ATTRACTING OWLS TO YOUR BACKYARD
Safely, Responsibly, Ethically
By Brooklin E. Hunt, ORI Intern, VA
© STEVE HENDRICKS
At the Owl Research Institute, we receive a lot of questions about attracting owls. As a result, we've created a “how to” page to guide you in safely, responsibly, and ethically encouraging owls to your backyard. Remember, these steps will not guarantee owls in your neighborhood; they are simply designed to make your property more desirable and safe for them.
Step 1: Are they safe in your area?
This is the most important step of all. Ask yourself if your area is safe for owls; what potential threats are there? Attracting owls to an unsafe location is unethical and wrong. No matter how badly you'd like to watch owls near you, the well-being of the birds must be the number one priority before taking any further steps to attract them.
Consider these questions:
Do you have a lot of high-speed roadways near your home where owls could collide with vehicles?
Are there farms near you that use pesticides, herbicides or other potentially-harmful agrochemicals regularly?
Do you use rodenticide chemicals regularly?
Can you think of any other environmental factors in your area that might harm an owl?
If you answer ‘yes’ to these questions, your location is dangerous for owls.
This Great Horned Owl nested in the backyard of a Montana resident. © Jon Bertsche
If your area is NOT safe for owls...
We recommend owl watching in other areas: local hiking trails and drives in the country during sunrise/sunset are great ways to spot owls. Tips on responsible bird watching are given at the end of this article.
If your area IS safe for owls…
If you answered ‘no’ to the questions in Step 1, you have determined that your area is most likely a safe habitat for owls. Congratulations! Now, for the tough part: what do you do about attracting owls to your backyard?
Step 2: Which owls are in your area?
There are roughly 250 owl species worldwide. Many have limited and/or very specific ranges and habitats. Do some research on which owls live near you before trying to attract any of them to your backyard. Our Owl ID Guide is a good place to start
From here, or if you live outside of North America, buy a few books or contact your local wildlife officials for information about owls nearby. Many great resources, such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, also exist on-line.
© KURT LINDSAY, LONG-EARED OWL
Step 3: Install A Nest Box
If your research indicates there are cavity nesting owls in your area, build and install a nest box to attract ths type of owl.
Remember, many owls are not cavity nesters, particularly large owls who are too big to fit inside a nest box; Great Gray Owls, Great Horned Owls, and Long-eared Owls, for example, all prefer open nests created from other large birds - like hawks or Magpies, or the broken tops of snags.
Many small and medium-sized owls, like the Western Screech Owl or the Barn Owl, for example, may use a nest box.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a great deal of information on bird houses along with free, downloadable plans to build them. Visit the page here:
© KURT LINDSAY
Step 4: Welcome Rodents
While some owls consume small birds, insects, or amphibians, many species of owls feed primarily on small mammals: mice, voles, gophers, ground squirrels, chipmunks, etc. A healthy rodent population makes your backyard an attractive stop, or place to live, for owls. For most people, however, this is a cringe-worthy prospect.
One way to attract rodents to your area is to keep a brush pile. The pile could include tree grass trimmings, sticks, old leaves, and other natural matter. Remember, this is a brush pile, not a garbage pile; trash can contaminate the surrounding environment and be lethal to lethal to a critter who might ingest plastic, styrofoam, or other trash.
Keeping the brush pile at the end of your property - opposite of your home - will lessen the chances of rodents invading your home or outbuildings. This might also keep the brush pile from your line-of-sight at home, depending on your property’s shape and size.
© STEVE HENDRICKS, BOREAL OWL
Step 4: Avoid Deforestation
Some owls, like the Burrowing or Short-eared Owl, are found in grasslands and prairies; however, most owls call forests home. Thus, having trees in your yard is a good way to attract owls.
As long as they do not pose a threat to your home, avoid removing trees from your yard. Trees provide critical habitat for owls and other wildlife. Most species of owl use trees and branches to roost, nest, and hunt on a daily basis. Trees and other plants are also important in our environment because they absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale and produce oxygen for us to inhale.
A dead tree may be an eyesore to us, but it may provide the perfect home for an owl. Many species of owl use cavities in dead trees, which we call “snags”, to nest in. Great Gray Owls often use old snags with hollowed -out tops for nests. Snags provide important habitat for a number of animals, insects, and birds: if you have a snag on your property, leaving it standing may increase your chances of attracting an owl to your backyard.
So why exactly is keeping a brush pile going to help your local rodent populations? Due to their small size, rodents are always vulnerable to predators, so they look for strong shelters and burrow underground. A brush pile provides such shelter. Keep in mind, without a steady food source, owls will never stick around for long: encouraging a healthy prey population is critical to attracting owls to your neighborhood.
Step 5: Turn off your lights
Outdoor lights are often helpful to humans, but can deter owls when left on all night. The light pollution produced by porch and outdoor lights can confuse a nocturnal owl while it’s hunting in the dark. These birds are born to hunt in near-complete darkness, so their eyes and ears are adapted to such conditions, which are disrupted when outdoor lights are left on through the night. Not all owls are nocturnal (most active at night), but those that are will likely be deterred by your outside lights.
In addition, owls are cautious and smart: they won’t enter an area they don’t feel safe in. Because the ability to operate in complete darkness is one of their strongest adaptations, this is where they are comfortable. By keeping your outdoor lights off at night, you increase the odds of an owl hunting near your home.
KEEPING NEARBY OWLS SAFE
Avoid Rat Poisons and Pesticides
Rat poisons and pesticides pose major threats to raptors, including owls. Many people place these types of chemicals in their attics, basements, and even outdoors.
Several types of rodenticide chemicals are not instantly fatal to the rodent. If a mouse, vole, shrew, or other rodent consumes the poison, they may meander out into the open before dying. Out in the open, dead or sick rodents are an easy target for a hungry owl. When owls consume a poisoned rodent, they may also be poisoned. This is called “secondary poisoning” or “secondary toxicity”. Secondary poisoning is responsible for the deaths of many, many hawks and owls.
Keep small pets indoors at night
A hungry owl in the neighborhood could mean trouble for a small dog, like a Chihuahua, Yorkie, or a house cat. Many think their pets are too big for an owl to prey upon. Great Horned Owls, however, one of the most common and widespread owls, has killed animals as large as skunks. Keeping small pets indoors will keep them safe and allow owls to hunt without negatively impacting human life
Keep your distance
Owls are wild animals. Although they may look cute or may not fly away when you initially approach, it is important to always keep your distance. Some photographers say that you should never approach an owl so closely that is notices your presence. If the owl flushes from its perch or nest as you approach, you have gone too far.
Nesting owls can be more aggressive than normal. If you are lucky enough to have an owl family in you neighborhood, stay extra far away! Once, a mother Great Gray Owl was observed chasing a full-grown Black Bear away from her nest site. With sharp beaks and incredibly powerful talons, you wouldn’t want a mother owl showing similar aggression towards you!
RESPONSIBLE OWL VIEWING
Always keep your flash off when photographing owls during times of low light. New evidence suggests that camera flashes may harm an owl’s eyes.
Avoid baiting owls at all costs, as it may cause the owl to associate people with food. This adapted association could be harmful to the owl or humans. No photograph is worth harming an owl!
Keep a respectful distance from owls in the wild - this is what binoculars are for!
Please keep in mind that it is illegal for anyone -without specific licensing- to pick up or obtain owl body parts, including feathers, eggs, and nests in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Russia, and Japan, as outlined in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If you see one of these objects in the woods, leave it there!
For more on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, visit the United State Fish and Wildlife Service website.
If you live in an urban area and are unsure where you can safely view owls, keep the our live cameras in mind! We collaborate with Explore.org to maintain live-stream, infrared-equipped cameras on three owl species: Great Gray Owls, Long-eared Owls, Great Horned Owls, and even an Osprey nest. These cameras provide unparalleled views - usually better than what can be seen in the wild - and incredible insight into the everyday life of owls and the other Birds of Prey. To view these live stream cameras, visit the Owl Research Institute page on explore.org.