There are 14 different species of owls that make their home in California.
These species are the Barn Owl, the Flammulated Owl, the Western Screech-Owl, the Great Horned Owl, the Snowy Owl, the Northern-Pygmy Owl, the Elf Owl, the Burrowing Owl, the Spotted Owl, the Barred Owl, the Great Grey Owl, the Long-eared Owl, the Short-eared Owl and the Northern Saw-whet Owl.
The most common of these owls is the Great Horned Owl, this is no surprise given that it has the widest range across the united states and it is very common.
California has what is described as a Mediterranean climate. This means the state has very hot and dry summers whilst the winters are only mild.
There are 110 different state parks across California as well as 8 national parks.
All are very popular destinations for bird watchers. Now that we’ve looked at California in some detail, let’s have a look at the individual owl species you can find there.
What Owls can be seen in California?
Table of Contents
1. Barn Owl
107 to 110 cm
430 – 620 g
Up to 4 years
Voles, Shrews & Mice
The Barn Owl can appear to be completely white but this is just a trick of the light.
They are actually covered in pale brown and grey feathers with only their belly being white in colour.
This owl is one of the most common owl species, it has a large range that spans over 48 different states.
Unlike lots of owls, females of this species will use their breeding nest year-round and you are most likely to see one of these nests in open grassland areas.
Whilst Barn Owls form long term breeding pairs and mostly remain monogamous, there have been recording of males mating with several different females in the same breeding season.
These birds are permanent residents of California and can be seen in all areas across the state.
They are most active in their breeding seasons and most of the recorded sightings of this bird are along the west coast of California.
2. Flammulated Owl
The Flammulated owl is very small in size for an owl and it has short ear tufts to match its body.
These owls are covered in mostly brown feathers with small sections of orange.
You will find these owls in dry woodland areas, usually in more mountainous regions and in more mature forests. Males of this species will court females with a series of hoots and she will reply if interested.
If a female returns a hoot then the male will continue the courtship by presenting her with a prey item.
These birds do not have a very wide range and are not permanent residents in the state of California.
They are only present in the state during their breeding seasons and most of the sightings have been recorded to the eastern border of the state.
3. Western Screech Owl
13 years old
Insects and small mammals
This small species of owl is very similar in appearance to the Eastern Screech-Owl.
It has grey feathers that help it to camouflage well against the trunks of trees. These owls are most commonly found in more open woodland areas, usually ones close to canyons.
Western Screech-Owls are nocturnal owls and are socially monogamous.
This means that whilst the breeding pairs stay together and both individuals help raise the young, they will mate with others outside their pair during the breeding season.
The breeding pairs will sing duets together during the breeding season and the male will often present the female with food during courting.
These birds stay in California throughout the year and can be seen in all regions of the state. That being said, they appear to be much less common in the central regions of the state compared to areas along the coasts.
4. Great Horned Owl
28 years old
Squirrels, Rabbits & Skunks
The Great Horned Owl is a decently sized owl which has long and sharp looking ear tufts.
These ear tufts resemble the horns mentioned in its name. whilst these birds are most commonly found in denser woodlands, they can also breed and nest successfully in suburban areas such as city parks.
Both males and females are territorial and once a breeding pair is formed, both individuals will help to protect the nest.
Their aggression has known to be extended as far as killing other members of their own species.
The breeding pairs are long lasting and they will both remain in their territory outside of the breeding season, however they will roost separately.
These owls have an incredibly wide range and because of this they are present in California in all areas of the state.
They are also permanent residents in California and can be seen throughout the whole year.
5. Northern Saw-whet Owl
40 - 60 cm
Small birds, young squirrels, voles & shrews
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is very small in size for an owl and it has a big round head and wide orange eyes.
Their wings and their backs have similar colour patterns and they are covered with brown feathers.
Contrasting this their bellies are bright white. These birds seem to prefer staying in mature forests if they are able to and will only nest in dense woodland areas.
The forest needs to be denser when it comes to the winter and breeding seasons. Whilst most males are completely monogamous, in seasons of high prey abundance, some males have been known to mate with another individual.
This appears to be the only thing that affects the monogamy of this owl. However, breeding pairs will be formed in each subsequent breeding season as they do not form long term mates.
Because of their small size, these owls are also often preyed on by a variety of larger owl species, including several that we have previously looked at in this article.
These small owls can be seen in all areas throughout California. In the northern and eastern areas of the state these owls are permanent residents whereas in the further south regions they only appear to be present in outside of their breeding seasons.
6. Short-Eared Owl
85 to 110 cm
Voles, Mice, Squirrels
This owl has tiny ear tufts that can barely be seen which is why it has its name.
These owls have brown feathers spotted with buff that cover all of their bodies and are average sized for an owl. You are most likely to see this owl in large areas of open grasslands.
Their activity changes depending on the season and they tend to be active at all hours of the day and night when it reaches the breeding season.
They will spend a lot of the daytime doing courting displays for females so will use the night to do some extra hunting.
The male’s primary role is to protect the female whilst she incubates the eggs and they stay with her but do not provide much care for the young.
They will do this by performing distraction displays to intruding individuals to deter them away from their nesting site and this is often done to animals of much bigger size.
These owls can be seen throughout all of California. In the northern regions they are year-round residents whereas in the southern areas of the state they can only be seen outside of their breeding seasons.
7. Snowy Owl
Birds, Rabbits, Fish & Rodents
The Snowy Owl is, as you may expect, much more common in arctic areas rather than in the United States.
Its body is covered in bright white feathers that help it camouflage against the snow in its tundra habitat.
The courting display of this bird involves diving flights and at the end of the display the male will drop a lemming, or another item of prey, next to the female as a gift to her.
These owls are very territorial and can be very aggressive to anyone trying to enter their habitat.
There have been recorded incidents of pairs attacking an arctic wolf as well as dive bombing humans that move too close to their habitats.
As you may expect, these owls are usually found much further north than California and they are not common residents there.
They have only been sighted during the winter months and these sightings have been to the north west of the state.
8. Long Eared Owl
90 to 100cm
Small mammals, mice, rats & rabbits
This owl has some of the largest ear tufts of all owl species which is where it gets its name from.
These owls are medium in size and have stout bodies covered in dark feathers and orange faces. This owl can be found in both open grasslands and coniferous woodlands, they are more concerned with the size of the area that the type.
These birds form loosely structed colonies that often make which can reach a number of 100 individuals outside of the breeding season.
During the breeding season they still roost about 50ft away from each other but the numbers will decrease. Males remain monogamous and begin courting a female during the late winter, before the colonies are fully formed.
There is speculation as to whether these breeding pairs are long-term or if a male will mate with a different individual from the colony in subsequent seasons.
They can be found in most areas of California but are usually only seen in the state outside of their breeding seasons. That being said, there are some that in permanent residents of California in the more central regions of the state.
9. Great Grey Owl
Up to 152cm
12 years old
90% small rodents
The feathers of this owl are various shades of grey and they cover the whole body.
You are most likely to see this large owl in dense woodland areas, usually ones that are evergreen.
These owls usually hunt at night but during the winter and breeding seasons they will also hunt during the daytime. Great Gray Owls form breeding pairs and they nest together during the mating months.
They separate outside of the breeding seasons and it is not known as to whether the breeding pairs are long term or if they mate with a different individual each year.
These birds are year-round residents in California and sometimes they will move further south through the state in the winter.
They are permanent residents in the north eastern regions of California.
10. Northern Pygmy Owl
These tiny owls have very fluffy bellies with brown and white feathers.
They can be found in various types of woodlands, but they are usually in those of higher elevation.
These owls hunt by day, most likely to avoid larger owls that may hunt them at night.
Northern Pygmy Owls are monogamous during the breeding seasons, but these pairings are not long term and they will mate with different individuals in each subsequent breeding season.
These owls have a very scattered range, but they are permanent residents in California. However, they cannot be seen throughout all of the state and can only be seen to the northern and the eastern regions of the state.
11. Elf Owl
The Elf Owl is a tiny species of owl that is often found nesting in abandoned woodpecker cavities.
Due to their tiny size they are frequently hunted and have perfected the ability of playing dead when held.
This will cause the predators to relax their grip and give the elf owl a chance to escape.
These owls are monogamous and appear to form stable breeding pairs. The females will lay up to 5 eggs per brood and they need to be incubated for approximately 3 weeks before they will hatch.
Both individuals in the breeding pair will defend their territory by using song.
This bird has a very small range and can be seen in the state of California.
They are usually only seen in California during their breeding seasons and are most commonly found in the southern regions of the state.
12. Burrowing Owl
Large Insects and Small Rodents
The Burrowing Owl is covered in brown and white feathers and is small in size for an owl.
These owls tend to live in open grassland areas, they can also be seen in open suburban areas such as cemeteries. They will hunt throughout the day and the night and will hunt on the ground as often as they can.
Females will often stay inside the burrows with their young whilst the males will stay on the surface near to the burrows. Whilst the female is raising the young the male’s job is to protect the nest.
These birds are mostly monogamous but will occasionally mate with a few different individuals.
Apart from the north west, the Burrowing Owl is a resident in all of California.
Further north in the state they can only be seen during their breeding seasons whereas in the southern areas of the state, Burrowing Owls will stay there as permanent residents.
13. Barred Owl
The Barred Owl has its name because of the barred patterns on its wings made by its feathers.
These bars are brown and white in colour. They are most commonly found in mixed woodland areas and like to stay in woods that are close to swamps and marshlands. These owls hunt at night and spend their day roosting.
Both individuals in the breeding pair are defensive of their territory and remain monogamous to each other.
It is thought that these breeding pairs are long term and they are thought to mate for life although this is not fully confirmed.
In a very small region of California these owls are permanent residents that can be seen throughout the whole year.
This is only in the north west of the state but there have been occasional sightings of them in the more central regions of California.
14. Spotted Owl
The Spotted Owl, as expected, is know for the spotty pattern that covers its feathers.
They are brown with white spots and the spots are most prevalent on their belly. Usually these owls can be found in dense woodland areas but for them the more mature the forest, the better.
These owls form breeding pairs that will mate for several seasons and they remain monogamous during the breeding seasons.
The pair will begin roosting together a few weeks before they begin mating and will spend a lot of this time preening each other’s feathers. Fledglings will usually stay with their parents for about 3 months before breaking off and going alone.
There are several species of Spotted Owl, one of which is the California Spotted Owl, and this is the one that you will see in California.
They are permanent residents of the state and can be seen in small areas in the central and northers regions of the state.
We are avid bird-watchers who recently retired, allowing us more time to travel the world. Fortunately, we have managed to visit numerous countries around Europe, Asia, and America. Watching and photographing birds has been a passion for many years and we are making the most of the extra time on our hands!