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spotting owls

Birding Tips: Spotting Owls and Attracting Them to Your Property

Owls can be good neighbors—if you know what to expect and provide

Jennon Bell Hoffmann

Majestic. Spooky. Wise. Mysterious. Interesting. With their large eyes, stealthy behavior, and unique hooting noises, owls are intriguing and fascinating. While fun to spot in the wild, owls can also be helpful tenants on large parcels of land, helping manage rodent and insect infestations for home gardens and farms.

However, as owls are birds of prey, it’s important to brush up on your owl education to ensure you’re attracting the right kind of owl and staying safe.

How to Identify Types of Owls
According to the Owl Research Institute, there are 19 species of owls living in North America. Each has developed specific and varying skills that are the result of adapting to their regions, diets, and lifestyles.

“The best way to ‘see’ owls is actually to hear them at dusk and during the night,” says Beth Mendelsohn, a research biologist with the Owl Research Institute. Becoming familiar with their individual songs and other vocalizations, as well as their feeding and nesting habits, will help you find and identify owls.

Where you live will also help you identify which owls are perching in your area. Found mostly in the higher Rocky Mountains and across Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin, the great gray owl is the largest of North American species, with an average height of 60 inches and a matching wingspan. However, the great gray only weighs 2 to 3 pounds, meaning it’s less powerful than its more compact and dominant relatives, the great horned owl and the snowy owl. The great gray hunts mainly small rodents, like mice and squirrels, so a large ranch would do well to have a great gray patrolling its fields for pesky pests.

True to their name, barn owls typically nest in the rafters of barns, empty buildings, silos, or in cavities along cliffs, and they are found in nearly every state of the continental U.S. Recognized by their distinctive heart-shaped face, short tail, and small eyes, this species is actually classified in a different group from all other North American owls, though barn owls keep to a similar diet of small mammals such as voles, mice, rats, and the occasional bird.

Short-eared owls require large tracts of contiguous open-country environments, like grasslands, to survive. These habitats provide cover that hide the owls’ roosts and nests, but, more importantly, provide habitat for the small rodents that short-eared owls eat.

If your property has a wide range of wildlife and forest coverage, you may spot species like the great horned owl. Known for its distinctive upturned feathered “horns,” this species is an extremely adaptable bird with an expansive hunting and nesting range. Its diet consists primarily of rabbits and hares, rats and mice, and voles, however, the great horned owl will also freely hunt any animal it can overtake, such as other rodents and small mammals, mid-sized mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. Once great horned owls find their mates, they remain in one area for the long term, so if you spot one, consider yourself neighbors.

While most North American owl species stay in their territory year-round, some owls do follow migratory patterns. As its name implies, the snowy owl likes to keep to the chilly areas of Alaska and the Canadian provinces. They breed up in the Arctic Circle, then migrate for the winter to northern areas of the U.S., including Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, and the forests of New England.

How to Attract Owls
After figuring out whooo is in your area, there are several tactics you can use to encourage these raptors to visit your property. Owls, like most birds, like to have access to fresh water to keep their feathers clean. A large bird bath with consistently fresh water that’s cleared of debris can entice owls. Also, installing nesting boxes and keeping tree branches long for owls to perch on make for a hospitable habitat. Since owls are nocturnal and hunt stealthily, keep outside lights and noise to a minimum at night. Their special eyes and highly sensitive hearing work best in darkness and in the quiet.

Along with excessive outdoor lighting, certain other property elements and activities can deter owls, including mowing the lawn in the evening.

“Removing a small mammal habitat, like keeping the grass short or removing downed logs and piles of wood and debris, would deter owls,” Beth says.

Lastly, while owls are fascinating and majestic creatures to witness in the wild, they may not be the best option for all birders, such as those who have small pets and livestock, like rabbits and chickens.

“Great horned owls are large enough that they may potentially prey on small domestic cats—but this is extremely rare,” says Beth. “Rabbits or chickens would be more likely to fall prey to an owl so keep them in a protected area, starting before dusk until after dawn.”

Remember that owls are birds of prey and having as little direct contact as possible will be most beneficial to you and the owls.

To learn more about owls and especially conservation efforts, visit the Owl Research Institute website.