© KURT LINDSAY
Learn about some of the characteristics and details that can help identify owls.
Species ID pages
There are 19 species of owls that breed in the United States and Canada. Visit each page to learn about their characteristics, habitat, hunting behavior, vocalizations, and more.
Details that can help identify an owl:
Does the owl have ear tufts on the top of its head, or is it round-headed?
Is the owl relatively large, or close to the size of a duck? Or is it relatively small, closer to the size of a robin?
Eye and bill color
Are the eyes yellow or orange, or are they dark brown or black? Is the bill dark colored, or light colored?
What color are the owl's feathers? Does it have any other distinct markings, like spots?
Time of day
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.
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
What is the habitat like where you saw the owl? Is it an open meadow? A wooded park? A thick forest? Near water? Urban or suburban, or a more rural or undeveloped area?
Look at a species distribution map in a bird field guide. You can also search online for what owl species are in that area.
Do you hear a high or low pitched 'hoot'? Is the owl calling with a rhythmic, slower-paced hooting, or a faster-paced single note? Or is the owl yelping, screaming, whistling, or barking?