The Big Sky state boasts some pretty stunning landscapes. From the striking Yellowstone geysers to the native grasslands of the great plains, there are endless places to do some seriously great birdwatching.
Owl lovers, in particular, are particularly spoiled. There are 15 different species of owls that live in Montana for at least part of the year. In fact, Montana has more owl species in it than just about any other state!
Montana has common owls such as the Great Horned owl, but it’s also home to some of the more rare species like the Snowy owl, which lives in only a few states in the US.
Whether you live in Missoula or Helena, or you’re taking a road trip through the state’s stunning backroads, there are sure to be owls nearby.
Here is the list of owls in Montana:
- Great Horned Owl
- Barn Owl
- Eastern Screech Owl
- Barred Owl
- Flammulated Owl
- Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Snowy Owl
- Western Screech Owl
- Great Gray Owl
- Short-Eared Owl
- Long-Eared Owl
- Northern Pygmy-Owl
- Burrowing Owl
- Northern Hawk Owl
- Boreal Owl
15 Types of Owls in Montana
1. 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 Montana.
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.
2. 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 Montana, so your chances of seeing them are good.
3. Eastern Screech Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops asio
- Size: 6.3-9.8 inches long
- Weight: 4.3-8.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 inches
The eastern screech owl is related to the western screech owl, as you might expect. This owl lives on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, with a little overlap in the Rocky Mountains between their western cousin.
In Montana, they live in the eastern part of the state.
Eastern screech owls are excellent hiders. Their gray or reddish-brown mottling makes them blend right into the bark of the trees where they like to perch and nest. In fact, you might not even notice them until you see their bright yellow eyes shining.
They have distinct ear tufts and a yellow beak, with a dark V between their eyes.
These owls are night hunters, which makes them even more of a challenge to see. Your best bet is to listen for the whining trill call that they make and then keep your eyes peeled.
If you’re not big on bird-watching at night, look at the cavities of trees as you walk around their native range. You should be able to see them as they sleep the day away.
4. 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.
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. 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 pushing the endangered spotted owl out of its territory.
Barred owls live in just the western tip of Montana.
5. 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 spots in the western third of the state 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.
6. 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 western third of Montana year-round and the rest of the state during the nonbreeding season.
7. 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, and their plumage becomes whiter as they age. The females and immature birds have dark brown or black spots.
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.
In Montana, you can see these birds in the northern part of the state during the winter and in the rest of the state only if food is scarce in their normal range during the winter.
The snowy owl is a rare bird to see, especially because their populations are declining.
8. 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 Montana, these petite owls live in the western fourth of the state all year-round.
While they prefer to eat small rodents, they’re powerful birds and can even pick up a full-grown rabbit.
9. 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 Montana, you’ll only find this owl in the western third of the state. They don’t usually move their home unless they travel further south or to lower elevations during the cold weather.
10. 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 Montana year-round.
11. 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 Montana should look for this owl during the breeding season throughout the state.
12. 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 who are bird hunting in Montana can find this petite owl on just the western border.
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.
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.
13. 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 eastern two-thirds of Montana and head south during the rest of the year.
14. Northern Hawk Owl
- Scientific name: Strix occidentalis
- Size: 14.2-17.7 inches long
- Weight: 8.5-16 ounces
- Wingspan: 27.9 inches
The Northern Hawk Owl gets its name because it behaves like a hawk, but it’s technically an owl. They hunt by sight, have long tails, and perch at the top of trees, much like hawks do. But they have round heads, yellow eyes, mottled gray, brown, and white bodies. They also have gray faces with a dark border, making them look distinctively owl-like.
They hunt during the day, for the most part, but you might see them looking for food at night in the forests where they make their homes.
These birds live in the northern parts of Canada, but during the winter if food is scarce, they will head south to the US. Birdwatchers in Montana might be lucky enough to see them throughout the state during these times.
15. Boreal Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius funereus
- Size: 8.3-11 inches long
- Weight: 3.3-7.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 21.5-24.5 inches
Boreal owls live in the western third of Montana. They stick around the same general area for their whole life, but they will travel if they can’t find food in their neighborhood. They stick to forests and prefer the high mountains. However, if you live near a mountain or forested area, you can place a nest box in your backyard, and they might come to live.
These owls hunt at night, looking for small mammals. But they don’t fly around actively hunting. Instead, they sit in a tree and patiently wait for a rat or mouse to run across the ground. Then they attack.
Boreal owls are adorable. They’re about the size of a robin and have a large square head. They’re brown overall with white mottling on their bodies and a mostly white face. The females are twice as large as the males.
Also Read: Woodpeckers in Montana