14 Types of Owls in California (Explained Species with Pictures)

California is a huge state with an incredibly varied landscape. From sweltering deserts to lush redwood forests, it’s one of the most diverse states in the US. That’s great news for nature lovers, but even better news for birdwatchers, because it also means that there are lots of different species of owls in the state. In fact, there are 14 different owls that you can see in California.

If you’re determined to see all of them, you’ll need to practice some patience and know when and where to look. For instance, the snowy owl is a rare visitor, and only to the northern part of the state during the winter.

But the Great Horned owl is a frequent visitors of cities and the country. You’re just as likely to see one in a park in Sacramento as you are on a farm in Lake Port.

This guide aims to help you learn how to identify the owls in California.

Here is the list of owls in California:

  1. Elf Owl
  2. Short-Eared Owl
  3. Long-Eared Owl
  4. Burrowing Owl
  5. Great Horned Owl
  6. Barred Owl
  7. Spotted Owl
  8. Western Screech Owl
  9. Northern Saw-Whet Owl
  10. Barn Owl
  11. Flammulated Owl
  12. Great Gray Owl
  13. Snowy Owl
  14. Northern Pygmy-Owl

14 Types of Owls in California

1. Elf Owl

elf owl
  • Scientific name: Micrathene whitneyi
  • Size: 4.7-5.5 inches long
  • Weight: 1.2-1.9 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 13.0 inches

Say “hello” to the smallest raptor in the entire world. These desert-loving birds only live in the southeastern corner of California during the breeding season. The rest of the time, they hang out in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.

They’re smaller than a robin and use their size to their advantage, taking over small cavities in trees left by woodpeckers and other critters. They hunt at night, looking for insects to eat.

While they’re easily recognized by their puppy-like calls, if you happen to see one, you can probably identify it just by it’s size. Also look for the round head that lacks ear tufts, the big yellow eyes, and white eyebrow-like markings. Their bodies are mottled gray, brown, and white.

2. Short-Eared Owl

short eared owl
  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Size: 13.4-17 inches long
  • Weight: 7.3-16.9 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches

You’re right if you guessed that these owls have short ear tufts. Owls have ear tufts to help direct sound to their ears, enabling them to hunt and hear potential predators. Short-eared owls have ear tufts, but they’re small, like little horns.

They’re distinctive owls because they have brown and white mottling edged in black bars. The face is cream with dark black outlines around the yellow eyes.

Their distinctive appearance makes it easier to spot them, but the fact that they are active during the day makes it even easier to see them. They even have a distinct, moth-like flight pattern that makes identification even simpler.

Unlike many owls, they don’t prefer wooded areas. They like open fields and grasslands, where they sit on the ground and watch and listen for prey to catch. Then, they fly up and dive down to catch their prey. They even nest in the ground.

These owls live in California all year round in the northern quarter of the state, then they travel to the southern part of California during the non-breeding season.

3. Long-Eared Owl

Long Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Size: 13.8-15.8 inches long
  • Weight: 7.8-15.3 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 35.5-39.5 inches

Long-eared owls have surprisingly long ear tufts, which is how they got their name. The tufts are black with bits of buff or orange. They have two white lines between their yellow eyes.

They’re slender with mottled brown bodies. These nocturnal birds roots in trees and hunt in grasslands or open country.

You can often identify them by their hoots, squeals, and barks. They are quite vocal. They usually only migrate at night, but they can fly exceptionally long distances. Researchers have identified birds that have traveled from Canada to Mexico in a single year.

Those who live in or are visiting California should look for this bird year-round on the eastern border of the state and along the coast from San Francisco down. They hang out in all other parts during the non-breeding season.

4. Burrowing Owl

burrowing owl
  • Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
  • Size: 7.5-9.8inches long
  • Weight: 5.3 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 21.5 inches

Most owls live in the trees or shrubs, but burrowing owls have long legs to run along the ground in prairies, deserts, and grasslands. They hunt for rodents and then live in tunnels that animals have abandoned like ground squirrels and prairie dogs.

They’ll even hunt small rodents and then take over their burrows. If that’s not available, they’ll live in pipes or tubing.

They’ve adapted to life underground by developing a high tolerance for carbon dioxide, which builds up in underground spaces.

Look for long-legged owls with mottled brown coloring and bright yellow eyes to identify them. They have flat heads.

Burrowing owls breed in the central part of California and live year round in the southern part of the state.

5. Great Horned Owl

great horned owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Size: 20 inches long
  • Weight: 32-88 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 40-57 inches

Most people recognize the great horned owl thanks to its appearance in movies like the Harry Potter franchise and its characteristic hoot. These massive owls can weigh up to five-and-a-half pounds. They have massive claws, and they’re strong fliers, which enables them to take down fierce prey like ospreys and falcons.

Once they clench their claws around something, it takes 28 pounds of force to pry them back apart.

These birds live in every part of North America, from Mexico to the northern parts of Alaska. It’s one of the most common owls and makes itself home in deserts, mountains, forests, and prairies. The great horned owl is just at home in cities as it is in the suburbs, and wilderness areas.

All this means that you have a good chance of being able to see one. You can find it anywhere in California, from the Mexico border to the northern Redwood forests.

Look for the giant bird with yellow eyes and long tufts of hairs near its ears. They can be gray or cinnamon with barring over a cream or light gray body.

If you were wondering, they can’t really move their heads 360 degrees, despite what you might have heard. They can swivel their head over 180 degrees, though, giving the illusion that they’re turning their head completely around. These birds can’t move their eyes from side to side, so they move their heads back and forth instead.

6. Barred Owl

barred owl
  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Size: 17-20 inches long
  • Weight: 16.6-37 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 39-43 inches

The barred owl is similar in length to the great horned owl, but they weigh much less. They are mottled brown and white with distinct bars across their entire body. The bars on the breasts are vertical and horizontal on the rest of their bodies.

These aren’t noisy birds. They generally keep quiet, though you can sometimes hear them call out during the day. You’re more likely to see them rather than hear them, though.

Barred owls stick to forested areas, whether that’s the swamp or high up a mountain. You won’t find them in cities or prairies. They live across the entire eastern US and up into Canada. In recent decades, the birds have expanded their range, and now there are also populations in the Pacific Northwest where there weren’t before. 

They don’t migrate during their lives. They stick to one place, making their home in trees. However, if they can’t find food, they will travel long distances to hunt.

Great horned owls hunt the barred owl, while the barred owl is forcing the endangered spotted owl out of its territory.

In California, you can find barred owls in the northern part of the state along the coast.

7. Spotted Owl

Spotted Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix occidentalis
  • Size: 18.5-19 inches long
  • Weight: 17.6-24.7 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 40 inches

As the name suggests, spotted owls have white spots, but they look dark brown overall. You’ll see more white spotting on the chest and less on the back and wings. They have distinct dark brown facial disks with a white “X” between the brown eyes. 

These nocturnal birds hunt for small mammals like rats and squirrels. They’re silent hunters, and once they find their prey, they fly down and snatch them up without a sound. They live and hunt in mature forests, but since many are being cut down, the spotted owl population is in decline.

This bird is federally protected, but logging, habitat loss, and competition from Barred Owls are driving down populations.

Consider yourself fortunate if you’re able to spot one. They’re rare. Go out in the evening and listen for their hooting to have a chance at finding one.

There are three subspecies, which include the California Spotted Owl, the Northern Spotted Owl, and the Mexican Spotted Owl. In California, you’ll see the Northern Spotted Owl in the old-growth forests of the northern part of the state. You’ll see the California Spotted Owl in the rest of the state.

8. Western Screech Owl

western screech owl
  • Scientific name: Otus kennicottii
  • Size: 7.5-10 inches long
  • Weight: 3.5-11 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 21.5-24.5 inches

Western screech owls are small, about the size of a robin. But the screech they emit is anything but petite. They’re difficult to find in the wild because they blend in super well with their environment. If you want to find a screech owl, sit outside at night and listen patiently for their distinctive screeches.

The base of their body is gray, brown, or red, with a pale breast. Their body is covered in dark streaks that look incredibly similar to the bark of many trees. They have yellow eyes and distinct ear tufts in a V-shape.

They’re nocturnal, and they make their home in the holes of trees and cacti, but they’ll also make their home in a nestbox in your backyard if you provide them with one. They’re common in suburban areas, and they’ll even make their home in urban parks. In California, these petite owls live everywhere except the central, inland part of the state.

While they prefer to eat small rodents, they’re powerful birds and can even pick up a full-grown rabbit.

9. Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw Whet Owl
  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Size: 7.1-8.3 inches long
  • Weight: 2.5-5.3 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 16.5-19 inches

Northern saw-whet owls are petite, about the size of a robin, with a mottled brown and white body. They have big yellow eyes and a heart-shaped face with a small, white V-mark between their eyes.

They are difficult to see, especially because they hunt at night, but if you listen for their shrill call, you’ll know they’re nearby. During the day, they nest in cavities in trees at about eye height, so you might see them if you look carefully. Don’t disturb the sleeping birds, though! 

They only live in forests, particularly mature forests, so don’t look for them in open areas or cities. They migrate long distances to breed. They eat small rodents like mice and shrews. They’ll also eat birds like chickadees, juncos, waxwings, and sparrows.

They live across the US, with scarce breeding populations in the South and permanent populations in the northern part of the country and throughout the Rocky Mountains and western Coastal ranges. Nonbreeding populations exist across the rest of the country.

The northern saw-whet owl lives in the northern part of California year-round and makes its way down to the southern and central part of the state during the nonbreeding season.

10. Barn Owl

barn owl
  • Scientific name: Tyto alba
  • Size: 12.5-16 inches long
  • Weight: 14-24.7 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 40-50 inches

The barn owl got its name because it likes to live in abandoned barns and other buildings in rural areas. They’ll also nest in the cavities of trees. They hunt by soaring across open areas and listening for prey. As you might guess, they have excellent hearing. 

You can tell it’s a barn owl by its distinct face. They have pure white, heart-shaped faces with large, dark eyes. Their wings and back are gray, golden, or cinnamon and somewhat mottled. The undersides of their wings are white, as is their chest, which means they look all-white from underneath when they’re flying. They don’t have any ear tufts as the great horned owl does.

Young barn owls will fly far away from where they were hatched to find their own territory, but once they find a spot they like, they stay there for life. 

You can find barn owls across the US and Mexico except in a few parts of the central northern states like Montana and North Dakota. The owl lives in every part of California, so your chances of seeing them are good.

Like many other owls, they nest in cavities in trees. They don’t make the hole themselves, though. They look for holes left by other animals or natural decay.

Northern pygmy owls eat small birds, lizards, insects, and mammals, but they might even snag a larger bird like a quail. They hunt during the day.

11. Flammulated Owl

Flammulated Owl
  • Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
  • Size: 5.9-6.7inches long
  • Weight: 1.5-2.2 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 15.9-16.1 inches

The Flammulated owl is tiny. It’s barely larger than a sparrow. These are night-hunting owls that roost in trees during the day. At night, they swoop out to spot their insect prey and devour it.

They live in coniferous forests in the western part of the US. You can find them in a few areas across California only during the breeding season. They spend their time year-round in Mexico.

For such a tiny bird, you might mistake them for something much, much larger if you were to only hear their call. They have a deep, booming hoot that makes them sound large. This helps them scare away other predators.

Look for a tiny owl with feathered ear tufts and vertical stripes on the belly. They have dark eyes and a grayish back.

12. Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Size: 24-33inches long
  • Weight: 24.7-60 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 53.9-60 inches

Great gray owls are one of the largest owls in the US. They are larger than a Great Horned Owl, but they are a bit lighter. They sit somewhere in size between a goose and a crow.

As the name suggests, they are gray with silver, white, and brown streaks or bars. They have bright yellow eyes surrounded by brown circles and a white “X” that separates their eyes. They lack ear tufts but have a large, round head.

They dislike being near humans or human settlements, so they’re hard to find. They’re quiet when they fly, and they don’t call out often, so you’ll usually see them rather than hear them. 

Great Gray Owls live in coniferous forests and hunt small mammals. In California, you’ll find this owl only in the northeastern stretch of the state along the Nevada border. They don’t usually move their home unless they travel further south or to lower elevations during the cold weather.

13. Snowy Owl

snowy owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Size: 20.5-28 inches long
  • Weight: 56.5-104 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 49.5-57 inches

Snowy owls are striking birds. The males are mostly white with bright, cat-like yellow eyes. The females and immature birds have dark brown or black spots. The males become whiter as they age.

Snowy owls live in the Arctic Circle, where they hunt for mammals such as lemming and ptarmigans during the long summer days. They travel south to Canada, Alaska, and the very northern parts of the US during the winter months. 

Most of the time, you can see them sitting on the ground near their hunting areas. They’ll also perch on power or telephone poles, fences, hay bales, and abandoned structures. They fly low to the ground as they scan the tundra or fields where they hunt.

You may rarely see these birds in northern California if food is scarce in their normal range.

The snowy owl is a rare bird to see, especially because their populations are declining.

14. Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy Owl
  • Scientific name: Glaucidium gnoma
  • Size: 6.3-7.1 inches long
  • Weight: 2.2-2.5 ounces 
  • Wingspan: 12 inches

As you might guess from the name, this is a tiny owl. They’re brown overall with small white spots on their head and more prominent white spots on their wings and back. On the back of their neck, they have two spots that resemble eyes to scare away other predators like Great Horned Owls.

They live in forests and nest in conifers, which is why they’re prevalent in the Pacific Northwest and in much of the Rocky Mountains. Those bird hunting in California can find this petite owl in the northern part of the state, particularly along the coast. There are also flocks peppered throughout the coniferous forests across the state.

They don’t migrate but stay in the same area for their entire lives. They will move to lower elevations during the coldest time of the year.

Also Read: Woodpeckers in California

About the author

Joseph O. Bourdane

I am an avid birdwatcher and researcher with a deep interest in bird behavior and habitats. I have a keen eye for detail and a deep appreciation for the beauty and diversity of bird species.

Reviewed By

Douglas Robinson

I have dedicated my life to the study of ornithology and wildlife biology. I have spent countless hours observing and documenting various species of birds in their natural habitats, and have also conducted extensive research on bird behavior and ecology.

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