A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
Relatively small and solid owls, with a large head and no ear tufts, boreal owls have mainly dark brown plumage, heavily marked with white blotches and spotting on their back and wings.
Their breast and belly are pale cream, streaked with orange-brown. Facial markings are quite distinct, with a chocolate brown crown that is heavily spotted with fine speckling, and gray-white facial feathers, bordered with a black facial disk. Prominent white eyebrows form a v-shape between the bright yellow eyes.
Female boreal owls look similar to males, with size being the main method of distinguishing between the sexes: as with most owl species, females are usually larger than their mates.
Juvenile boreal owls can be identified as their faces are mainly dark brown instead of white-gray, and their breast and belly are solid brown rather than streaked.
Adult Boreal Owl
Juvenile Boreal Owl in nest cavity
Boreal owls might be a small owl species, no bigger than an American robin, but they have a relatively wide wingspan. Females are usually much larger and heavier than males
Boreal Owl in-flight
The advertising a call of a boreal owl is heard from winter until late spring, once the male has found a mate. It consists of a series of between 8 and 20 hollow, rapid hoots that get progressively louder.
Boreal Owl in the winter perching on a branch
Voles are the main prey of boreal owls, with other small mammals also caught, including mice, gophers, squirrels, shrews, moles, chipmunks and bats. Small birds and amphibians are also eaten, particularly common redpolls, American robins, and dark-eyed juncos. Boreal owls mainly hunt nocturnally, watching from perches.
Males bring prey to the nest, particularly small voles and mice, which are then torn into pieces by the female and fed to nestlings. After around two weeks, young are able to swallow prey whole and follow the same diet as their parents.
Boreal Owl in natural habitat
Boreal owls breed in coniferous forests across Eurasia and North America. Dense spruce forests are preferred but mixed species woodlands are also frequently used and the availability of woodpecker holes for nesting is a key factor. Hunting habitats include meadows and forest clearings.
Boreal owls live in the northern regions of the world, across North America, Europe and Asia. Their distribution range is characterized by boreal forest landscapes and stretches from Alaska through central and southern Canada, with a localized presence in parts of the northwest US, including Colorado, Montana and Idaho.
Across the Atlantic, boreal owls are resident in Scandinavia, the Baltic states, and eastwards through northern Russia, including northern Kazakhstan, Mongolia and the Kuril Islands.
To the south of the main European range, boreal owls have a scattered distribution across the Pyrenees and the Alps and in parts of Central Europe.
The population of boreal owls in the United States and Canada is estimated at around 500,000 individuals. Europe’s population is believed to be between 189,000 and 471,000 individuals, of which up to 40,000 pairs live in Sweden, up to 20,000 pairs in Finland, and up to 100,000 in European Russia.
Boreal owls are resident in a wide geographic range across the northernmost regions of North America, Europe and Asia, with a global population of between 730,000 and 1.8 million individuals.
Their hard-to-access taiga habitats and nocturnal behavior make them particularly hard to spot, despite their relatively large population, and sightings are rarely recorded.
Boreal owls are notoriously hard to spot, and sightings can never be guaranteed. However, the species is regularly recorded in the following locations: Cameron Pass and Grand Mesa, Colorado, Yale-Kilgore Road, to the west of Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota and Fairbanks, Alaska.
The range of boreal owls extends across a vast expanse of Canada from the west coast to the east coast. Despite their presence in a wide geographical area, they are always a challenging species to spot.
Two key sites that offer improved chances of a sighting include Sibbald Creek Trail, Alberta, and Hecla-Grindstone Provincial Park in Manitoba.
Boreal Owl adult (left) and juvenile
Boreal owls are able to breed as yearlings, and breed annually, as long as there is sufficient prey available locally. The average lifespan of the species in the wild is around 7 to 8 years, with the oldest known banded individual identified as 11 years of age.
Life expectancy in captivity is longer, with a boreal owl at Finland’s Ranua Wildlife Park known to have reached 15 years.
Martens and pine squirrels are known to prey on eggs from boreal owls’ nests, while larger owls and raptors have been observed to take both young birds and adults. Common avian predators include Ural, tawny, and great horned owls, northern goshawks, and Cooper’s hawks.
In the United States, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits boreal owls from being killed, injured, taken into captivity without a license, or traded for sale. Similar legislation in Canada, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, offers the same level of protection to boreal owls there.
Boreal owls are not considered to be globally threatened and the IUCN has classified them as a species of least concern.
Boreal Owl perched on a branch with its wings spread
Boreal owls are cavity nesters and seek out suitable hollows excavated by woodpeckers in mature or old-growth forests. Natural cavities in dead or dying trees are also used, and if available, boreal owls will readily nest in manmade nest boxes.
Pairs form early in the spring, after a courtship ritual in which males show prospective mates between one and five potential cavities. Once the female has chosen her preferred nest site, laying commences, with April and May as the peak months for eggs to be laid. Only female boreal owls incubate the eggs, which hatch after between 26 and 32 days.
Boreal owls lay between 3 and 7 glossy white eggs, with no external patterns or markings. Eggs measure 33 mm × 26 mm (1.3 in × 1 in).
Boreal owls are monogamous during the breeding season. Pairs remain together while raising their young but do not mate for life, although occasionally a pair will reunite and breed together again the following year.
Boreal Owlet perching in nest cavity
Known to be particularly territorial in defense of a feeding area as well as nest sites, boreal owls use aggressive vocalizations to drive intruders off their patch, including a harsh ‘zjuck’ call when threats are detected.
Boreal owls are a particularly secretive and nomadic species and do not tolerate the company of other birds, preferring instead to roost and forage alone.
Boreal owls are nocturnal, hunting at night and roosting during the day. Concealed roosting spots are chosen near to tree trunks, covered by dense foliage.
Boreal Owl resting next to a tree trunk during the day
A nonmigratory species, boreal owls are resident in their home territories all year round although in winter poor availability of prey may trigger irruptions further afield.
Boreal owls breed in Alaska and in the extreme north of Minnesota, as well as likely being present in the deep forested landscapes of Michigan, Maine and Wisconsin. Irruptions periodically occur further south across the eastern US.
Boreal Owl perching in the trees during the night
The scientific name for the boreal owl, Aegolius funereus, gives a hint to the symbolism of this species - and it isn’t a particularly positive meaning. Aegolius means ‘bird of ill omen’ in Greek and funereus is Latin for ‘bearing ill’, linking the species with foreboding and bad news on the horizon.
If you live within the breeding range of boreal owls and have some tall trees on your land, it may be worth putting up a purpose-built owl nesting box. Leave trees to grow, without pruning the foliage, so that maximum shade and shelter and perching spots are available.
20cm to 23cm
55cm to 62cm
93g to 215g
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
Great Horned Owl
An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Great Gray Owl
Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.
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