Owls In Kentucky: 8 Bluegrass State Birds To Behold

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Kentucky is best known for being the horse capital of the world — after all, it’s home to the Kentucky Derby, the most famous equestrian race in not only the United States but the world!

Still, that’s not all this southeastern state is famous for. The Bluegrass State is also famous for its abundance of wildlife, and thanks to its six different geographical regions, it’s the ideal habitat for a wide variety of plants, animals, and birds. Today, however, we’re only focusing on one specific type of bird: the owl. 

You might not get the chance to see these masters of camouflage often, but when you do, you’ll be awestruck by their splendor. At least 19 different owl species live in North America, with only eight residing in the Bluegrass State.

Here is a list of the most commonly spotted owls in Kentucky, plus a few key facts to help you recognize them easily. 

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

  • Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
  • Length: 18-25 inches
  • Weight: 32-88 ounces
  • Wingspan: 40-57 inches

The classic sounds and hoot of a great horned owl easily recognizable and its orange-colored face is another distinct feature of the year-round Kentucky resident. 

This night predator manages to stay hidden from its prey with the help of its brown-barred underwings, and despite its large size, the great horned owl seems to be part of the foliage if you catch a glimpse of it from below. 

The bird’s prey typically consists of small animals like reptiles, mice, and frogs, and they’re known to hunt larger prey including other raptors to sustain their large bodies. 

Even though females of this species tend to be larger than the males, both are quite intimidating. Their fierce-looking eyes add to their domineering appearance. 

Although its preferred habitat is anywhere there are trees and rocky nesting sites available, the great horned owl has adapted to live in more urban areas. 

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

  • Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Length: 21-25 inches
  • Weight: 40-70 ounces
  • Wingspan: 48-60 inches

Snowy owls are creatures that look as if they flew right off the pages of a storybook, as they’re covered in majestic white plumage that adds to their charisma. 

There are also a few dark lines running across the bird’s chest area and face, yet interestingly enough, these lines tend to become whiter as they age. 

During the summertime, snowy owls head north to breed. Then, when the winter months roll around, the birds return to Kentucky. 

One of this species’ most interesting characteristics is its ability to sense prey under dense layers of snow. Then, they dive in for the kill! They typically capture small birds, rodents, and squirrels, and they’ve also been seen hunting seabirds and ducks. 

Male snowy owls are known for making emphatic hoots. They’re so loud, they can be heard up to seven miles away! Females, on the other hand, make much quieter sounds and rarely even hoot at all. 

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

  • Scientific Name: Strix varia
  • Length: 17-20 inches
  • Weight: 17-37 ounces
  • Wingspan: 39-43 inches

Another species of owls known for its hoot is the barred owl. Its hooting sound is the benchmark for classic scary movies.

The bird’s name comes from the horizontal stripes on its wings, tail, and chest area. Females grow to be one-third larger than males, but despite this, they share the same distinct appearance and are known to mate for life. 

These curious year-round Kentucky residents have adapted to living in urban areas, but you can spot them in wooded areas and along highways as well. They also like to set up their nests on high signs or billboards.

Barred owls hunt mice and other small rodents, yet they’ll eat just about anything, including weasels, birds, and turtles. 

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

  • Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
  • Length: 13-17 inches
  • Weight: 7-17 ounces
  • Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches

Short-eared owls are average-sized, and to appear more intimidating and fearsome, they stick out their short false ears (tufts of feathers on their heads). 

They have distinctive red markings on their wings and back; their underwings are mainly white, and their tails have broad lines of various shades of brown.

These migratory birds enjoy the winter season in Kentucky. Then, when the weather gets warmer, they head north to breed. 

Something you’ll notice about short-eared owls is that they’re not shy like many other owl species. They can be spotted in open areas, like prairies, meadows, and grasslands, especially at dusk. 

They also nest in open areas, which makes them vulnerable to predators. Thankfully, these birds have a few tricks up their sleeves to protect themselves, including pooping on their eggs to ward off hunters and luring predators away from their nests by pretending to be crippled. 

Another unique trait of the short-eared owl is that they hunt during the day. Their favorite foods are rodents and songbirds. 

Long-Eared Owl

Long-Eared Owl

  • Scientific Name: Asio otus
  • Length: 14-16 inches
  • Weight: 8-15 ounces
  • Wingspan: 35-39 inches

The long-eared owl gets its name from the long clusters of feathers on top of its head that give it a cat-like appearance. Other names it goes by include the cat owl or lesser horned owl. 

This secretive raptor knows how to hide well in dense foliage and wooded areas. In fact, it’s one of the best camouflaged owls on our list. If you do spot one, you’ll recognize it right away, thanks to the surprised look on its face and its surprised “ears.” 

Long-eared owls like to hunt over open grasslands, so their diet typically consists of voles, small rodents, and small birds. 

While the long-eared species of owls are good at hiding from us, the birds are quite social among themselves. They live in large groups called parliaments, and they’ve also been known to share roosts, which is quite rare for raptors. 

American Barn Owl

American Barn Owl

  • Scientific Name: Tyto furcata
  • Length: 13-16 inches
  • Weight: 15-17.5 ounces
  • Wingspan: 39-49 inches

You may be surprised to know there are over 40 unique varieties of barn owls worldwide with the American barn owl being the largest. 

You can spot these birds in Kentucky year-round. They like to take up residence in abandoned barns, which is how the species got its name. 

However, barn owls go by other names, including church owl, monkey-faced owl, and ghost owl; interestingly, none of these names describe the bird’s charming heart-shaped face. 

Yet what makes the owl’s face special is its ability to steer sounds directly to its ears. This is why the barn owl is one of the most efficient hunters by sound ever. Their hearing is so outstanding that they’re even able to outwit bats!

The barn owl rarely hoots like other owl species. Instead, they usually let out a screech that sounds more like a red-tailed hawk than an owl. 

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl

  • Scientific Name: Megascops asio
  • Length: 6-19 inches
  • Weight: 4-8 ounces
  • Wingspan: 19-24 inches

Eastern screech-owls are short and stocky, and their ominous look is exaggerated by the tufts of feathers on the tops of their heads. These ear tufts are just feathers and not really for hearing, but they manage to serve as a means of communication among other owls. 

These opportunistic hunters don’t like to wear themselves out too much, so they prey on pretty much anything as long as it’s easy to catch, including lizards, earthworms, and frogs. 

One of the species of birds’ fascinating qualities is that these year-round Kentucky residents can nest in both semi-open farmlands and urban areas. The one thing they typically tend to stay away from is the great horned owl, as it poses a real threat to this bird’s existence. 

The eastern screech-owl’s common sounds, which consist of hoots, songs, and trills called tremolos, are another of the birds’ interesting features. Their trills last a few seconds and are used by mates to communicate.  

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

  • Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Length: 7-9 inches
  • Weight: 2-5 ounces
  • Wingspan: 16.5-22 inches

One of the smallest and lightest of all the owl species, the northern saw-whet owl is adorable. But don’t let its cuteness fool you; its menacing glare is a clear indication that as far as fierce predators are concerned, size doesn’t matter. 

These fierce hunters rely on their small size to deceive prey as they hide in the branches, and when the moment is right, they strike and swoop up shrews, moles, and other small rodents. They’ve also been known to hunt insects and small birds. 

Northern saw-whet owls are covered in tan and pale brown plumage. There are also smatterings of white feathers here and there, especially on the birds’ underwings. 

You can spot these migratory birds in mixed hardwood or dense coniferous forests, and they prefer nesting near bodies of water. Females breed several times during any given season, and once the chicks grow feathers, their mothers leave to find a new mate, leaving the males to care for the young owls. 

Final Thoughts

Each of these owls in Kentucky has unique characteristics, yet they all share one home. 

Kentucky is abundant in natural wildlife, which makes it a perfect environment for all types of wild birds, not just owls. Other year-round residents of the state include woodpeckers and hawks

Since almost half of the state’s total area is covered in diverse topography, who can blame these birds for choosing this lush state to be their home? 

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