Decoding Our Nine Owl Species

Decoding Our Nine Owl Species

The Preserve is home to a stunning diversity of over 150 different bird species. Nine of those feathered residents are owls. What may come as a surprise is that they are wildly different in appearance, habitat use, and in the night-time calls they make. For instance, only one of the owls has a “hoo-hoo-hoohoo” call. Ready to learn which species that is, and who’s ‘hoo’?

Great Horned Owl

(c) George Gentry USFWS National Digital Library


The most easily recognized owl species on The Preserve is the great horned owl. With prominent horn-like feather tufts on its head, this mottled brown bird stands tall at an impressive 22- inches and emits the classic deep, “hoo hoo hoohoo”owl song we were taught in grammar school. This time of year, you may hear them communicating back and forth in a duet. Often the female will call first and the male will respond in a slightly deeper tone. If you can get eyes on them, you may notice one bird is larger than the other, which would suggest it is the female in the pair. Females have to put more energy into raising the young and consequently are about a third larger than males. Great horned owls are widespread and use a diversity of habitats across The Preserve. Anywhere tall trees and small mammals exists, you might find these quintessential owls. They prefer to build their own stick platform nests, eschewing holes or man-made nest boxes, instead building nests deep in the top of a tree.

Barn Owl

(c) Peter Pearsall USFWS National Digital Library


If you have seen a white flash dart overhead during dawn, dusk or at nighttime, it is likely a barn owl. This species occurs across the globe, on every continent except Antarctica. With a white underside, a golden back and its signature heart-shaped white face, this 16- inch tall owl is a sight to behold. It has an unexpectedly raspy shriek “screeeeee” call, typically lasting about two seconds. Barn owls raise more offspring than any other owl species on The Preserve, averaging 5-7 chicks per nest. With that many hungry beaks to feed, both parents catch and feed around 3,000 small mammals for their family each year! These owls commonly catch voles, small rats, gophers, and mice – bringing them back to their owlets in a cavity nest. This nesting preference, combined with their ravenous family, make barn owls ideal residents for artificial nest boxes. Many Preserve community members have installed nest boxes on their lots, providing great habitat options for these skilled hunters, while naturally reducing the rodent population.

Burrowing Owl

(c) Jim Rains/Great Backyard Bird Count

Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are active both day and night, and they live in the ground! Despite their name, they are not skilled excavators, instead they take advantage of the Airbnb model of lodging, and ‘borrow’ burrows from ground squirrels and other small mammals. Standing 9- inches tall, these sandy colored birds have disproportionately longer legs than most owls, allowing them to stand and survey their grassland habitat. They make a high “coo cooo” call and will clack their beak and bob their legs if disturbed. This species also has a flashy decorating instinct and will adorn the entrance to their burrow with shiny insect parts and bobbles. Keep an eye out for them in the grasslands of Peñon and the Mesa each winter, where you might see one standing at the entrance to its burrow, with furrowed brows, looking very serious.

Western Screech Owl

(c) Alan Schmierer/flickr

Contrary to the name, this small grey or brown owl doesn’t do much screeching. Instead, the western screech owl emits calls that sound more like a bouncing ball “pweeepp pweepp pweep pwep” and a whinny “puurrrruuu”. Standing 8- inches tall with dark streaks on the belly, the screech owl also has expressive feather tufts on their head similar to the great horned owl. This classic looking bird is typically found in open woodlands across The Preserve and has been spotted hunting bugs and small mammals along the edge of Chamisal Road on warm summer evenings. As cavity nesters, they are dependent on holes in trees and standing snags (dead wood), a good incentive to leave those snags up for natural bird condominiums.

Northern Pygmy Owl

(c) Alan Schmierer/flickr

The smallest owl to call The Preserve home, this owl stands a petite 6.5- inches tall with a long tail, dark white and brown feathers and stunning yellow eyes. Once you have heard their distinctive “poot” call, you can pick them out easily, especially since they call in the early morning hours when the day is just dawning. Despite their small size they are daytime hunters and are very accomplished pursuing smaller songbirds – which is their preferred meal. Northern pygmy owls are more commonly found in the deeper redwood and oak forests alongside creeks, like Robinson Canyon and Potrero Creek. These cavity nesters prefer sticking with the natural holes found in woodland habitats.

Northern Long-Eared Owl

(c) GPA Photo Archive/flickr

This owl’s pronounced and tall feather tufts are reflected in its name, “long-eared”, though its real ears are actually lower and tucked under the head feathers. With a highly mottled and camouflaged blend of browns and whites, these 12- inch birds can be surprisingly hard to see. They like to tuck themselves into the forest foliage and call a soft but deep “wooip” over and over. Their deep calls are known to travel up to a half mile, even in heavy vegetation. These owls roost in the edges of The Preserve’s forested habitat and hunt for small mammals in the grasslands at night. They prefer nests in wide open cavities or platforms that have partial coverage, making old snags in the forest a favorite spot to raise a family!

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

(c) David Mitchell/flickr

With bold white eyebrow feathers framing yellow eyes, these birds have a stern look to them, but standing at merely 8- inches tall, it is hard to not just see them as adorable! Preferring to stick to forested habitats, they hunt small mammals and roost in the mid-story where they can keep an eye on the ground for food but also an eye on the upper canopy to avoid larger birds of prey. They have a repeated call of “tooo tooo tooo” in a steady, evenly spaced, rhythm that you can hear deep in the forest even during the late afternoon. While they can be found in any forested area, we encounter them most in our redwood forests across The Preserve, including the Redwood Grove and Robinson Canyon.

Flammulated Owl

(c) John Villella/flickr

Found across the western states, the flammulated owl is named for the flame-shaped marking on its wing. Just under 7- inches tall, these dark eyed birds are among the smallest owls in North America. They make a soft, low, repeating “podo poot” call in pine and redwood forests. Their preferred food is large insects, caught in the air, off the ground or more commonly, gleaned from vegetation mid-flight. During nesting season, they can be found in tree cavities, high up in the forest.

California Spotted Owl

(c) Frank D. Lospalluto/Flickr

While these birds are known for being elusive, this time of year you can hear them setting up breeding territories in the redwoods along Robinson Canyon Road. In the evenings you can hear their barking hoots and “whup hoo hoo” call from the roads edge. One of the larger owls in our area, these predators stand 17- inches tall with brown speckled feathers and deep brown eyes. This owl is rarely seen, only heard. Tucked in deeper old growth forests, like the impressive redwood forests on The Preserve, they will hunt small mammals and perch in the upper canopy. The Santa Lucia Mountains are the most northern reach of this species, which is closely related to the endangered northern spotted owl that you find in Santa Cruz County and up the coast.