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Roaming the diverse landscapes of Colorado, from the soaring Rocky Mountains to the sweeping plains, one will find a captivating array of owls. Encompassing a wide range from the petite Northern Pygmy Owls to the impressive Great Horned Owls, each species is perfectly suited to its respective habitat, exhibiting intriguing behaviors and remarkable adaptability.
Red Rocks Park, Denver; Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs
Western Screech Owl
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park; Jefferson County Open Space Parks
Northern Pygmy Owl
Rocky Mountain National Park; Roosevelt National Forest
Eastern Screech Owl
Cherry Creek State Park, Denver; Barr Lake State Park, Brighton
San Juan National Forest; Mueller State Park, Divide
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Routt National Forest; Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge
Comanche National Grassland; Pawnee National Grassland
Rocky Mountain National Park, San Juan National Forest
Eastern Plains, Boulder County Farmlands
Pawnee National Grassland, North Park area
Roxborough State Park, Pueblo County
Pawnee National Grassland, North Park area
San Juan National Forest, Mesa Verde National Park
Front Range Foothills, Roosevelt National Forest
Owl Species Found in Colorado
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
Great Horned Owl Sound
Scientific Name:Bubo virginianus
Length: 18.1-24.8 in
Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 in
Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
The Great Horned Owl is a large owl with long wings and a large head. It’s one of the most common owls in North America.
Great Horned Owls are large, stocky birds with soft feathers that are gray to brown on their backs and white on their chests. Their faces are characterized by two black “ear” tufts, which can be raised or flattened depending on the owl’s mood. The eyes are yellow, orange, or red in color.
The habitat of the Great Horned Owl is a variety of different environments such as forests and deserts. They also live near water sources such as lakes, streams and rivers where they can hunt for fish.
The diet of the Great Horned Owl consists primarily of small mammals such as mice and rats; however they will also eat other rodents such as squirrels, rabbits and porcupines. They have been known to eat skunks too.
Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio)
Eastern Screech-Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Megascops asio
Length: 6 to 10 in
Wingspan: 8 to 24 in
Weight: 4 – 8.5 oz
The Eastern Screech-Owl is a small owl species native to most wooded environments of the eastern half of North America, from the Canadian provinces to Florida and Texas.
Eastern Screech-Owls are relatively small and exhibit a complex pattern of gray or reddish-brown coloration, which provides excellent camouflage against tree bark.
These owls are known for their distinctive call, which is often described as a haunting trill or a whinny-like sound. Despite their name, they do not actually produce a “screech.”
Eastern Screech-Owls feed on a variety of prey, ranging from small mammals and birds to insects and even earthworms. It is primarily nocturnal, hunting at night from a low perch and swooping down onto prey.
Eastern Screech-Owls nest in tree cavities or abandoned woodpecker nests, but they readily adapt to nesting boxes where natural cavities are not available. They typically lay between 2 to 6 eggs, which are incubated primarily by the female.
Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus)
Boreal Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Aegolius funereus
Length: 8.7–10.6 in
Wingspan: 20–24 in
Weight: 3.8 oz–6.3 oz
The Boreal Owl, also known as Tengmalm’s Owl, is a small yet captivating nocturnal bird found predominantly in the northern hemisphere’s boreal forests, hence its name.
The Boreal Owl is petite in size, its plumage is predominantly grayish-brown, with white spots sprinkled on the upper parts and pale streaks on the underside, which lends a mottled effect. The bird’s rounded head, lack of ear tufts, and large yellow eyes are characteristic traits of this species.
Boreal Owls have a distinctive call, described as a series of soft, low hoots, which can often be heard during the cold winter months. As strictly nocturnal birds, they rest during the day, usually in tree cavities or similar concealed spots, and become active at night.
These owls are remarkable hunters, feeding mainly on small mammals such as voles and shrews, although they have been known to consume small birds when available. Their exceptional hearing allows them to locate prey under the snow in the darkest of nights.
Western Screech-Owl (Western Screech-Owl)
Western Screech-Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Megascops kennicottii
Length: 22 cm (8.7 in)
Wingspan: 55 cm (22 in)n
Weight: 88 to 220 g (3.1 to 7.8 oz)
The Western Screech-Owl, or Megascops kennicottii, is a small species of owl native to North and Central America. Western Screech-Owls are nocturnal predators, and its diet primarily consists of small mammals, birds, insects, and occasionally fish.
This owl is medium-sized compared to other screech-owls. It has a compact, stocky body, and is often recognized by its large head with yellow eyes surrounded by greyish-brown facial disks. The plumage is generally a mixture of grey and brown, with intricate patterns of spots and streaks that provide excellent camouflage against tree bark.
These owls prefer mixed woodland habitats, including deciduous forests and semi-open areas with trees. They often nest in tree cavities, but will also readily take to nest boxes if available. These birds are primarily non-migratory, and once they’ve established a territory, they tend to stay within the same area year-round.
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Barn Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Tyto alba
Length: 13 to 15 in
Wingspan: 31 to 37 in
Weight: 9.2 oz
The Barn Owl is a widespread species of owl known for its distinctive heart-shaped facial disc.
Barn Owls are medium-sized owls, they are pale overall with golden-brown wings and back, contrasted by a white face, chest, and belly. Their most notable feature is their heart-shaped facial disc, which helps channel sound to their ears.
Barn Owls are typically found in open habitats, including farmland, woodland, and marshes. They are named for their habit of nesting in human structures such as barns, church towers, and in the hollows of large trees. These owls are nocturnal, hunting at night and roosting during the day.
The diet of Barn Owls primarily consists of small mammals, particularly rodents such as mice and rats. They are known for their silent flight, which allows them to sneak up on their prey without detection.
Barn Owls have a unique nesting behavior. They do not build nests, but instead, lay their eggs directly on the bare surface of a secluded ledge or cavity. A female typically lays 4-7 eggs, and both parents help incubate the eggs and care for the chicks.
Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
Burrowing Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia
Length: 7–11 in
Wingspan: 20–24 in
The Burrowing Owl is a small, long-legged species of owl found in North and South America. Known for its unusual habit of living in burrows in the ground.
Burrowing Owls have a rounded head with no ear tufts and bright yellow eyes. Their overall coloration is mottled brown and white with a distinct white “eyebrow” above each eye.
Their primary habitat includes open landscapes such as grasslands, deserts, agricultural areas, golf courses, and even airports. As their name suggests, these owls often reside in burrows, many of which are abandoned by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, or other burrowing animals. In some cases, they may also dig their own burrows.
Burrowing Owls diet consists mainly of small mammals and insects, but they also eat birds and reptiles.
Burrowing Owls have a unique nesting behavior. They lay their eggs in an underground burrow to protect them from predators and extreme weather. Clutch sizes range from 6 to 11 eggs, which are incubated for about a month before hatching.
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
Northern Saw-whet Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
Length: 17–22 cm (6.7–8.7 in)
Wingspan: 42–56.3 cm (16.5–22.2 in)
Weight: 54 to 151 g (1.9 to 5.3 oz)
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a tiny, speckled gray owl and it’s one of the smallest owls in North America. It’s also known as the Little Owl or Wood Owl in some areas.
Northern Saw-whet Owls have dark brown eyes, white eyebrows, and yellow beak. It has brownish-grey feathers that are spotted with white. The owl’s legs are covered in feathers and appear nearly invisible when the bird is perched on a branch or tree.
In the winter they migrate south to warmer climates. They prefer to live in dense coniferous forest with large trees but will occasionally nest in shrubs or other vegetation that can protect them from predators.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl eats mice and voles (small rodents), small birds, frogs, salamanders, moles and shrews, but unlike most owls they chop their prey up and spread over a few meals. They will also eat insects like beetles and grasshoppers if they are available. It hunts from a perch at night using its excellent hearing to locate prey items within about 30 feet (9 meters) of its nest.
These owls nest in tree cavities usually located close to water sources such as lakes or rivers where they can find their food source (insects). They lay 2-4 eggs at one time which incubate for about 30 days before hatching.
Northern Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium gnoma)
Northern Pygmy-Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Glaucidium gnoma
Length: 7 – 7 1/2 in)
Wingspan: 14.5 – 16 in
The Northern Pygmy-Owl is a small owl species native to North and Central America. Despite its small size, this owl is a fierce predator, known for its distinctive call and daytime hunting habits.
They have a rounded head without ear tufts and large yellow eyes. Their overall coloration is gray or brown with a pattern of white spots on the back and streaks on the front.
Northern Pygmy-Owls inhabit a range of habitats, including coniferous forests, deciduous woodlands, and mixed forests. They can be found at a range of elevations from lowlands to mountains. Unlike many other owl species, they are often active during the day, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon.
Their diet primarily consists of small mammals and birds, but they are also known to eat insects and reptiles. Despite their small size, they have been known to take prey up to three times their own size.
Northern Pygmy-Owls nest in tree cavities, often those created by woodpeckers. They do not build nests of their own but will add a few feathers to the cavity. Clutch size is usually around 2 to 7 eggs, which are incubated by the female while the male brings food.
Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Snowy owl Sound
Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
Length: 20.7 to 28 in
Wingspan: 3 ft 10 in to 6 ft 0 in
Weight: 3.2lb to 5.3lb
The Snowy Owl, is of the most well-known species of owls, the Snowy Owl is renowned for its striking appearance and adaptations to its extreme environment.
Snowy Owls are medium sized birds that possess a rounded head, yellow eyes, and a black beak. The most distinctive feature of the Snowy Owl is its white plumage, which provides effective camouflage in its snowy habitat. Male Snowy Owls are often almost completely white, while females and younger owls have more extensive dark barring on their plumage.
Unlike many owl species, Snowy Owls are primarily diurnal, which means they are active during the day. This is an adaptation to life in the Arctic, where there can be 24 hours of daylight in the summer. Their diet mainly consists of small mammals, particularly lemmings, but they are known to eat a variety of animals including birds, fish, and even carrion when necessary.
Snowy Owls nest on the ground, usually on a mound or boulder. Their breeding success is closely tied to the availability of food, and in good years a single pair of owls can raise a large brood of chicks.
Flammulated Owl (Psiloscops flammeolus)
Flammulated Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Psiloscops flammeolus
Length: 6 in
Wingspan: 14 in
Weight: 1.8 – 2.3 oz
The Flammulated Owl is a small owl species native to North America, notable for its incredible migratory journeys, which may span thousands of miles.
Flammulated Owls name “flammulated” comes from the Latin word for flame, and it refers to their flame-like markings. These owls sport a mottled gray and rust color, with dark eye patches and a white throat. Their small size and cryptic plumage help them to blend into the bark of the trees in which they reside.
One of the defining traits of the Flammulated Owl is their diet they predominantly eat insects, particularly moths and beetles.
These owls prefer to nest in mature forests, often in old woodpecker holes or natural tree cavities. They typically lay 2-4 eggs, with the female incubating them for about three weeks, while the male provides food.
Flammulated Owls are known for their soft, low hooting call which can be difficult to hear. This, along with their excellent camouflage, often makes them challenging to spot, despite their widespread distribution.
The long-eared owl (Asio otus)
Long-eared Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Asio otus
Length: 12 and 16 in
Wingspan: 2 ft 10 in to 3 ft 4 in
Weight: 5.6 to 15.3 oz
The Long-eared Owl is a medium-sized owl species known for its distinctively long ear tufts, which can be raised or lowered depending on the bird’s mood or intention.
Long-eared Owls have mottled brown and cream plumage, which provides excellent camouflage among the trees. Their most distinctive features are their long, black-tipped ear tufts, which are set closer to the center of the head than in most other owl species.
These owls inhabit a wide variety of habitats, including deciduous and coniferous forests, woodlands, and even semi-deserts.
The Long-eared Owl’s diet primarily consists of small mammals, especially voles, but they will also take small birds and insects. They are skillful hunters, often capturing prey from a perch or in flight.
In terms of nesting behavior, Long-eared Owls do not construct their own nests, instead they take over old nests built by other bird species, usually those of corvids or other large birds. They lay an average of 4 to 5 eggs, which are incubated by the female while the male provides food.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Short-eared Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
Length: 13–17 in
Wingspan: 33 to 43 in
Weight: 7.3–16.8 oz
The Short-eared Owl is a medium-sized owl species with a wide distribution, found across North and South America, Europe, Asia, and many Pacific islands. Despite its name, the “ears” of the Short-eared Owl are not often visible, as they are small and tend to blend with the bird’s feathers.
The owls are predominantly brown with buff and white accents throughout their body and wings, and dark patches around their yellow eyes.
Short-eared Owls diet consists largely of small mammals, especially voles. However, they are opportunistic hunters and will also prey on a variety of other animals, including other birds, when available.
Their habitat is characterized by open areas like grasslands, marshes, and tundra. They nest on the ground, which is unusual for owls, and this makes them vulnerable to ground predators. As such, they often live in areas with tall grasses or other ground cover for protection.
The Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis)
Scientific Name: Strix occidentalis
Wingspan: 45 in
Weight: 1.3 lb
Spotted owls have a large head and eyes, with a small beak. Their feathers are light brown in color, with white spots on their wing feathers, and dark bars on their tail feathers. They have white spots on their upper body and wings. It has large yellow eyes and a yellow beak.
Its habitat is usually dense coniferous forests. It can be found in old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, where it often nests in trees at least 40 feet high.
The spotted owl feeds on small mammals such as rodents and squirrels as well as birds like quail and grouse. It hunts at night when most other animals are sleeping so that it doesn’t get caught by predators like hawks or snakes which also hunt at night time.
Spotted Owls usually nest in tree cavities created by woodpeckers or other birds who eat holes in trees where they make their nests too! The female lays three eggs at a time and both parents take turns sitting on them while they’re incubating (hatching). Once they hatch out, the parents take turns feeding them until they are old enough to hunt for themselves.
Barred Owl (Strix varia)
Barred Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Strix varia
Length: 40 to 63 cm (16 to 25 in)
Wingspan: 96 to 125 cm (38 to 49 in)
Weight: 468 to 1,150 g
The Barred Owl is a medium-sized owl with a barred pattern on its chest and belly. They have large yellow eyes that allow them to see well in low light conditions. Their ears are not very large which means they do not hear very well but they have excellent hearing abilities which allow them to detect sounds up to 1 mile away. Their feathers are brown and streaked with white, and they have black bars on their chests and wings.
Their habitats include forests, woodlands, orchards, parks, farmland and suburban backyards.
Barred Owls (also known as hoot owl) eat small mammals such as mice, rats and squirrels. They also eat insects such as beetles or grasshoppers. These owls hunt during the day when it is light out so that they can see their prey better than at night when they would be using senses other than sight like sound or smell to find their food source.
Barred owls are monogamous birds which means they mate for life. They build nests in trees or cavities on the ground and lay 2-4 eggs per year. The incubation period for these eggs lasts about 28 days before hatching takes place.
Where to Spot Colorado’s Owls
Rocky Mountain National Park: A haven for various owl species, including the Great Horned Owl, Northern Pygmy Owl, and the occasional Northern Saw-whet Owls. The varied ecosystems in the park, from montane forests to alpine tundra, provide diverse habitats that attract a variety of owls.
Boulder County Open Space: Areas like Rabbit Mountain and Hall Ranch are known for their population of Great Horned Owls and Barn Owls. The open spaces near Boulder provide ideal hunting grounds for these owls, making them great spots for owl spotting.
Pawnee National Grassland: Located in the eastern part of the state, this area is known for Burrowing Owls. The open grassland habitat is perfect for these ground-nesting owls, and their distinctive appearance makes them relatively easy to spot.
San Juan National Forest: This vast forest in southwestern Colorado is a good place to spot the elusive Spotted Owl. Its old-growth forests provide perfect habitat for this species.
Garden of the Gods: Located near Colorado Springs, this natural park’s juniper woodland and scrub habitat is known for attracting Western Screech Owls. You may also spot the occasional Great Horned Owl here.
Remember, owl spotting can require patience and several visits as these creatures are primarily active at night and can be elusive. Always respect the owls and their habitats during your birdwatching adventures. Other owls sometimes spotted in Colorado include the Mexican spotted owl.
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Black Kettle National Grassland
Tips on How to Spot Owls in Colorado
Time of Day: Owls are nocturnal, so your best chance of seeing one is either in the late evening or early morning. During these times, you’re more likely to hear their calls and see them hunting.
Habitats: Different species of owls prefer different types of habitats. In Colorado, you’ll find owls in a variety of environments, including forests, plains, and riparian areas. Look for Great Horned Owls in deciduous forests and mixed woodlands, while the Burrowing Owl prefers open prairies and grasslands. The Flammulated Owl can be found in open, mixed-conifer forests, especially those with mature ponderosa pines.
Seasons: Some owls are migratory, while others are residents. Pay attention to the seasons. For example, the Burrowing Owl is typically found in Colorado between April and October, while the Northern Saw-whet Owl migrates to the state for winter.
Look for Signs: Look for signs of owls such as pellets (undigested parts of their food that they regurgitate), white wash (owl droppings), and feathers. These can often be found around their favorite roosting spots.
Listen: Owls have distinctive calls, and often call back when they hear their own species’ call. Learning these calls and listening for them can be an effective way to locate owls. However, refrain from excessive use of playback calls, as it can stress the owls or disrupt their behavior.
Silhouettes and Eye-shine: Look for the silhouette of an owl against the sky at dusk or dawn. Additionally, using a flashlight with a red filter can help spot the eye-shine of owls without disturbing them.
Guided Tours and Local Birdwatching Groups: Join a guided tour or connect with local birdwatching groups in Colorado. They can share specific locations and times where you might have a better chance of spotting owls.
Patience and Respect: Remember that owls are wild animals. Keep a respectful distance and avoid any behavior that might disturb them. It might take time and several tries to spot an owl, so patience is key.