IDENTIFYING OWLS

© KURT LINDSAY

Identification Basics

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. 

Owls of Montana Guide

Downloadable PDF files of species ID pages for every owl species found in Montana. 

IDENTIFICATION BASICS

Details that can help identify an owl: 

Ear tufts

Does the owl have ear tufts on the top of its head, or is it round-headed? 

Size

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? 

Plumage color

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. 

Hunting behavior

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

Habitat

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?

Distribution

Look at a species distribution map in a bird field guide. You can also search online for what owl species are in that area.

Vocalizations

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?

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OWL SPECIES IDENTIFICATION PAGES

Family: Tytonidae (Barn and Bay Owls)

Genus: Tyto
Barn Owl

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Tyto alba

Family: Strigidae (all other owls)

Genus: Asio
Eared Owls

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Asio flammeus

Genus: Bubo
Snowy & Horned Owls

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Bubo scandiacus

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Bubo virginianus

Genus: Strix
Wood Owls

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Strix nebulosa

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Strix varia

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Strix occidentalis

Genus: Aegolius
Forest Owls

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Aegolius funereus

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Aegolius acadicus

Genus: Megascops
Screech Owls

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Megascops kennicotti

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Megascops asio

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Megascops trichopsis

Genus: Glaucidium
Pygmy Owls

Genus: Surnia
Northern Hawk Owl

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Glaucidium gnoma

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Glaucidium brasilianum

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Surnia ulula

Genus: Psiloscops 
Flammulated Owl

Genus: Athene
Little Owls

Genus: Micrathene
Elf Owl

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Psiloscops flammeolus

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Athene cunicularia

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Micrathene whitney