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.
47cm to 48cm
500g to 700g
Spotted owls are medium-sized owls with heavily spotted plumage. They are mottled dark and light brown all over and heavily marked with irregular white spots on the head and breast. The tail is barred with light brown and white.
Spotted owls have rounded heads, without ear tufts, and their facial patterning is a distinctive series of light and dark brown concentric circles around each eye. Their eyes are dark brown, and their bill is yellow.
Subspecies found to the north are darker brown than those in southern regions, which are a much lighter shade.
Males and females are similar in appearance and coloring, although females are usually visibly larger.
Juvenile spotted owls retain some down after fledging and have a ‘fluffy’ appearance with light and dark brown barring and some speckled markings on the breast.
Spotted Owl watching from a tree
Spotted owls are medium-sized owls, falling between the larger barred owl and the smaller barn owl in size. As with most owls, female spotted owls are slightly larger and heavier than males.
Altogether spotted owls have a repertoire of 13 different songs and calls, although not all of them are regularly heard.
The most commonly heard call of a spotted owl is a series of four barks. The contact call heard mainly from nesting females, is a hollow two-note whistle that sounds like ‘cooo-weep’.
Dense forests are typical foraging spots for spotted owls, with small mammals, particularly rodents, detected by sound as well as sight. Flying squirrels and dusky-footed woodrats feature heavily in the diets of all subspecies. Rabbits, bats, voles, and moles are also eaten.
Prey is spotted from perches, and spotted owls swoop silently in pursuit, grabbing with their sharp talons and snapping the animal’s neck with their powerful bills.
Male spotted owls feed the females while they are nesting and then brooding, and deliver food to the nest so the initial diet of juveniles is largely dictated by what’s available locally. Mice and voles are then torn into scraps by the female and fed directly to the chicks.
Natural habitats preferred by spotted owls include old-growth forests and thickly wooded canyons. Areas of cleared forest are usually avoided, although they may venture into redwood forests that were logged in the past and where standing trees have been left to decay.
Coniferous forest is the most popular choice, although at lower altitudes deciduous woodlands, with oaks and other hardwoods may also be used.
Three subspecies of spotted owl exist, distributed across southwest Canada, the western and south-central US, and northern Mexico.
The northern spotted owl is resident from a small region of southwest British Columbia, and southwards through coastal regions of Washington, Oregon, and northern California.
A second subspecies, the California spotted owl, is found at scattered locations across the state, with isolated populations in the south and a more continuous presence further north.
To the east and south, the Mexican spotted owl has a patchy distribution across Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, and parts of northwest Texas. Further south into Mexico, they have a more solid distribution through the Sierra Madre Occidental and Oriental ranges.
All populations of spotted owls have witnessed declines since the 1960s, with only one individual bird thought to remain in the wild in Canada. Apart from this one individual, the species is only found in the wild in the United States and Mexico, where declines have also been noted.
Spotted owls are increasingly rare, and there are serious concerns about the long-term survival of the species due to continuing declines in population.
Habitat loss is a major factor, with logging activities having a negative impact on available nesting sites, and the spread of the larger barred owls into the western United States, which has increased competition for prey and nest cavities.
The most recent estimate, from 2004, placed the population of spotted owls at 15,000 individuals, but numbers are believed to have declined even further since then.
A rarely spotted nocturnal resident in forests across the western and southern US, sightings of spotted owls are highly prized and never guaranteed. Some sites where successful observations have been made include Gila National Forest and Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico and Coconino National Forest in Arizona.
The only Canadian region that has native spotted owls is the southwestern corner of British Columbia, and by 2023, only one individual was reported to be resident in the wild, so sightings are only very seldomly reported.
Spotted Owl perching on a branch in natural habitat
Spotted owls can breed from one year of age, although many pairs do not breed every year. On average, spotted owls are relatively long-lived, with a life expectancy of between 10 and 15 years.
Individuals recovered from banding programs have been observed to have reached 16 to 17 years, while spotted owls in captivity are known to live for more than 25 years.
Canada’s Migratory Birds Convention Act and the United States’ Migratory Bird Treaty Act offer protection to spotted owls against being killed, injured, captured, or traded for sale. Their nest sites, eggs, and young are also included for safeguarding.
Conservation plans are in place to attempt to boost the populations and restrict logging activities, and in California, laws exist to protect spotted owls and their roosting sites on federal forest lands.
Spotted owls are currently rated as a near-threatened species globally, due to serious concerns over the decline in numbers, caused by extensive logging of mature forests in the Pacific Northwest.
In Canada, they are designated as an endangered species, while in the US and Mexico, the different subspecies are classified as threatened.
Spotted owls have an adaptable approach to nesting and will reuse any appropriate nests in their territory that meet their needs. These include platform nests in trees, made of sticks and originally built by crows or hawks, as well as natural cavities in decaying wood in tree trunks or abandoned woodpecker chambers. Cavity nests are generally unlined, although a few feathers may be used to form a light lining.
Nest sites are commonly chosen in Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and redwood trees, and are usually at a height of 6 m to 24 m (20 to 80 ft) above ground. Nests are regularly reused in multiple breeding seasons.
Spotted owl pairs begin associating more closely early in the spring, roosting together ahead of the breeding season and calling to each other at dawn and dusk from mid-February onwards. The peak egg-laying months are March and April, with incubation (be the female alone) lasting for 28 to 32 days.
Eggs laid by spotted owls are white to light gray in color, and measure 4.8 cm to 5.5 cm (1.9 in to 2.2 in) by 4.1 cm to 4.7 cm (1.6 in to 1.9 in). A typical clutch consists of between one and four eggs.
Spotted owls form long-term monogamous pairs, but when one mate dies, a replacement will usually be found.
Spotted Owl resting in a tree
Spotted owls defend their nests both physically and vocally, using agitated shrieks to drive away any intruders. Chasing away potential predators and striking out with talons and wings are both observed when spotted owls are threatened.
Spotted owls are a strictly nocturnal species, hunting at night and roosting in sheltered, shady spots close to tree trunks during the day. They are most active following sunset and before sunrise.
Spotted owls are a non-migratory species, remaining in their resident territories all year round. In the south, occasional short-distance dispersal occurs in winter, with movement to lower altitudes from spotted owls that normally live on slopes and higher ground.
Spotted owls are native to the US and are found in western and certain southern states all year round. They are not present in the eastern US, due to competition for nest sites and hunting grounds from the larger barred owl.
Spotted Owl perching in a tree
The Spotted Owl Controversy refers to a long-running political and environmental dispute in the Pacific Northwest, which emerged in the 1980s.
Extensive logging and timber harvesting of old-growth forests in this region were noticeably negatively impacting the population of spotted owls, and increased protection laws were introduced to protect the species, including a ‘Threatened Species’ designation under the Endangered Species Act.
Disputes arose between the logging industry workers and conservationists after restrictions on timber harvests were introduced in the region in line with the conservation laws, leading to job losses and financial hardship for some local workers and businesses. Tensions rose and it continues to be a challenge to find a balance between conservation and economic activity in the area.
Northern spotted owls are a designated endangered species in Canada and a threatened species in the US. California spotted owls are listed at a state level as a species of conservation concern.
Further south, Mexican spotted owls are recognized as a threatened species in both the US and Mexico. Overall, spotted owls are classified as a Near Threatened species by the IUCN.
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.
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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