IDENTIFYING OWLS

© KURT LINDSAY

OWL SPECIES IDENTIFICATION CENTER

Following is a list of 19 owl species that breed in the United States and Canada. Click on any owl to find out species information including size, habitat, hunting behavior, and listen to their individual calls. Scroll to the bottom to learn about the basic concepts used to correctly identify owls in the wild. 

Once you understand more about the species in your area, you can get out in the field to start owl watching or continue your exploration!

BARN OWL

Tyto alba

FLAMMULATED OWL

Psiloscops flammeolus

WESTERN SCREECH OWL

Megascops kennicotti

EASTERN SCREECH OWL

Megascops Asio

WHISKERED SCREECH OWL

Megascops trichopsis

GREAT HORNED OWL

Bubo virginianus

SNOWY OWL

Bubo scandiacus

SPOTTED OWL

Strix occidentalis

BARRED OWL

Strix varia

GREAT GRAY OWL

Strix Nebulosa
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NORTHERN PYGMY OWL

Glaucidium gnoma

FERRUGINOUS PYGMY OWL

Glaucidium brasilianum

ELF OWL

Micrathene whitney

BURROWING OWL

Athene cunicularia

BOREAL OWL

Aegolius funereus

NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL

Aegolius acadicus

NORTHERN HAWK OWL

Surnia ulula

LONG-EARED OWL

Asio otis

SHORT-EARED OWL

Asio flammeus

MONTANA ID GUIDE

Old-school PDF guide
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IDENTIFICATION BASICS

All owls belong to one of two families:

Tytonidae (Barn and Bay Owls)

Strigidae (all other owls).

The only Tytonid in North America is the Barn Owl.

Owls are typically nocturnal or crepuscular. However, activity patterns can change seasonally and vary from one individual to another. Generally, more energy is required during the breeding season, which means owls are out hunting for longer periods. 

Because owls vocalize at a distinctively low frequency, their songs can travel long distances without being absorbed by vegetation. Becoming familiar with these songs will help your identifications, so we provide these for each owl.

In general, owls hunt in two ways:


Perching and pouncing — usually from a low perch, common among forest owls
Quartering — flying low over the ground, common among open-country owls

 

To help with identification, we separate owls into two categories: 

  • Those with ear tufts or horns called “tufts”;

  • Those with round heads, called “round-headed.” 

 

To identify an owl, note these field tips:

  • Whether the owl has tufts or is round-headed

  • Eye and bill color

  • Plumage color and other distinct markings

  • Relative size of the owl

  • Details of the owl's habitat

  • Distribution of the owl in guide books