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.
Despite resembling hawks in many aspects, northern hawk owls have features that definitely mark them out as members of the owl family.
Their piercing yellow eyes and dark-bordered gray facial discs are unmistakable ‘owls’, and their dotted brown and white head pattern is similar to that of a boreal owl.
The underparts of a northern hawk owl are barred with narrow dark brown and white, and the tail is long, banded with dark brown and off-white. The wings and back are dark brown, heavily patterned with white spotting. The head is rather flat, with white eyebrows separated by a finely speckled brown forehead. The bill is hooked and yellow, and the feet are feathered with black talons.
Females and males share the same plumage coloring and markings, although it is relatively easy to identify the sexes in a pair: females are noticeably larger than males.
Juvenile northern hawk owls are similar in appearance to adults but with grayish-brown upperparts and less distinctive white markings on their back and wings.
Northern Hawk Owl perched on a snow-covered branch
Northern Hawk Owl in-flight hunting for prey
Early in the breeding season, the advertising call of males is heard, with a rolling ‘tu-wita-wit, tiwita-tu-wita, wita’ whistle. At night, a series of rapid whistles may be heard. Screeching ‘kee-kee-kee’ calls are used as contact between pairs and may be heard in flight and around the nest site when the male is bringing food to his mate.
Away from nest sites, northern hawk owls are usually silent.
Northern Hawk Owl standing on a branch calling to its mate
In summer, the diet of northern hawk owls typically consists of small mammals, particularly voles, squirrels, rats, mice, lemmings, and weasels.
Larger prey, including grouse, ptarmigans, and snowshoe hares are hunted in winter. Smaller birds, including robins, jays, starlings, and finches are also represented in their diet.
Males bring prey to females at a nearby perch, which she then tears into smaller pieces and feeds to her young. Prey, including voles, mice, and shrews, may be cached while feeding nestlings to ensure there is a ready supply of food at hand.
Northern Hawk Owl in-flight with caught prey in its talons
Semi-dense boreal forests and tundra landscapes to the treeline offer ideal year-round habitats for northern hawk owls. Both coniferous and mixed woodlands are used, particularly those with birch and pine.
Perches for hunting and open meadows for catching prey are both important. Burned forest environments are also popular, with deadwood snags and an increased number of abandoned woodpecker cavities presenting useful nesting possibilities.
Northern hawk owls have a vast geographical distribution range, covering around 36 million sq km, in North America, Europe, and Asia. The species is widely distributed across the whole of southern and central Canada from east to west, and into much of Alaska.
The range does spread into border regions of the United States, and further south, particularly in winter months, where they are rarely spotted as far south as Nebraska, northern Ohio, and West Virginia.
In Europe, their range extends from northern Scandinavia eastwards into northern Russia and northern Siberia, and to the south, the species is present in central Russia, northern Mongolia, and northern Manchuria.
Of the species’ worldwide population, up to around 130,000 northern hawk owls live in North America, with a further 20,800 to 94,200 mature individuals in Europe. Russia, Norway, and Sweden have the highest populations outside of North America.
The global population of northern hawk owls is estimated by Partners in Flight at around 250,000, so across their wide geographical range, they are relatively uncommon and rarely spotted, due to their preference for dense boreal forests.
Northern Hawk Owl landing on the branch of a bare tree
Sightings of northern hawk owls in the US are rarer than to the north of the Canadian border and are never guaranteed, depending largely on the availability of prey. Unpredictable eruptions to the south of their northern range may occur in years with a low abundance of prey.
Alaska is the only state where breeding is well established, with sightings regularly reported in Denali National Park.
Northern hawk owls are present in Canada from British Columbia in the west to Labrador in the east. Forests in the Canadian Rockies and the Coast Mountains are likely places for sightings, including Jasper National Park and Banff National Park in Alberta.
Northern Hawk Owl preening itself in woodland habitat
Northern hawk owls are estimated to have an average lifespan of around 10 years, with older individuals recorded to have lived significantly longer, including one identified through banding records that reached 16.2 years.
First-time breeding is thought to occur at 1 year old. However, when prey is scarce, many individuals do not attempt breeding or nests fail.
Nest cavities of northern hawk owls are a target for small mammals, including martens, fishers, and weasels. Owls and raptors are among the main prey of northern hawk owls, particularly northern goshawks and great horned owls, which commonly attack while the smaller owls are sleeping overnight.
Canada’s Migratory Birds Convention Act and the United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act offer northern hawk owls protection against being killed, injured, captured, or traded without a special permit or license. Their young, eggs, nest sites, and feathers are also protected.
Although some moderate declines have been noted in parts of their range, northern hawk owls’ populations are generally considered secure and stable and they are considered a species of least concern. Logging reduces the availability of the perches needed for hunting, although their preferred habitat of Canadian taiga forests is not under significant threat.
Northern Hawk Owl during the winter perched on a tree trunk
Northern hawk owls mostly nest in cavities, both naturally formed hollows and crevices in trees and chambers that have been excavated and since vacated by woodpeckers.
In parts of northern Europe, nest boxes are readily used, and occasionally pairs will reuse a large stick nest in the upper forks of tall trees or clifftop sites. No additional nesting material is brought to the nest and no lining is added.
Egg-laying has been recorded in North America from as early as late March until the end of June. April and May are the peak months, and one single brood is raised in a season. In years with poor availability of prey, breeding may be skipped entirely.
Incubation, by the female alone, begins when the first egg is laid and lasts for between 25 and 30 days.
Northern hawk owls’ eggs are white and slightly rounded, measuring on average 32 mm by 40 mm (1.2 in by 1.6 in). A typical clutch contains between 3 and 13 eggs, with higher numbers laid in years with abundant prey.
Pair bonds between northern hawk owls form in the early spring, from February onwards, and they are monogamous for the length of the breeding season. Once their young have fledged and gained independence, usually by September to October, the pair bond dissolves, and males have been observed to aggressively drive their former mates from their territories.
Little information is available on whether former mates ever reunite and breed together again the following year.
Northern Hawk Owl looking out of the nest hole
Young Northern Hawk Owl looking in natural habitat
Northern hawk owls are a highly aggressive species and have been known to inflict nasty injuries on the scalps of humans who approach their nest sites. Mammals and other birds will also be attacked, with a very vocal alarm call, particularly around the nest.
Both males and females will enter into vicious confrontation if they sense their nest, young or mate is under threat.
Unlike many owls, the northern hawk owl frequently hunts during the day as well as during the night, and hours of darkness are mostly spent resting or asleep. When resting, roosting spots are found on perches near the tops of trees, and close to the trunk. Cavities are not used for roosting.
Northern Hawk Owl perched in tree top acting defensively
Northern hawk owls are generally not a migratory species, although some movement may occur sporadically, particularly in years when prey is in short supply on their breeding grounds as winter approaches. Short-term irruptions may be observed in areas further south with more abundant prey, but individuals return to their regular breeding grounds after a brief absence.
Alaska has an established population of breeding northern hawk owls, and the species is also present in limited numbers all year round in border regions in the eastern and northern US, including northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and northern Michigan.
Northern Hawk Owl in-flight
The northern hawk owl has a similar shape, flight style, and behavior to a hawk, but is classified as a member of the owl family, and has a number of typical ‘owl-like’ traits and physical characteristics. In Ontario, northern hawk owls are classed as falconry birds and licenced owners may use them in hunting.
Regular breeding occurs across much of Alaska, as well as in the northernmost extremes of the eastern and central US, including Washington, Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
They are occasionally spotted in winter in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and as far south as West Virginia and Nebraska, events which are greeted with much excitement in these states’ local birding communities.
Hawk owls are chiefly diurnal, actively hunting during daylight hours and sleeping overnight.
36cm to 44.7cm
74cm to 81cm
300g to 340g
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.
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.
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.
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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