Owls in North Carolina

Owls in North Carolina – 15 Species

North Carolina is a state that belongs in the Southeastern region of the United States. This state is certainly famous for its arts and culture, being a pioneer in aviation, and beautiful structured parks with massive mountain collections among the wild nature.

Additionally, this southern state boasts approachable people, delicious food, and charming nature. In addition to its eco-friendly environment, North Carolina is famous for its immense avian species diversity.

Being a bird enthusiast, I visited this state once to observe the night birds of this state. Indeed, you’re thinking right: Owls, the birds of night, or nocturnal birds.

In this article, I will discuss the top 15 owls in North Carolina, along with their scientific names, size, lifespan, wingspans, food, and other behaviors that help them survive in nature.

So, let’s explore the diversity of nocturnal birds, such as owls, in North Carolina. 

Owls in North Carolina – 15 Species

Owls—the birds of the night—are widely distributed in North Carolina state. During my last visit as a bird watcher to this state, I observed these nocturnal birds and heard their different hooting sounds, which made me wonder about their other behaviors, such as hunting, nesting, diets, breeding, and so on.

Therefore, I have collected some data from my past visits and observations about these owls in NC. In this section, I will discuss the top 15 owls in North Carolina state, their distribution, habitat preferences, diets, and other behaviors like breeding, hunting, and nesting. 

1. Barn Owl

Barn Owl
  • Scientific name: Tyto alba
  • Lifespan: up to 18 years
  • Wingspan: around 100-125 cm
  • Native to: Europe, Western Asia, Africa
  • Size: 33 to 39 cm
  • Food or Diet:  rodents, birds, lizards, insects, etc. 

Barn Owls are the most spotted owl among this owl species in North Carolina. This species is very common and found everywhere in the country.

However, they are also very rarely seen in polar and desert regions like Asia, the North of the Himalayas, Indonesia, and the Pacific Islands.

More or less, these owls of the NC breeding season cover all the European regions, Africa, the Sahara, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Central and South America. 

They prefer open country like farmlands, grasslands, and woodlands for their habitats. They usually fly above these areas within 6,600 to 9,800 ft altitude ranges. I have observed these Owls hunting during the night times. As they are nocturnal, they are mostly active at night and hunt by their incredible sense of hearing.

Another interesting part about these North Carolina owls is that they fly silently and don’t make any noise around their environment. According to research, these barn owls have a metabolism, which indicates they eat more food than other owls.

I have seen their amazing hunting skills, where they target their prey and dive to the ground to catch it. Sometimes, it spreads its talons widely while attacking the prey.

However, I have seen them consuming rodents and small birds like sparrows, lizards, reptiles, and other insects for their diets.  

2. Flammulated Owl

Flammulated Owl
  • Scientific name: Psiloscops flammables
  • Lifespan: up to 7 years
  • Wingspan: 14 inches 
  • Native to: North America
  • Size:  15 cm
  • Food or Diet: insects, beetles, rodents, small mammals, butterflies, etc. 

Flammulated owls are small and native to North America, including North Carolina. In North American regions, they are highly distributed in British Columbia and the Western United States. Later, these owls in NC were spotted to migrate to the South of the United States, South Texas, Arizona, and California. These owls are migratory, unlike other owls.

They leave Canada and the United States during the fall seasons. You can find them mostly in Central America during the winter seasons. If you are wondering about their breeding seasons, let me tell you that they start in late April and early May.

However, I have seen them making nests in tree cavities where female owls incubate the eggs for 26 days. Usually, females select the cavities that have already been made by woodpeckers and Northern flickers.

Their nests barely have nesting materials, as they use other cavities for themselves. I observed them consuming insects and butterflies but sometimes eating small mammals, rodents, crickets, and beetles.

3. Western-Screech Owl

Western-Screech Owl
  • Scientific name: Megascops kennicottii
  • Lifespan: around 13 years in the wild 
  • Wingspan: 55 cm
  • Native to: North and Central America 
  • Size: 22 cm
  • Food or Diet: insects, small mammals,  mice, rats, squirrels,  bats, birds etc.

Western screech owls, including North Carolina, are also small and mostly familiar in Central and North America.

These owls have larger feet and streaked brown-gray plumage over their body with tutus ears, yellow eyes, and bills. Their distribution region mostly covers Canada, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

In this region, these owls in NC inhabit temperate forests, subtropical and tropical nonstandard forests, rural fields, shrubland deserts, parks, and gardens.

I have observed these owls in NC choosing open wood and mixed wood forest edges for their breeding purposes. During their courtship day, male Owls bring food to attract females and make clicking noises.

I have also observed them singing duets with each other during those days. After making the pairs, females lay 2 to 7 eggs in the clutch, and both parents protect their nests and territory areas from danger, such as snakes, crows, jays, etc.

Regarding their hunting skills, these North Carolina owls use unique hunting skills to attack their prey. Moreover, these owls catch their prey while in a flight position. 

As they are active at night, dawn, and near dusk, they usually use their vision to detect any prey near them and hunt it. During my observation in North Carolina, I saw them eating small mammals like rats, mice, squirrels, bats, small birds, etc. Their diet usually varies from season to season.

4. Eastern-Screech Owl

Eastern-Screech Owl
  • Scientific name: Megascops asio
  • Lifespan: around 8 to 10 years; 20 years in captivity 
  • Wingspan : 46 to 61 cm
  • Native to: North America,  Mexico, Canada 
  • Size: 16 to 25 cm
  • Food or Diet: insects, small mammals, birds, reptiles, flies etc.

Eastern screech owls are also small owls that have two color variations. One is a red morph color where their full body is covered with red-brown morph plumage, and on the other side, the gray morph plumage owls.

These North Carolina owls are mostly local in North America, Mexico, and Canada. Additionally, they prefer wooded environments like mixed woodlands, deciduous forests, parklands, and wooded suburban areas for their habitats.

Sometimes, I have also seen them choosing wooded areas with wetlands, mature orchards, and marshes.

These owls in NC mostly avoid areas surrounded by larger owls, especially the great-horned owls. They can fully disguise themselves in their surroundings, you will be amazed by their camouflage techniques.

Sometimes, it’s hard to identify them in forest areas. These owls in NC usually hunt between dawn and dusk, and they complete their hunting task within the first hour of darkness.

Their diet also varies from season to season. As I have noted, they mostly prefer large insects and invertebrates during their breeding season. However, they usually consume beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, moths, etc.

5.  Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Lifespan: 20 to 30 years
  • Wingspan: 91- 153 cm
  • Native to: America 
  • Size: 17 – 25 inches 
  • Food or Diet: rodents, small rabbits, birds, lizards, reptiles, etc.

Great horned owls are also known as tiger owls or hoot owls because they resemble the tiger species in North Carolina. These owls are generally famous for their camouflage techniques.

Their underparts are usually light brown, and their upperparts and wings are mottled brown. These North Carolina owls also have facial discs, which are generally reddish, brown, and gray in color.

Their distribution region covers America, including North America, Central America, South America, the Subarctic, oak, and Newfoundlands. Their habitat areas include suburban and urban areas, open habitats, and wooded areas because they avoid human interaction.

That is why these owls in NC prefer areas where humans are less active, such as parks or developmental areas.

They have natural-colored plumage, so they can easily camouflage themselves. This technique helps them hunt at night and roost during the day.

I have seen male owls mostly defend their territory, and females help their partners in hooting activities to ensure the intruders’ surroundings. Like other owls, their diet consists of small mammals, birds, reptiles, lizards, insects, etc.

6.  Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Lifespan: around 10 years
  • Wingspan:  around 4 to 5 ft
  • Native to: Arctic regions of North America 
  • Size: 52.5 to 64 cm
  • Food or Diet: small mammals, deer mice, meadow voles, hares, ducks, seabirds, etc. 

Snowy Owls are large Owls, also known as polar owls, white owls, or arctic owls, in North Carolina state. These owls are mostly local to the Arctic regions of North America, including the Tundra, Alaska, northern Canada, and the Euro-Shetland regions.

I have observed that NC’s polar owls are fully white, unlike other owl species, whose whole bodies are covered with white plumage with brown dots.

They also have a large wingspan and yellow Irish. These owls in North Carolina seem to be active day and night during winter. Records have said that these white owls of NC can also survive in the coldest weather, up to—62.6 degrees Celsius, without any discomfort or uneasiness.

These snow owls hunt randomly at any time throughout the day. They don’t follow any particular time to hunt their prey. But usually, they avoid severe weather when going out hunting.

At the time of my visit to the Arctic, I encountered one snowy owl and saw them swallowing their whole prey at once in a while.

Researchers have said they have a strong digestive system, which releases stomach juices that help them digest food inside their stomachs.

Besides, their summer diets include small passerines, shorebirds, and seabirds. During winter time, most of the diet consists of small mammals.

7.  Northern Pygmy Owl

Northern Pygmy Owl
  • Scientific name: Glaucidium californicum
  • Lifespan:  7 years 
  • Wingspan:  12 inches 
  • Native to: western North America 
  • Size: 15 to 17 cm
  • Food or Diet: mammals, birds,  insects, etc.

Northern Pygmy Owls are small owls native to Western North America, including Carolina. These owls of North Carolina have round white heads with spotted marks on them.

Besides, they have disc-sized facial structures, dark upper breasts, tails, and wings with yellow Irish and yellowish-green bills. These NC’s owls breeding range covers Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

Additionally, they choose temperate, subtropical, and tropical moist forests, savannas, and wetlands for their habitats. Sometimes, because of their size and color, they are difficult to spot.

I have seen them use old woodpeckers’ cavities and holes for nesting purposes. Female owls of NC lay 2 to 7 eggs in a clutch and incubate them.

While male owls deliver food to the nests and protect them from intruders, these NC owls are diurnal, meaning they remain active day and night.

They can consume prey to a body similar to or comparable to their size without discomfort.

8.  Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl
  • Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
  • Lifespan: around 6 to 8 years
  • Wingspan: 20 to 24 inches 
  • Native to: North and South America 
  • Size: 7 to 11 inches 
  • Food or Diet: invertebrates, insects, small rodents, ground squirrels, reptiles, etc.

Burrowing owls, also known as shoco in North America, have small bodies with long legs, bright eyes, and dark yellowish beaks, depending on the subspecies.

However, unlike other owls, these NC owls do not have facial discs, round faces, or ear tufts. They have featured eyebrows and a white chin patch on their faces. In addition to North Carolina, these owls cover North American regions such as Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the Southern United States.

They may inhabit subtropical coastal regions, temperate regions, grasslands, rangelands, agricultural areas, deserts, and open areas with dry and low vegetation for their habitats.

Unlike other owls in NC, I have seen them remain active during the day. Most of these owls hunt during dusk and dawn. They use their special night vision and hearing skills to observe the areas or detect the prey around them.

Usually, they wait for their prey on a perch and try to find it. When they detect any prey, they swoop down the prey or sometimes catch the prey in their flight position.

Based on my observations, their maximum diet consists of invertebrates and small vertebrates, which account for two-thirds of the diet. However, they also consume bats, mammals, and birds for their food.

9.  Spotted Owl

Spotted Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix occidentalis
  • Lifespan: about 15 years
  • Wingspan: around 114 cm
  • Native to: western North America 
  • Size: 43 cm
  • Food or Diet: squirrels, deer mice, rabbits, pocket gophers, voles, snowshoe hares, bats, passerine birds,  reptiles, etc.

Spotted Owls are a subspecies of the true owl family and are native to western North America, including North Carolina. However, they also inhabit British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Mexico, and Arizona.

These owls of North Carolina are fond of coniferous forests, hardwood forests, closed canopies, and old-growth forests for their habitats. However, you can also spot them in chaparral and Pinyon woodlands to inhabit.

Like other owl species, these North Carolina owls don’t make their own nests but use abandoned nests by squirrels, woodpeckers, or raptors. They also repeat their nests for several years with their breeding partners.

But if they failed to breed successfully, they barely re-nest with the same mating partners. These owls of NC seem nocturnal and wait for their prey on a perch.

Although their diet varies from place to place, they consist of mammalian species, flying squirrels, woodrats, deer mice,  voles, rabbits, small birds like passerine birds, jays, woodpeckers, reptiles, and insects.

10.  Long Eared Owl

Long Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Lifespan: around 10 to 30 years 
  • Wingspan:  86 to 102 cm
  • Native to: North America 
  • Size: 12 to 16 inches 
  • Food or Diet: mammals, birds, rodents, rabbits, mice, rats, insects etc.

Long-eared owls are also known as northern, lesser-horned, or cat owls in North Carolina. Besides this region, they are also widely available in North America, Europe, the Palearctic, and the Peninsula.

Their habitats are open places, short vegetation, and wooded areas, which are also best for their roosting and nesting. These owls have mostly yellowish-black plumage with long ear tufts directly positioned in the center of their heads.

These nocturnal owls of NC show their activeness at dusk. Researchers have found that they become less active from 8 to 10 p.m. and 5 to 6 a.m. On the contrary, 10 to 12 p.m. and 3 to 5 a.m. are the peak times of their activity, when they hunt their prey or hoot while sitting on a tree.

However, I have seen them roosting upright on a tree branch during the day. During their breeding seasons, they also make a group of 6 to 50 owls and roost together.

This is called the aggregation of owls, where a number of owl birds form a group and rot together. Talking about their diet, I have seen them consume small mammals like rats, mice, rabbits, rodents, and birds like passerines and jaybirds.

11.  Short Eared Owl 

Short Eared Owl 
  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Lifespan: 4 to 15 years
  • Wingspan: 85 – 110 cm
  • Native to: Europe, Asia, North and South America
  • Size: 34 – 43 cm
  • Food or Diet: voles, rats, mice, rodents, moles, insects, caterpillars, grasshoppers etc. 

Short-eared owls are another owl species of North Carolina. Like their names, their tufts might or might not be seen because of their short length.

Besides their short tufts, owls have big heads, short necks, broad wings, and short black hooked bills, usually stronger than other owl species.

The North Carolina owl’s breeding region covers Europe, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and Hawaii. They are also partial migratory birds, which means they often move to the south from the northern parts during the winter.

Additionally, these North Carolina owls mostly breed from March to June, especially during the peak season in April. Moreover, because of their diurnal behavior, they hunt at night.

When they catch prey, they fly only feet above the ground in open fields and grasslands and then swoop down the prey from their feet.

More or less, these species of owls of NC consume small mammals, small birds, mice, squirrels, bats, rats, voles, small gulls, seabirds, shorebirds, and insects in their diets.

12. Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl
  • Scientific name: Aegolius funereus
  • Lifespan: up to 16 years 
  • Wingspan: 50-62 cm
  • Native to: North America
  • Size: 22 – 27 cm
  • Food or Diet: voles, mammals, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, moles, bats, small birds, amphibians and insects

Boreal owls are another owl species that is highly distributed in North Carolina, including North America, Europe, and the Palearctic. They inhabit dense forests and coniferous forests.

They are very hard to oversee through the human eye, and they mostly avoid human interaction due to their shy nature and reluctant behavior.

Like other owls of NC, these boreal owls also use the nest, which has been made by other avian species like woodpeckers. In the clutch, I have found 3 to 7 eggs given by female boreal owls and laid within a 2-day interval or gap.

The female birds start the incubation process with the second egg. In summer, these North Carolina owls have to hunt during the daytime because of the short night hours.

They mostly eat voles in their diet. Besides, these owls consume small mammals, rats, bats, mice, moles, and insects.

These North Carolina owls are usually eaten by other large raptors or prey birds, so their population has gradually decreased. 

13.  Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Lifespan: 
  • Wingspan: 42-56.3 cm
  • Native to: North America
  • Size: 17- 22 cm
  • Food or Diet: mammals, rodents, deer, mice, voles, birds, etc.

Northern Saw-whet Owls are another owl species that has been highly observed in North Carolina, as well as in North America, Alaska, the United States, and Mexico.

These owls of NC prefer coniferous forests, mixed wooded areas, and deciduous woods for their habitats.  During my visit to this state, I saw these owls have certain color combinations over their body: round light white faces and brown cream patches.

They also have dark bills and yellow Irish with dark brown heads and wings. They also have a prominent “Y” shaped white distinctive coloration between the two eyes on their face.

I have overheard their repetitive vocalized whistling sounds, which they mostly make to find a mate. You might hear these sounds personally if you visit their habitat between April and June.

Sometimes, they also sound like bill snapping to make warning calls. Like other NC owls, these owls consume mammals in most of their diets; I have also seen them eating small birds, deer mice, rodents, and voles. 


To make everything on the count, these North Carolina owls are mostly the birds of the night because of their nocturnal and diurnal behavior.

However, we have also seen that some owls in NC remain active during the day and do other activities like hunting and roosting in the morning.

Nonetheless, these owls of NC amazed the human population through their exceptional hunting skill, nesting, and breeding behavior along with their camouflage techniques, which protect them in a threatened environment in the wild of North Carolina state.

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