Whispers from the North: Guide to the Boreal Owl



Boreal Owl

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From the vast stretches of the northern coniferous forests comes a distinct call, echoing the spirit of the wilderness: the voice of the Boreal Owl. Often cloaked in the mysteries of the twilight, this remarkable species is a symbol of the boreal regions, offering insights into a habitat that remains untouched by the hustle and bustle of urban life.

Dive with us into the fascinating world of the Boreal Owl, and discover the magic of the North.

Physical Characteristics

  • Appearance: Typically small and stocky, with a round head, no ear tufts, and striking white facial spots.
  • Plumage: Brown with white streaks, and a distinctive white belly dotted with dark streaks.
  • Eyes: Yellow, piercing, and set against a backdrop of a pale facial disk.

The Boreal Owl is a relatively small owl, measuring around 9.5 to 11 inches in length. It has a stocky build with a rounded head and a short tail. Despite its small size, this owl possesses incredible agility and is a skilled hunter.

The Boreal Owl displays unique and beautiful coloration. Its body is primarily brown, providing excellent camouflage against tree bark. This owl is covered in intricate white spots and streaks, adding to its overall allure. Its feathers are soft and fluffy, enabling it to fly silently through the forest.

The feathers of the Boreal Owl are a remarkable adaptation that allows it to fly silently and hunt with precision. The soft and fluffy feathers help to muffle the sound of its wings, making it virtually undetectable to its prey. This adaptation is essential for their survival, as they rely on stealth to catch their prey.

The Boreal Owl has large, dark eyes, which are well-suited for hunting in low-light conditions. Its excellent vision allows it to spot movement and locate prey with precision. The forward-facing placement of its eyes provides it with binocular vision, enabling it to accurately judge distances.


  • Realm of the North: Predominantly found in the dense coniferous forests of Canada, Alaska, and northern parts of the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
  • Elevation Preferences: Often observed in higher altitude forests, especially during breeding seasons.

The Boreal Owl primarily inhabits mixed-wood and conifer forests. These forests provide ideal hunting grounds for the owl, as they are filled with small mammals, such as voles, mice, and squirrels, which make up a significant portion of its diet. The dense foliage of these forests also provides ample cover for nesting and roosting.

In addition to mixed-wood and conifer forests, the Boreal Owl can also be found in muskeg habitats. Muskeg is a type of wetland characterized by sphagnum moss and low-lying shrubs. These habitats offer a different range of prey, including small birds and insects.


The Boreal Owl hunts mostly at night, taking advantage of the darkness to capture its prey. It hunts by moving through the forest from one perch to another, carefully watching for any signs of movement. When it spots prey, it uses its powerful wings to swoop down and snatch it with its sharp talons. The Boreal Owl’s ears are adapted for precise sound location, allowing it to capture prey hidden under snow or dense vegetation.

During the breeding season, which begins in late winter or early spring, the male Boreal Owl sings at night to defend its territory and attract a female. In courtship, the male feeds the female, providing nourishment and demonstrating its ability to provide for a family. The male will sing at potential nest holes, and the female will make the final choice of the nesting site. The Boreal Owl typically chooses a new nest site each year.

The Boreal Owl does not undertake regular migrations like some other bird species. However, it may stage irregular invasions south of its nesting range during winters when food is scarce in its breeding grounds. These invasions can bring Boreal Owls to areas that are frequented by birders, providing an opportunity for bird enthusiasts to observe them.


  • Mice Masters: Their primary diet consists of small mammals, predominantly voles.
  • Hunting Style: Like most owls, they are nocturnal hunters, using their exceptional hearing to locate prey beneath the snow.

The Boreal Owl’s diet mainly consists of small mammals, such as voles and mice. It also preys on small squirrels, shrews, and pocket gophers. Additionally, the Boreal Owl will consume small birds of various species and insects, especially crickets.

Among its prey, voles are a preferred food source for the Boreal Owl. Voles are small rodents that are abundant in its woodland habitats. The owl’s exceptional hunting skills, combined with the abundance of voles, make it a formidable predator within its ecosystem.

Breeding & Nesting Habits

  • Cavity Nesters: Boreal Owls prefer to nest in tree cavities, often those abandoned by woodpeckers.
  • Eggs & Offspring: Typically, they lay 3-6 eggs, with variations depending on food availability.

The Boreal Owl typically nests in cavities within trees, often utilizing old woodpecker holes or natural hollows. It prefers coniferous trees such as spruce or fir mixed with deciduous trees like aspen or birch. The nests are usually located 20-80 feet above the ground, providing a safe and secluded location for raising its young.

Unlike some bird species, the Boreal Owl does not construct elaborate nests. Instead, it utilizes existing cavities in trees, making use of the work of other birds like the Northern Flicker or the Pileated Woodpecker. These natural hollows provide the necessary space for incubating and raising its young.

The female Boreal Owl typically lays 3-4 eggs, although it is not uncommon for some individuals to lay 2-5 eggs. The eggs are white and provide excellent camouflage in the nest cavity.

The incubation of the eggs is primarily the responsibility of the female owl. She will incubate the eggs for a period of 26-32 days, carefully regulating the temperature and humidity to ensure the eggs develop properly.

Once the eggs have hatched, the female Boreal Owl remains with the young most of the time at first. The male will bring food to the nest, and the female will feed it to the young owlets. After about three weeks, the female will also hunt and bring back food for the young. The young owls will leave the nest about 28-36 days after hatching but will continue to be fed by their parents for at least two more weeks.

Songs and Calls

The Boreal Owl’s vocalizations include a rapid series of whistled notes. These calls can often be heard during the breeding season, especially in very early spring when the male is defending its territory and attracting a mate.

In addition to the whistled notes, the Boreal Owl has a distinctive tooting call. This call is another vocalization that serves various purposes, such as communication between individuals or maintaining social bonds within a nesting pair.

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