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 OwlWhen 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)
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.
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 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.
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.
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)
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:
Originally Published: Nov. 2019
Last Updated: Nov. 2020
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.