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Commonly Confused Owls in Florida

Florida is home to five resident owl species (resident = species here year-round) which are fairly easy to identify, and one migratory species (short-eared owl, not discussed here).

If they are easy to identify … why the Commonly Confused moniker? Most people will need to identify owls by sound, not by image or in-person sightings, which makes owl identification tricky! When considering owls calls, they can be easily identified with a bit of practice. Keep in mind that every species produces a wide range of calls and sounds; included here are their most common calls.

This blog post is a supplement to the Wildlife Wednesday Webinar we did in 2017, titled: “Florida’s Owls – Whoo Is Making That Sound?” If you would like to learn more about the owls in Florida, consider watching the webinar on youtube (35 minutes), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhTFTNucDcw .

Read below to learn how to identify the five resident species of owls in Florida.

Large Owl Species: Barred, Barn, and Great Horned

There are three species of “large” owls in Florida. If you get a chance to see them, you’ll notice they are all about the size of a football, or larger.

Great Horned Owl

Great horned owl perched in a pine tree.

Great horned owl in Venice, Florida. Photo By: Andy Morffew from Itchen Abbas, Hampshire, UK [CC BY 2.0]

When you read a storybook about owls, chances are the illustrated owl is a great horned owl. They prefer wooded areas but live in many habitats across Florida. They are comfortable in park settings and rural areas. Great horned owls have the most diverse diet of any North American raptor, eating things like rodents, insects, and other birds. 

Great horned owls are usually 18 – 25 inches tall, have tall ear tufts, and large yellow eyes. Their size, ear tufts, and eyes make them easily recognizable when seen during daylight hours.

They are found throughout Florida and roost in large, messy nests, in tall trees. The female is larger than the male, but the male has a larger and deeper voice box.

Listen to one of their most common calls, here:

This call is a recording by: Patrick Blake, XC339742. (Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/339742)

Barred Owl

The barred owl is another very common species in Florida. Barred owls do not migrate in or to Florida. They are territorial year-round, more aggressively so during nesting season. They are currently thought to mate for life and usually raise one brood of up to five young per year.

A barred owl, being held by a wildlife biologist. FWC Photo.

A wildlife biologist holding a barred owl. FWC Photo.

They prefer areas with large trees, usually near water. Barred owls will use trees with existing nesting cavities, but also take well to nest boxes. They prefer cavities 20-40 feet high, in large trees. They have been known to takeover platform nests built by hawks as well.

Barred owls, at maturity, are 16-24 inches in height. They have a mottled brown and white pattern to their feathers with brown “bars” across their chest. They do not have ear tufts, as the Great Horned owls do, and they have yellow beaks. From a distance, observers will notice the large size of the barred owl, the brownish coloration, and the absence of ear tufts which makes them fairly easy to identify compared to a great horned owl. Additionally, barred owls have large dark eyes.

Their most frequently heard call is often described as sounding like, ” who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.” Take a listen, below.

This call is a recording by: Patrick Blake, XC339742. (Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/172893)

Barn Owl

Barn Owls live in open habitats across most of the lower 48 United States but is the least common species in Florida. These include grasslands, deserts, marshes, agricultural fields, strips of forest, woodlots, ranchlands, brushy fields, suburbs, and cities.

A barn owl in the Everglades Agricultural Area of South Florida. UF/IFAS Photo.

A barn owl in the Everglades Agricultural Area of South Florida. UF/IFAS Photo.

They nest in tree cavities, caves, and in buildings (often barns). The female makes a simple nest of her own regurgitated pellets, shredded with her feet, and arranged into a cup to hold the eggs. Unlike most birds, barn owls are thought to use their nesting cavity for roosting year-round.

They usually stand 12-16 inches tall with a largely white, rounded heart or satellite dish-shaped face. They have mottled tan and grey feathers on their back and wings with mostly white feathers across their chest and legs.

The call is an eerie shriek, which may have led to many of the folk tales, susperstitions, and urban legends which focus on this species. Hear it here:

This call is a recording by: Paul Marvin, XC356413. (Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/356413)

Small Owls: Screech Owl and Burrowing Owl

In addition to the three large species, there are two “small” species of owls in Florida. The Eastern Screech Owl and Burrowing Owl more than makeup for their small stature with personality.

Eastern Screech Owl

The eastern screech owl is Florida’s smallest owl. Standing only 6-9 inches tall at maturity, these little owls are commonly seen in Florida’s residential areas. They are usually brown or reddish-brown in color, have bright yellow eyes, and ear tufts. For their size, they have a large head compared to their body. They have excellent camouflage against Florida’s native tree species.

Adult screech owl being held by a wildlife biologist. FWC photo.

Adult screech owl being held by a wildlife biologist. FWC photo.

Screech owls, or “Screechies”, as some Floridians call them, readily adopt nest boxes but naturally look for small tree cavities for their roosting cavities. Male screech owls are very territorial and may maintain several cavity roosts within their small territory. 

Within their cavity roosts, females do not build a nest. They use some wood chips or debris left from a previous nest to lay their eggs in. While nesting, these little owls are easily observed when the male brings food to the nest or when the female watches the surrounding area by sticking her head out of the cavity entrance. 

The eastern screech owl has a very distinct call, listen to it here:

This call is a recording by: Vincent Weber, XC436434. (Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/436434)

Burrowing Owl
A burrowing owl in a burrow. FWC Photo.

A burrowing owl in a burrow. FWC Photo.

The burrowing owl is Florida’s only state-designated Threatened Species of owl. They usually stand 7-10 inches tall and, except in size, are most similar in appearance to a barred owl. The burrowing owl has mottled brown and buff coloration and does not have ear tufts. They have long legs, short tails, and are full of personality.

Burrowing owls live in areas with wide-open spaces and little vegetation. They often live in rangeland areas, like cattle pastures, but can many also live in urban areas with open field-like habitats like golf courses, recreational sports fields, and vacant lots in residential areas.  Unlike most species of owls in Florida, the burrowing owl spends most of its time on the ground or in its burrow.

Most people describe the burrowing owl’s call as a sort of laughing sound. Listen to it here:

This call is a recording by: Eduardo Freitez Gassán, XC212609. (Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/212609)

 


If you enjoyed this series and would like to read more about commonly confused plants and animals in Florida, you can find more here:
http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/global/tag/commonly-confused/

 

Sources:
  • https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/birds/owls/
  • https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/browse/shape/Owls
  • http://www.xeno-canto.org
  • https://youtu.be/XhTFTNucDcw

 

University of Florida IFAS Extension is committed to diversity of people, thought and opinion, to inclusiveness and to equal opportunity.
UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution. 

10 Comments on “Commonly Confused Owls in Florida

  1. Hey Shannon,

    Great article. I have what seems to be a pair of tiny burrowing owls that have staked out a home in mine and my neighbor’s backyard in Sarasota. Could you contact me directly to possibly confirm this? I have a couple of photos and a video of them. Thanks!

  2. Hi Shannon,
    I live in Fishhawk (Hillsborough) on protected conservation with tall trees and lots of habitat and wildlife.
    I have been awakened several times over the past few months between 3:00 – 4:30am by I believe to be an owl who screeches one time then makes the “who” sounds. Is this an eastern screech owl?
    Please advise
    Thanks very much
    Jodi

    • Hi Jodi, thanks for the question!
      Unfortunately, I can’t positively identify which owl you might be hearing from that description. 🙂 Check out this webinar I did with a colleague on identifying owls and you might hear the call you’re hearing: https://youtu.be/XhTFTNucDcw
      The webinar will only cover their most common calls, but each species has several. You can hear a larger variety of owl calls, here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/ Just search for the species you want to hear calls from.

  3. I had 6 or 7 little owls in my yard tonight. It was dusk so hard to take pictures but they were bigger than screech and smaller than barred. I always thought they were solitary. Could it have been a little brood still sticking with parents? They didn’t hoot. More like chattered at me. So cute! I’m in Levy County.

    • Hi Laura,
      It certainly sounds like a family to me! Young owls will often hang out with mama or with both parents for a short period after fledging to learn how to hunt. They make for some adorable sightings, that’s for sure! If you are interested, check out this website (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/) and look for the species you think you saw. They often have a variety of calls, especially with their young, so it may be one of their less common calls that you are hearing. 🙂

  4. I have what seems to be 3 barred owls hanging out on the power lines and trees in front of my house. They do make a screeching sound, which is new to me. The biggest concern for me, my chickens behind my house. I got a few pictures from my sidewalk, however, they weren’t happy with the photo shoot and one flew right over my head.

    • Hi Joni,
      Both of our larger owl species are capable of taking other birds as prey items. The best thing you can do for your chicken flock is to ensure their nighttime roost and run is secure and predator-proof. You can consider installing netting over their run which can prevent raptor species like owls and eagles from reaching your flock. Shrubs can help provide cover to your flock as well.
      Owls, and all other raptor species like eagles, are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Act and by the State of Florida, so be sure not to harm or harass them, their young, or their nests.

  5. I live in East Hernando county. It appears that i have two small owl looking birds that look dark in color, almost black sitting on my downspout of my home very well guarded by the bushes. Does anyone know what they are?

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