Close up of a great horned owl in a tree

Frequently Asked Questions about Owls in Florida

This blog post is a collection of questions that Lara Milligan and myself (Shannon Carnevale) have received about owls common to Florida. These answers may be updated over time, but will be linked to more information where relevant.

Q.1. We have a family of screech owls living in our backyard now (mom, dad, and 3 owlets). Is there a way to attract them via a nesting box, and when should a nesting box be put up to be most effective?
young Eastern Screen Owl in a palm tree

Eastern screech owl owlet. Photo by Laurie Reed, used with permission.

A.1. Nesting boxes are a great way to attract a family of eastern screech owls (ESO); however, it is unlikely you will be able to attract a second family to your yard unless it is a large property. Male screech owls are territorial and will defend their small territories from other male ESOs. If you already have a family of ESO, you could put up a nest box to see if you could tempt the family to move into it next breeding season or as backup nesting site, but if they’re are successfully raising young, they must have found suitable natural habitat in your yard! Congratulations on your wildlife friendly yard!

For information on building a screech owl house, click here. For information on helping cavity nesters in Florida, click here.

Q. 2. Do great horned owls hunt barred owls?

A. 2. Yes! From a predator standpoint, the great horned owl is a significant threat to barred owls. As you may remember from our webinar, barred owls are territorial. When a great horned owl enters their territory to hunt, the barred owl will move to another area of their territory to avoid becoming a prey item.

Q.3 It was interesting seeing that video of burrowing owls active during the day. What time would I most likely hear hooting or calling for all five of the species we learned about today?

A. 3. Great question! For all the species we covered during our Wildlife Webinar, except the burrowing owl, you’re most likely to hear them after dark. This includes the great horned owl, the barn owl, the barred owl, and the eastern screech owl. The burrowing owl is active during the day and night, and so you might hear them calling at any hour. Local populations may be more active during specific time frames due to weather – so you may want to ask a local owl enthusiast what their experiences have been.

Map of burrowing owl populations

Estimated Range of Florida Burrowing Owl. Map Courtesy of FWC

Q.4 Does North East Florida, Jax Beach area, have burrowing owls?

A. 4. According the the range map prepared by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), I would not expect to see burrowing owls in the Jacksonville area. Please see the map, to the left. If you click the map, you’ll be taken to FWC’s species profile of burrowing owls.

Q. 5. Do any of the species [in Florida] consume carrion?

A. 5. Yes! The great horned owl and the barred owl are known to eat carrion (or in other words, prey that is already dead), occasionally. That said, I would not be surprised to learn that all owl species in Florida eat carrion occasionally. Both the great horned owl and the barred owl are predominately hunters but, like most wildlife, they may eat a “free meal” when they come across one.

Q. 6. Does the presence of cattle have the potential to destroy the burrows for the burrowing owl?

A. 6. Unfortunately, yes, trampling of burrows can occur. However, the act of keeping cattle in an area will aid the burrowing owl too.

Due to their preferred habitat of open grasslands, burrowing owls are threatened by sprawling development and loss of habitat. Cattle grazing, as an agricultural operation, maintains the preferred habitat type for burrowing owls and for many other species who require open grasslands. For more information on this, see this 2008 report from the U.S.D.A. Environmental Impact Study of Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.

Q. 7. We have a wood duck box on a pole at the water’s edge in North Florida. Owls have ignored it. Would owls use it?

A. 7.  Interesting question. There are many species of birds who use similarly sized cavities as other species; however, a wood duck nestbox isn’t extremely similar to any of the nestboxes that Florida owls prefer for two main reasons. Before I begin, the recommended nestbox most similar to that of a wood duck is the nestbox for barred owls.

Two barred owls sitting on a branch

Barred Owls. Photo by FWC

The first issue with a wood duck nestbox is the height at which it is mounted. Wood duck boxes are usually mounted 6-30 feet in the air but barred owls prefer their nestboxes between 12-15 feet above the ground. The good news is, you can accommodate that by simply moving the box. The second issue is not as easily remedied. The width of the recommended wood duck box is not large enough for the barred owl. Wood duck recommendations are for a box approximately 8 inches x 9 1/4 inches and for the barred owl, it is 13 inches x 13 inches. Additionally, the opening is too small on the wood duck box. For a barred owl to use it, the hole would need to be expanded to 7 inches in diameter.

You might be thinking, why didn’t she just say “no”? The answer is, wildlife aren’t always predictable and natural cavities aren’t perfectly sized. If you have a wood duck box and would like to try and attract barred owls, go for it! It might work. I recommend:

 

Q. 8. Are the five common species of owls in Florida monogamous?

A. 8. The answer is mostly yes! Barred owls are thought to mate for life and great horned owls are thought to be monogamous. Barn owls usually mate for life and are monogamous, but there are some reports of multiple mates. Our other common species, the burrowing owl and the eastern screech owl are thought to be monogamous most of the time. Male eastern screech owls and burrowing owls may occasionally breed with a second female.

Q. 9. Is there a certain height that is best for nestboxes to be placed? Where can I get plans for nestboxes?
A barn owl  flying out of it's nest box as a researcher, below, looks on.

Dr. Richard Raid and a barn owl in Belle Glade. UF/IFAS Photo by Eric Zamora

A. 9. Each species we discussed in our webinar has its own preferences when it comes to housing. Please see my list below for the recommended height to mount a nestbox and a link to some nestbox plans.

 

 

 

Sources:

22 Comments on “Frequently Asked Questions about Owls in Florida

  1. I just moved to gulf breeze Florida from Phoenix Arizona. I have never seen 2 owls together until me and my brother were in the back yard and we seen 2huge owls. We we’re wandering are they mating .

    • Hi Brandon!
      Seeing owls together is always exciting. Depending on the time of year, you could have seen an “almost adult” fledgling learning to hunt from a parent. Or, if closer to the Fall and Winter, you might have seen two mating adults. Depending on the species, this courtship behavior takes place at different times of the year. Some species mate for life, others just for the season. Since you say they were huge, they could have been Great Horned Owls! You can learn more about them here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/id

      Thanks for your comment and your interest in owls, I hope you have a great day!

  2. I captured a photo of two great horned owls in a nest on pine tree on shore line next to my dock. They did not stay in the nest for a long time. They are sleeping on my other pine tree in my yard every night. Is the nesting season over? I am very excited to spot them every day.

    • Good morning, Ayako,
      My educated guess is that the monogamous pair have chosen the nest you saw them in but either “lost” their eggs due to weather or predator, or have not yet laid them. Great horned owls are very territorial during nesting season, so it makes sense that they would stay nearby if they were going to nest soon. Great horned owls typically lay their eggs from December through March, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission but, wildlife don’t always pay attention to our estimates of their behavior. 🙂 After laying their eggs, great horned owls will incubate them for 4-5 weeks. Keep an eye on the pair and be careful not to disturb them with light or noise, it could cause them to avoid nesting in your area. Best wishes for your owl viewing, hopefully you’ll see a large fuzzy chick or two very soon!
      You can learn more about great horned owls here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl

  3. What kind of owl do you think it would be possible to attract in urban Orlando? And if there are multiples possible, are there owls that are better at hunting rats/mice?

  4. My son’s family just bought a house that has several owls in the trees. I’d like to get them an owl box for Christmas but I don’t know exactly what kind of owls they are. Is there a standard type of owl box or do I need to find out more specifically? There are several large trees in their front yard. Thanks!

    • Hi Christine,
      Great question. Like most birds, owls have specific housing requests that will make an “owl box” more successful at attracting them. There are some generalizations you can make between species, but it’s better to try and identify the species of owl before looking at nestboxes to purchase. You can learn more about the common owl species in Florida by watching our “WHOOO is making that sound?” webinar about owls in Florida: https://youtu.be/XhTFTNucDcw you can speed it up if 35 minutes is too long. 🙂
      The owls in Florida are fairly easy to identify as there are only 5 common species and they are rather different looking. If you have any follow-up questions, please feel free to contact me. My information can be found here: http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/

  5. What kind of owls are in Vero Beach, Florida ? What kind of owl boxes would I need to put up in my trees ?

  6. Hi Shannon. We have a screech owl house in a bald cypress in our yard. I often see the owl leaving at dusk; however, the last two weeks the owl sleeps in the entrance must of the day. When we walk by he/she watches us then appears to go back to sleep. Does this indicate there are chicks in the nest. It is may 1 in stuart florida, seems like the right time if year

    • Hi John,
      It sounds like you may have a nesting mama screechie! How exciting. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “When nesting, the female stays in the nest hole except for brief dawn and dusk excursions. She and the nestlings are fed by her mate, though it is the female who tears the prey into small bits for the babies.” You can read more, here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Screech-Owl/lifehistory#
      While species behavior can be locally different over a species’ range, this description aligns with what I’ve observed in Florida so far. We had a screech owl family in our yard every year when I was growing up. Shortly after this behavior ended, we would start to see the owlets fledging in the yard. The incubation period is 27-34 days for Eastern Screech owls, so enjoy her presence while she’s there. 🙂
      Best wishes to your little owl family, I hope they have a successful brood!

  7. I live in hialeah florida and want to attract owls to my yard. What is the most likley to be found in the area so that i can put up a nesting box most likely to attract them?
    Thanks

    • Good morning Alonso,
      I typically recommend screech owl nest boxes for residential areas. Eastern screech owls are cute neighbors, don’t tend to have messy or stinky nests, and are generally easy to attract to a nest box. If you live in a more agricultural, you might have success with a barn owl box. These owls can be smelly neighbors due to their nesting habits (not always!), but they are great rodent hunters and therefore, are great neighbors.
      If you frequently hear the call, “who cooks, who cooks for you” (listen here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/sounds) then you might want to try a barred owl nest box.
      Best of luck and thank you for your interest in Florida Owls and providing habitat.

  8. I have a question about how screech owls fledge. Four days ago we have one fledgling, the next day we had three, then two yesterday, and one today. The male has lived in this Eureka Palm cluster for many months and was joined by mama and fledglings this week. Is it possible that the babies are back in the nesting place or has nature taken it’s course, not in a good way. Also, the City came to cut down their nesting tree (old Laurel Oak) three days ago and I talked them out of it for the moment. I told them I’d be okay with watching it die over time but they are worried about liability.

    • Hi Denny,
      It does sound like mother nature is teaching these parents a cruel lesson about protecting their young, but if they are new to fledging, it is still possible that they have climbed back to their nest. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,

      “At fledging, the young first hop to the ground or nearby branches, using feet and fluttering wings to climb laboriously back to safety. Young gain flight and hunting skills slowly; they depend on their parents for food for 8–10 weeks after fledging. Both parents feed the youngsters at this stage, and adults, especially the females, shelter together with the young in communal tree roosts. Gradually, as the young gain skill, they begin to roost and hunt apart from their parents and siblings.” – https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Screech-Owl/lifehistory

      Generally speaking, Eastern Screech Owls have several roosts in an area that they can use and the loss of one should not doom them, unless the young are still too young to leave the nest. Additionally, they take well to artificial nesting options like nest boxes, if you would like to provide one. You can find plans for a screech owl box, here: https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/birds/eastern-screech-owl/
      As for the tree itself, unfortunately laurel oaks are susceptible to rot and generally have a short lifespan when compared to other species of oak.
      If the tree is in an area where it wouldn’t cause damage if it fell, you might consider asking the city if they can consider removing some heavy limbs for safety (when the time comes) but allowing some of the tree to stand as a snag for wildlife. They could put a sign up educating the public about the wildlife value of old standing trees and warn residents not to tie hammocks to the tree or picnic around its base. I’m not a lawyer, so I’m sure there would be other considerations that city would need to take into account. It may not be possible to do such a thing, depending on the location of this particular tree.
      Generally, people don’t like the look of dead trees but many like wildlife and may tolerate the snag for its valuable wildlife habitat. You can read more about snags here: http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/design/gardening-with-wildlife/creating-wildlife-habitats-with-dead-wood.html
      Best wishes for the little owlets! Please, let me know what happens to the tree. 🙂

  9. Hi Shannon,
    We definitely had a pair of owl chicks. I saw two with one of them being much bigger and stronger than the other. Also saw dad fly in with food. I was going to send you a picture but don’t see how on the blog.

    • That is so exciting! Congratulations on having such wildlife-friendly neighborhood habitat.
      I am always looking for good, clear photos of our native wildlife to use in presentations and publications (educational, non-commercial). If you ever have photos to share that you’d be willing to give permission for use for, you can always email me. My contact information is listed here: https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/
      In case you’re interested in watching a past webinar we offered on owls, you can view that here: https://youtu.be/XhTFTNucDcw And our current webinar season is about to get started and our first webinar is about common birds of prey:
      Thank you for writing back and I hope you have a great day!

  10. So today my mom found a living owl just in moving yet alive on the ground. We have two large dogs, who have a history of chasing birds, but didn’t chafe it, but the male peed on the owl. My question is why would an owl be so unmoving?

    • If the owl was alive and not moving … I would assume it was scared of your dogs and hoped that by staying still it would avoid appearing as prey, to them. This is a fairly common response to avoid attack by a predator, real or perceived.
      If anything like this happens again, I would simply recommend moving your pets indoors for a few hours to allow the wildlife a chance to recover itself and escape calmly.
      To be extra cautious in future, take a quick look in the yard for wildlife before letting your dogs out. If there is wildlife out there, especially young wildlife or prey species, consider making some noise to scare them away prior to releasing your dogs into the yard to play. This gives the wildlife a chance to escape before your dogs enter the space.

  11. I have a family of Barred owls in my yard. 2 Baby barred owls with the parents tending to them. Are they protected in my area? How far will the babies have to go to claim their own territory? I live just outside Gainesville Florida city limits by approx.1 1/2 miles. Does UFL do studies in my area or band them? My zip code is 32618 enjoyed your information & am happy for any information.

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