpening a saw. Be that as it may, they only call during the breeding season. Their hoot sounds like “too-too,” produced at around two notes each second.
What’s interesting about the northern saw-whet owl is that females of this species will breed with different males in any given season, having more than one bundle of eggs. When the chicks have grown their feathers, she leaves to search for another mate while the male takes care of this batch of chicks.
Western Screech Owl
- Scientific Name: Megascops kennicottii
- Length: 7.5-10 inches
- Weight: 3.5-11 ounces
- Wingspan: 22-24 inches
You’ll find the western screech owl from the Alaskan panhandle to the northern reaches of Central America. They reside in places with mild temperatures, like tropical high-altitude or sub-tropical forests. However, you can find them in shrublands, farm fields, deserts, and suburban parklands.
Their primary diet consists of rats and mice, but they can eat insects and fish, too. They’ve also been seen eating rabbits and ducks.
Listen carefully for this bird’s call; it sounds like a quiet and steady “hoo-hoo” or “croo-oo-oo.”
Great Gray Owl
- Scientific Name: Strix nebulosa
- Length: 24-33 inches
- Weight: 38.8 ounces
- Wingspan: 60 inches
Great grays are the tallest owls in Alaska, sporting long tails and broad wings. Their heads are relatively big and have a huge facial disk. Their bodies are mostly covered in feathers, and females are larger than males.
These birds of prey hunt in the night, quietly flying over meadows as they listen and watch for small mammals. Their call is sensibly strong, distinctive, and bold. Their hoot sounds like “woo-woo-woo,” and they use a soft double hoot when providing food to their offspring of defending their territory.
Northern Hawk Owl
- Scientific Name: Surnia ulula
- Length: 14.2-17.7 inches
- Weight: 8.5-16.0 ounces
- Wingspan: 27.9 inches
As indicated by its name, the northern hawk-owl has traits of both bird of prey species.
It acts like a hawk, perching on the tops of tall trees and hunting in the daylight, but looks like an owl, with a white face that’s bordered in black feathers. You’ll recognize this bird by its piercing yellow eyes and brown and white horizontal-striped underparts.
You’ll find northern hawk-owls spending their days hunting for small mammals — voles, mice, squirrels, weasels, and shrews — in open coniferous forests. They tend to prefer semi-open sites, like bogs and burned areas.
Owls are undoubtedly one of the earth’s most spectacular creatures. The more you know about these majestic birds’ natural habitat and behavior, the better you’ll become at hearing and seeing them.
Eager to know more about owls in other states? Check out our list of owl species you’ll find in Wisconsin!