Planning a trip to the Tar Heel State? Make time to see the Biltmore House, the largest privately-owned residence in the United States. Or set your sights on Cape Hatteras Light, America’s tallest lighthouse. There’s plenty to see in North Carolina!
But between tourist attractions, make sure to look to the skies; there are 469 species of birds in North Carolina, and included in this list are the nine species of owls we’re highlighting below. Read on to find out how to identify each beautiful bird of prey!
- Scientific Name: Tyto alba
- Length: 12.6-15.8 inches
- Weight: 14.1-24.7 ounces
- Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 inches
Barn owls are one of the most common owl species you’ll encounter in North Carolina. They’re non-migratory, so you’ll find them throughout the state year-round.
Size-wise, barn owls are larger than screech-owls but smaller than great horned owls. The medium-sized birds have short tails and long, rounded wings, and they also sport long legs, smoothly rounded heads, and no ear-like tufts of feathers.
Even though all owls have nocturnal tendencies, barn owls are perhaps the least often seen species of these birds of prey by day. The night dweller’s nocturnal patterns allow them to easily escape detection.
- Scientific Name: Megascops asio
- Length: 6.3-9.8 inches
- Weight: 4.3-8.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 inches
Eastern screech-owls have short, stocky bodies that are covered in either reddish-brown (rufous) or grey feathers. They also have relatively big heads and virtually non-existent necks.
No matter what color they are, these owls have spots and intricate patterns that help them stay camouflaged against tree bark. Eastern screech-owls also have rounded wings, square tails, yellow eyes, and ear tufts that are pointed and often raised, which gives the bird a unique-shaped head.
An avid bird lover will spot this bird mainly in second-growth forest habitats, particularly at lower elevations. And because it’s more likely to be heard than seen, most identify eastern screech-owls by their songs that include whinnies, trills, moans, rattles, and screeches.
Great Horned Owl
- Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
- Length: 18.1-24.8 inches
- Weight: 32.1-88.2 ounces
- Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 inches
Great horned owls, who are known commonly as cat or hoot owls, have mottled grey-brown bodies, reddish-brown faces, and a clearly seen patch of white feathers on their throats.
These birds have large, thick bodies with wide rounded wings and two raised ear tufts on their heads. A lot of people consider great horned owls to be the red-tailed hawk’s nocturnal counterpart, as they hunt for small mammals and birds at night.
You may spot these owls sitting on fence posts or tree limbs at the edges of open areas. You might even hear their calls — a stuttering series of four to five hoots.
Great horned owls live in a wide range of habitats, including deciduous and evergreen forests, swamps, deserts, tundra edges, cities, suburbs, and parks. It’s hard to find a bird that’s more habitat-adaptable than this owl!
- Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
- Length: 20.5-27.9 inches
- Weight: 56.4-104.1 ounces
- Wingspan: 49.6-57.1 inches
Snowy owls are large birds, close to the size of the great horned species. They have smooth, round heads and no ear tufts, and they have bulky bodies and thickly-feathered legs that make the owl appear wide at the base when it’s perched.
As their name implies, snowy owls are mostly white, but they have some black or brown feathers peppered about that give them a salt-and-pepper look. These are particularly common among females; males are usually paler, and they become even whiter as they age.
The snowy owl spends its breeding season in the treeless arctic tundra, but you’ll also spot the bird in North Carolina during their migration periods. These beautiful predators often sit on or near the ground in open areas, and they also perch on rises like dune crests, telephone poles, and fence posts.
- Scientific Name: Strix varias
- Length: 16.9-19.7 inches
- Weight: 16.6-37.0 ounces
- Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 inches
If you’re comparing the barred owl to other species, it’s got a larger-sized body than a barn owl, but it’s smaller than birds of the great horned species. The bird is stocky with a rounded head, no ear tufts, and a round tail, and its name comes from the light and dark brown horizontal stripes on its wings, tail feathers, and back.
The barred owl prefers to inhabit large, mature forests that are made up of deciduous trees and evergreens. You may often find them near water and nesting in tree cavities.
- Scientific Name: Asio otus
- Length: 13.8-15.8 inches
- Weight: 7.8-15.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 inches
The long-eared owl is smaller than a great horned owl but is larger than a western screech-owl. It has a slender body and — you guessed it — distinctively long ear tufts. You may also notice the bird’s wide yellow eyes and constant seemingly surprised expression.
Long-eared owls are mostly dark with buff or orange faces and have black, brown, or buff patterns on their feathers. They also have two vertical white lines on their faces between their eyes.
The good news for birdwatchers is that this species is very vocal. They let out an incredible and diverse series of calls, including hoots, squeals, and barks.
When they want to forage, you’ll find long-eared owls in grasslands or other open areas, but when they’re nesting or roosting, you’ll find them in dense tall shrubs and trees.
- Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
- Length: 13.4-16.9 inches
- Weight: 7.3-16.8 ounces
- Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches
Short-eared owls are medium-sized birds with rounded heads and little bitty ear tufts that are difficult to see. They also have short tails and broad, rounded wings.
These birds also have brown bodies and buff and white spotted upperparts. Their faces are pale and their eyes are yellow, accented by black edges.
The best time to encounter short-eared owls in North Carolina is during the winter months. These predators prefer hunting in open areas during the day, and they nest on the ground.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
- Length: 7.1-8.3 inches
- Weight: 2.3-5.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 inches
Northern saw-whets are the smallest owl species you’ll encounter in North Carolina. They have relatively large, rounded heads with no ear tufts, mottled brown bodies, and a whitish facial disk. Their heads are marked by white spots and their eyes are bright yellow.
Young northern saw-whet owls are dark brown, but the feathers on their breasts and bellies are a creamy yellow color.
This species is highly nocturnal and elusive by nature, which makes them somewhat hard to spot. However, the sharp, penetrating call they give multiple times in succession allows birdwatchers to accurately pinpoint their whereabouts.
During the day, northern saw-whet owls roost in dense vegetation near the trunks of evergreen trees. Typically, they breed in extensive forests, but they’ll also sometimes use more open lands. When it’s time for a meal, northern saw-whets will likely search for deer mice, shrews, and voles.
- Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia
- Length: 7.5-9.8 inches
- Weight: 5.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 21.6 inches
Burrowing owls are small birds who have long legs, short tails, rounded heads, and no ear tufts. Their bodies are mottled with pale spotting on their upperparts.
They also display a bold white throat and eyebrows as well as vibrant yellow eyes. Juveniles of this species are brown but less mottled than adults, showing off buffy-yellow underparts and wing patches.
Burrowing owls like to spend their time on the ground or in low perches. The day-dwellers hunt close to the ground in search of insects and small animals.
This species inhabits open areas with scattered vegetation, like grasslands, pastures, and deserts.
In addition to these stunning owls, North Carolina is home to a wide variety of birds; it’s no wonder this state is a hotspot for avid birdwatchers! If you’re interested in seeing more of the birds in the Old North State, check out these woodpeckers and hawks in North Carolina.