A Reference for North and Central American Owls
Owls, as a group of birds, are less well known to the birding community than other bird groups because they are mainly nocturnal and often found in remote areas. In North and Central America they vary in size from the Elf Owl, which is slightly larger than a Yellow-rumped Warbler, to the Great Gray Owl, which is slightly smaller than a Golden Eagle.
Owling.com is a look at the North and Central American Owls with an emphasis on determining their identity through multimedia (photos, sounds and text). In North America, every accepted owl can be found from Texas to the West Coast and some are only found in the western U.S.. More than half of the species of North American Owls have ranges that extend from coast to coast. Mexico is missing only five of the northern species of North American Owls but has an additional fifteen not found in North America.
Most all of the owl species also have more than one accepted race in North and Central America. These races can significantly vary in their appearance (ex. red and gray phase birds) although owls, more so than most birds, are reasonably consistent with their calls. Different races have only slight variations in their calls.
The challenge and art of “Owling ” first requires knowing their sounds and then being able to locate the source. This is complicated by the fact that the calls are often soft, the sounds are difficult to locate, it is often dark, and the birds are usually well camouflaged! Many birders “cup their hands behind their ears” to help locate the sound or hold a small flashlight next to their head, at eye level, and pointed the direction they are looking to best show “eye shine”.
It is also often a wise choice to move around to “triangulate” where a sound is coming from (the owls will do this to find you!). Many of the owls can locate small animals and rodents by sound alone so being quiet is very important. The owls have much better night vision than you do also. When looking for them at night, stay in the shadows, under the trees, and out of plain view. Ideally, you want to see them before they see you.
Most owls at least respond to recorded or imitated calls, “telling you where they are” and often “fly in to see who you are”. For these reasons recorded or imitated owl calls are commonly used to locate owls. Several other recorded or imitated sounds are also used such as hurt rabbit and squeaking (mouse) sounds. The use of recorded calls is a very controversial topic with very strong arguments for and against. This topic is left to the discretion of each individual birder. Owls can be quite territorial and may attack an intruder in their territory. Birders have been attacked while playing or imitating their calls. Certainly, caution is also a key word.
Since the owls are often nocturnal birds, they are less frequently seen by people than the diurnal (daytime) birds. Many good birders have not seen the owls that are right in their own front yard at night. They are all very beautiful birds and some are quite bold. Like any other group of birds, the only way to learn how to find them is to go out to look and listen! There often seems to be a cloak of secrecy, even amongst birders, about the owls. We certainly won’t protect these wonderful birds by keeping them a secret.
These pages have been set up as an additional reference to help with identifying the North and Central American owls by call and/or sight. Sounds, videos and photos will be added and improved regularly to fill in the gaps. Most of the owls have multiple vocalizations and many of the sound files, on the site, have vocalizations not readily found on commercially available media. The sound files have been edited to remove background sounds (crickets, wind…) so only the owl is apparent. The site is not intended to replace any commercial sound recordings or published materials on the subject.
Each North American owl’s multimedia page has multiple photos, recordings, some have streaming video, and all have a brief field notes write up that will help with their identification in the field. These pages may also contain a link to a separate species account and range map. The multimedia pages with owls that are not found in North America have a more extensive field notes write-up and Central American range map but lack a link to a complete species account.