How to attract owls

How To: Attract Owls to Your Yard—And Why You Should!

Photo: istockphoto.com

If mice, voles, or spiders have taken up residence on your lawn or in your garden, consider befriending their enemy: the owl. A host of small mammals and insects are on the menu of these graceful flying raptors, making owls a more powerful and natural alternative to chemical pest control.

The challenge is capturing that avian attention.

While there are roughly 216 species of owls across the globe, their nocturnal lifestyle and mainly carnivorous diet make them trickier to lure than birds that swoop in for seeds in a feeder. To tempt owls, you must take their unique nesting needs, diet, aversion to light, and bathing habits into consideration. Read on for four wise ways to beckon these birds and enlist their aid against pesky critters.

RELATED: Pests, Be Gone! 10 Natural Ways to Make Your Home Critter-Free

1. Install a nesting box.

Owls, which don’t build their own nests, seek out nesting habitats in early winter in preparation for nesting from mid-February through mid- to late July. While some species, such as barn or barred owls, prefer the rotted hollows of trees or vacant squirrel or hawk nests, others, such as screech owls, will nest in man-made boxes. To attract these species, buy one pre-built or as a ready-to-build kit (prices start at around $40 online or from home and garden centers), or build a nesting box by assembling wood panels (plywood, cedar, etc.) into a fully enclosed box with a roof, a floor measuring at least 10 by 18 inches, and a five- to six-inch-wide square or round entrance opening on the front-facing panel.

Either the roof or one side of the box should be attached with hinges to facilitate opening the box and cleaning it annually once the owls have left—usually from late October to early December. Whether or not you paint the box, be sure to apply a preferably oil-based wood sealer to ward off water damage. Drill a few quarter-inch to half-inch holes near the roof for air circulation and seven to nine more holes in the floor for water drainage. Then, lay wood chips or sawdust on the floor of the nesting box for bedding, which will provide a soft cushion and keep any eggs from rolling around. (In the wild, owls rely on the bedding provided by squirrel or hawk nests, or the lichen, conifer sprigs, or leaves that collect in tree hollows.)

In early winter, hang the nesting box from a tree branch in the backyard, mount it on top of a sturdy pole, or nail the back of the box to a shed or a barn at a height of at least 10 to 20 feet from the ground. Owls like to be high above interference from humans and potential predators.

Photo: istockphoto.com

2. Turn off exterior lights at night.

With the exception of diurnal species such as the northern pygmy owl, which are active during the day and sleep at night, most owls hunt primarily under cover of darkness. This means they’re less likely to visit—and can even become disoriented by—brightly-lit homes featuring above-ground or underwater pool lighting, porch lights, spotlights, or floodlights, even if only the motion-activated variety. To make your home exterior more owl-friendly, manually turn exterior lights off after dark, or set a timer to have them automatically shut off after twilight.

If you’re concerned that your dark porch will tempt prowlers, consider installing a weatherproof passive infrared motion detector on your home exterior (from brands such as Optex). These systems can distinguish between the movement of humans and smaller animals so are less likely to sound at the presence of owls.

Photo: istockphoto.com

3. Maintain a large bird bath.

Since they obtain most of the fluid they need through food, owls aren’t big drinkers; it’s unlikely they’ll swoop in on a small, shallow-basin bird bath. On hot or humid days, however, larger do-it-yourself bird baths or store-bought alternatives (which start at $30 at home and garden centers) are a big draw. Their deep basins offer a generous gulp of water and double as a bathtub for cleaning or cooling after a hunting session.

Bird baths for owls should ideally be made of a durable material such as metal, and feature a deep basin (two inches minimum) with a sloping edge so owls can ease in. Position the bird bath in a secluded corner that people don’t often frequent to increase the odds of an owl alighting there.

Photo: istockphoto.com

4. Lay off the lawnmower.

Certain species of owls hunt on grasslands, marshes, mature woodlands, and agricultural fields. A homeowner striking out with other means of banishing field mice or voles who is eager to have an owl visit might wish to mimic these rustic features by easing up on regular lawn maintenance, thus creating a more attractive hunting ground. It might seem counterintuitive, but giving pests a more hospitable spot temporarily may, in the long run, attract nocturnal predators. Don’t mow for a week or so—also permitting shrubs, low-hanging tree branches, and/or weeds to grow a little longer before pruning or pulling, and allowing dead leaves, twigs, and flowers to pile up rather than raking t immediately. Let nature take its course and resume yard care as usual when critters vamoose.

RELATED: 10 Times You Can Get Nature to Do Your Yard Work for You

Photo: istockphoto.com

When It’s Not So Wise to Attract Owls

Homeowners with small pets like guinea pigs, or farm animals like chickens, should think twice before attracting owls. Whether owls view them as prey or mere annoyances, the predatory birds can swoop in on and injure or kill the animals. Moreover, these small animals can inadvertently scare off the very rodents and other prey whose presence is needed on your property to attract owls. Even if you only have large pets, if you intend on attracting owls, aim to keep them indoors after dark, so they won’t threaten hunting owls or scare off their prey.

How to Attract Owls and Why You Should Give a Hoot

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Learning how to attract owls to your homestead has many rewards including acting as a natural way to get rid of mice. The joy of spotting the magical birds on evening owl prowls is also a reward in itself. Not as common as songbirds, when you spot an owl it is extra exciting.

Closing my poultry shed one evening, I heard an eerie, horse-like call from a cluster of oak trees in the corner of my yard. Half a minute later I heard a response in the forty-foot-tall clumping bamboo. I was surrounded, by pint-sized predators.

A few weeks later the screech owls had moved into one of the four nest boxes I had made. Soon after, two owlets flew the coop.

“By designing a garden that includes nesting and roosting habitat for owls, you will be availing yourself of the best possible organic pest control for your home and garden,” said Robert S. Mulvihill, the National Aviary’s ornithologist, and a well-known expert for information about birds who has been working with owls for 40 years.

Owl Nest Box

Screech owls make excellent neighbors as they work not only for free but throughout the night unseen. To invite owls to your homestead, build a nest box. Learning how to attract owls now is especially important as the owls will start nesting in early spring.

According to the Treasure Coast Wildlife Center, located in Palm City, Florida, screech owl distribution and abundance is determined by available nesting sites. The more boxes, the more owls. However, they are territorial so each box should be about 100 feet apart. Rough cut wood that weathers well, such as cedar, cypress or redwood is preferred, as the box should remain unpainted. The wildlife center recommends hanging the box on a tree, building, or pole about 15 feet high. The structure that the box is attached to should be at least as wide as the box. Place it on the edge of your treeline, close to an open yard.

Place wood shavings or pine straw into the nest as screech owls do not bring nesting materials. Do not use cedar shavings or sawdust. If starlings or sparrows begin to place their own nesting materials inside, remove them, as screech owls will not use an occupied box. American Kestrels, a small native falcon, will use the same type of nest boxes and can also be welcomed as a natural way to get rid of mice and insects. To attract these birds of prey, place the box higher, on an isolated live or dead tree. Although there are many designs, I like the Treasure Coast Wildlife Center’s blueprint the best. Dan Martinelli, Executive Director of the wildlife center has shared their simple nesting box made from a single 1” x 10” x 8′ board.

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Screech Owl Nest Box plans courtesy of Treasure Coast Wildlife Center.

My screech owl nest box with resident!

Where do Owls Nest?

“Owls nest everywhere,” said Mulvihill. “Several kinds of owls — including screech owls, northern saw-whet owls, elf owls and barred owls — nest in old woodpecker cavities and natural cavities in trees or in the West, saguaro cactuses. Barn owls even nest in old buildings.”

Mulvihill says that other owls like the great horned and long-eared prefer to nest in open stick nests in trees that they commandeer from crows or hawks. “Some nest on the ground —short-eared owl and snowy owl — and one species, the burrowing owl, nests in underground burrows made by other animals like prairie dogs and gophers,” he adds.

All of the cavity-nesting owls will sometimes use human-made nest boxes, too. “Barn owls, in particular, have been helped greatly by programs aimed at providing nest boxes for them in suitable grassland habitats both here in the United States and in Europe,” said Mulvihill.

Bob Mulvihill, the National Aviary’s ornithologist. Photo courtesy of National Aviary.

What do Owls Eat?

You may be wondering do owls eat chickens? Or will they eat my livestock? While owls are strictly carnivorous and eat a wide range of animals appropriate to their size, the likelihood of them hunting your diurnal livestock is small. “Many owls, like screech owls, will eat a wide range of prey from small mammals and birds to large insects,” Mulvihill says. “Others, like barn owls, feed more strictly on small mammals. The large great horned owl eats rabbits, rats, skunks and smaller owls.”

Barred owls, named for their beautiful barred chest feathers prefer mature riverine forest habitat and are known to feed on fish, crayfish, amphibians, and snakes. Unless your birds are unprotected during the night, owls shouldn’t be blamed as a chicken predator.

How Long do Owls Live?

Smaller species of owls can live up to 10 years, while the largest can live over 30 years. “Without exception, owls are beneficial as natural predators in the habitats and ecosystems that they inhabit; for humans, they can help control prey like mice and rats that sometimes can be considered nuisances or pests around homes,” said Mulvihill.

Backyard, Barnyard, Buddies

Barn owls have declined in numbers and many folks are now trying to attract them back to their homesteads. Barn owls are found worldwide. They can take up residence in abandoned sheds, barns and silos. Learning how to attract owls is easy: designate a rustic area to the garden where pruning and maintenance are kept to a minimum to encourage these birds to move in. Reducing widespread exterior lighting such as floodlights will also help.

Barn owl

One of the best hunting habitats for barn owls is rough grassland with a high population of field voles. If you own land in the countryside, a great way to encourage barn owls is to increase their food supply by creating patches of compact grassland with layers of dead grass for the vermin to live. Adding a bird feeder near a brush pile will invite songbirds to recycle your yard waste into nesting material. Leaving seeds and nuts on the ground will entice rodents which in turn brings the owls.

To keep the barn owls once you have attracted them, you can entice them by providing nesting and roosting places. Nest boxes similar to the former design are welcomed by the owls as long as the size is 12.5″ x 16″ x 22″ or larger. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, barn owls are sensitive during the early phases of nesting in April and May and will abandon a nest if disturbed. Boxes can be placed in a variety of structures, including barns, silos, grain elevators, church steeples, or mounted on a free-standing pole.

Avoiding poisons, such as rodenticides will keep your birds safe. And since you’ll have these natural predators you will not need rodenticides.

Snowy owls are also often seen in wide-open spaces. If your northern homestead has a rolling terrain and is treeless, this owl might take up residency. Often seen sitting on the ground to hunt, they prefer land that offers them a view. In the winter they will also perch on fence posts, hay bales, buildings, and grain elevators.

Snowy Owl courtesy of National Aviary

Great horned owls are one of the largest species in the United States and can eat prey items as large as skunks. Leave large, bare branches or snags to encourage nest sites. These roosts will also serve as lookout posts for these perch and pounce predators.

Me holding a great horned owl. This bird is used in an education program at a zoological organization.

Owls serve an important ecological niche and help us out by eating crop pests. What types of owls have visited your homestead? Let us know in the comments below.

How to Attract Owls to Your Yard

Resource Sheet

By Chelsea Ferguson

Owls have a long-standing reputation as beautiful, elusive creatures, but did you know they’re also excellent yard guests? These skilled and often silent hunters prey on rodents, insects and other pests that feast on your garden, making them ideal visitors for both suburban backyards and rural farms. Owls are also a welcome sight for any birdwatcher or wildlife-lover – although it’s not easy to spot one of these largely nocturnal creatures! Attracting owls to your property can be a treat for you and your garden and can help provide a rich habitat for these important animals. Here are a few tips for making your yard an appealing spot for owls.

Safety First

Before attracting owls to your yard, make sure it’s a safe environment for them to visit. Your property shouldn’t be too close to busy highways where collisions could occur, and your lawn should be free from pesticides and rodenticide chemicals. You should also consider the safety of small pets, such as cats. If especially large owl species are visiting your yard, be cautious and keep small pets inside overnight.

WHOO lives near you?

Canada is home to 16 species of owls, from the large Great Grey Owl to the small Northern Saw-whet Owl. Some species are more likely to visit suburban backyards, including Short-eared Owls, screech owls, Great Horned Owls and Snowy Owls (in the north during summer and in central/southern Canada during winter). Be sure to research which owl species live near you, as well as their distinct hunting habits and nesting preferences. The more you know about local owl species, the better you can provide a tailored environment for them to visit. The Owl Foundation in Ontario has a useful guide to Canadian Owls.

Build a nesting box

Many birds, including some owls, use cavities in dead or dying trees to nest in the warmer months and take shelter in the colder months. Avoid cutting down dead trees (also known as snags) on your property, as long as they don’t pose a safety risk. If your yard has a shortage of snags, you can help provide essential habitat for owls and other birds by installing nesting boxes on your property. A nesting box is a great way to attract owls to your yard – and hopefully give them a safe space to have their young! Our website includes instructions for building a nesting box for tree cavity birds, as well as instructions for building a nesting structure for large owls.

Turn off your lights

Most owl species are nocturnal, with eyes and ears specially adapted to help them hunt in the dark. An owl’s ability to catch its prey in near darkness is one of its most impressive hunting skills. As a result, exterior lighting left on overnight can disrupt an owl’s natural hunting patterns and remove its advantage over its prey. Bright lights also make owls feel unsafe, deterring them from visiting your yard. If possible, turn off all exterior lights at night so that owls have a safe space to hunt and nest.

Ease up on yard maintenance

Looking for an excuse to spend less time on yard upkeep? Most owls feed on mice, shrews, voles and other rodents that are drawn to long, thick grass. Mowing your lawn less frequently can help attract owls by providing a steady source of food. Bonus: reducing mowing also helps to create essential habitat for our threatened pollinators. Similarly, large branches offer ideal perches for owls to hunt or rest. Where possible, avoid pruning large branches, especially horizontal ones, so that owls have a safe, appealing place to land.

We hope these tips help you attract owls to your property – both for your benefit and for theirs! Have you seen any owl visitors in your yard? Let us know in the comments!

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© Copyright Canadian Wildlife Federation

The Owl Box. Attracting Screech Owls to Your Yard.

Hoooooooo, me? I’m just sitting here waiting for an owl to roost. In my new owl box.

If I’m gonna get anywhere with this whole owl thing, I’m gonna have to hang the owl box outside I guess. This beauty has been sitting on my dining room table for a month and the only thing it has attracted is dust and suspicious glances from my cats.

The owl box was sent to me by a reader who thought I’d like it. She knows my weakness. Animals with feathers that eat mice. Owls even have the added distinction of barfing up tiny bones after their dinner so they’re pest control and Halloween decoration providers all rolled into one. Not even goats can claim that.

Two things have stopped me from hanging the owl box. Thinking it was going to be difficult to hang and thinking I liked how it looked right here in my house. Even with the dust.

Dry leaves go into the bottom of the box.

But I decided if I was going to do this I had to do it now because in this area Screech Owls (this is a Screech Owl box) start looking for nests from February to April. Owls are always looking for possible nesting places, but making sure you have one up during mating increases your chances of getting an owl in your box on account of the fact that they prefer home births. And therefore need a comfy home.

So let me answer a few questions you probably already have.

  1. Aren’t you afraid the screech owls will eat your chickens? No. Screech owls are tiny owls. They’re the same height as a starling, but way fatter. I mean rotunder. If anything, the screech owl should be afraid of my miserable chicken Baby.
  2. Won’t the screeching become annoying? You know, cause Screech Owls screech. No. Oddly, they don’t really screech. The noise Screech owls make sounds more like a horse whinny.
  3. I LOVE THIS! I WANT ONE! ARE SCREECH OWLS IN MY AREA? Probably. They breed around most of North America.
  4. What’s with the handful of leaves? That’s the one and only thing you have to do to prep your owl box. Put a few inches of dry leaves or pine shavings in the bottom of the box. Then you hang it.

As it turns out, hanging an owl box is simple. If you order a pre-made one like this it’ll come with the screws you need. Mine even included a couple of brackets to make it extra secure if I wanted. I’m not sure what about this I thought was going to be hard.

Hang the owl box from 10 – 30 feet high. I have NO idea how you’d get it 30 feet high but that’s an option for you if say, your legs are 20 feet long.

To hang the box, I propped the ladder against my maple tree and rested the Owl Box on the top rung while I screwed the first screw in. That way I didn’t have to worry about holding the box up and I could keep one hand on the ladder while I attached it.

If your tree is old and gnarly like mine you might have to make a few adjustments while you hang the box. Bark was in the way so I had to bang some of it off for the box to lay flatter against the trunk. And because of the way the trunk is shaped only the very top and the very bottom of the box are against the tree. Because of this I wasn’t able to screw the middle screw deep into the tree (as you can see above). So I put the bracket I got with the owl box on the bottom of it to keep the box sturdy on the tree.

As it turns out hanging it wasn’t hard at all. You can hang it high enough with a regular 12′ ladder.

Tips for Hanging an Owl Box

  • Hang the box from 10 – 30 feet high.
  • The box can hang facing any direction except North.
  • Make sure nothing is blocking the flight path into the box like a nearby building or branches.
  • Stuff a couple of handfuls of dry leaves or pine shavings into the bottom of the box before hanging it.
  • If you don’t have a tree you can hang it on a pole.
  • Make sure the box is hanging level or tipped forward a tiny bit from the top. That way when it rains, water won’t get into the box.

You can build your own Screech Owl box, or you can just buy one already made and finished. Owl Reach who sent me mine sells 3 finishes, whitewashed (like mine), blue washed, and natural. It’s a small company owned by a woman and the boxes are all handmade and finished in Texas. Nope. This isn’t a sponsored post. I just love my Owl Box.

And now that it’s actually hung outside I’m sure I’ll love the owls that move in too. The maternity ward is ready and waiting.

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Attracting Owls Into Garden: Tips For Making Gardens Owl Friendly

You can build fences and set out traps, but rabbits, mice, and squirrels may still be a problem in your garden. One of the most foolproof ways to get rid of rodent thieves is to attract an owl onto your property. Attracting owls into garden areas is like setting out a watchdog in the yard; you’ll have little worry of unpleasant visitors when you’re not watching.

The first step in attracting your own rodent control predator is by making an owl nest box. Owls do not make nests of their own, but take over useful structures or other abandoned nests. Once an owl finds a likely nest box on your property, it will happily stay and hunt on your property all year long.

How to Attract Owls to the Garden

How to attract owls to your backyard? Owls never make their own nests — they’re nature’s squatters. Once they find a likely structure during their nesting season, they will move in and stay for months.

After the fledglings have flown away,

the parent owls are likely to stay if the supply of food remains constant. Make sure your owl family has enough cover, food, water, and some perches from which to hunt, and you may be lucky enough to have them stay for years.

Creating a Nest Box for Owls

When making gardens owl friendly, it’s wise to consider the type of owl you want to attract.

Great Horned owl – Among the largest of owls, the great horned owl is useful for large rodents like squirrels, and other animal pests such as raccoons, skunks and even snakes.

These birds prefer a sort of open, bowl-shaped nest in the crotch of a dead tree or on top of a pole. You can create these nests easily by forming the bowl with chicken wire and lining it with tar paper. Fill the bowl shape with sticks and twigs, and any great horned owls in the neighborhood will stop by to take a look.

Barn owl – The most common owl in garden settings may be the barn owl. These birds are smaller, about the size of a cat. They’ve adapted very well to living with humans, and love to eat dozens of mice, squirrels, moles and other small rodents.

These birds require a solid wooden box with an oval hole for the entrance. Create a flap as the door to clean out the box once a year. All owls appreciate a nest high in a tree or on the top of a building or pole, so place this box in the highest spot you can find.

No matter what kind of owl you attract, make sure you add drainage hole to the bottom of the nest to prevent puddling, and empty out the nest once a year to remove bone capsules, dead rodents and other unhealthy objects.

Now that you know what most owls like, inviting owls to gardens can be a much simpler process.

By Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman

photo credit: Johann Schumacher Design

Barn owls may raise their young inside man-made structures, like nest boxes, barns and even homes.

Owls are both popular and mysterious. They’re so obscure, in fact, that most people report they’ve never seen one in real life, let alone a backyard owl. But some kinds of owls come into suburban neighborhoods and city parks, and you might even be able to attract owls to your backyard if you follow these four tips.

1. Provide shelter.

Most kinds of owls like to hide inside dense cover during the day and venture out only at night. Evergreen trees provide this kind of shelter year-round. Depending on where you live, ideal choices include pine, spruce or juniper; check with a local native plant nursery to find out which grows best in your region. Eventually you may find long-eared owls, northern saw-whet owls, great horned owls or other species nestled away among the branches, sleeping the day away. (Read more: Spot the Owl in Your Backyard)

2. Offer nest sites.

Eastern screech-owls are common and widespread east of the Rockies, with western screech-owls replacing them farther west, and both often lurk in towns and cities. However, to nest and raise young, they need cavities such as woodpecker holes or natural hollows in trees. If you can safely leave dead trees or large dead limbs standing, these often have holes that owls use. Otherwise, screech-owls use nest boxes designed for wood ducks or American kestrels, with an entrance hole at least 3 inches in diameter. In cooler climates, the northern saw-whet owl also adopts nest boxes, although it favors a 2-inch entrance hole.

Some larger owls also nest in cavities, including barn and barred owls. If you live in farm country, you may be able to place a barn owl box at the edge of open fields or in a barn loft. Barred owls favor dense, swampy woods, and they like boxes that are high in trees. (Read more: 8 Different Kinds of Bird Nests and How to Spot Them) You can also buy nest boxes designed for screech-owls or larger owls, or build your own. Check out theraptortrust.org for building plans, advice on placement and more.

photo credit: Gail Buquoi To lure eastern screech-owls, hang a nest box in February.

3. Say no to insecticides.

To successfully lure owls to your space, you have to also attract the creatures they hunt. Screech-owls feed on large insects, such as moths and beetles, and small animals such as mice. If you use insecticides or rodenticides around your garden, those poisons may wipe out the prey before the owls find them. Worse, the poisons may be passed along directly to the owls. (Read more: Owls of North America)

4. Keep cats indoors.

Even if they’re well-fed, prowling house cats kill many small wild animals. Wiping out populations of mice, voles, lizards and other creatures may not leave enough to support a family of screech-owls or other small owls. On the flip side, a cat that wanders outside at night might become a meal for a large species like a great horned owl. 
It’s better for everyone to keep house cats inside houses where they belong! (Read more: 5 Ways to Create a Bird-Safe Backyard)

Signs of Owls in Your Neighborhood

They’re masters of disguise, but look for these clues.

Sounds

Owls in towns and cities are often less vocal than those in wild country. But late at night, after traffic quiets down, listen for them calling.

Pellets

Owls often swallow their food whole, later coughing up the indigestible parts. You may find “owl pellets” of matted fur, tiny bones, and insect scales under dense evergreens where the owls have roosted.

Whitewash

When owls find a roosting spot, they may use it for several days. Their droppings accumulate as “whitewash” on the ground or ont he tree trunk below their perch.

How to Attract Owls

Learn how to attract owls to your backyard and garden with Blain’s Farm & Fleet.

Everyone’s familiar with the haunting call of an owl. While some may find owls to be a bit scary, they’re actually beneficial for your home and garden. Learn how to attract owls with these tips from Blain’s Farm & Fleet.

Did you know owls are great protectors for your home and garden? Learn about the benefits of owls and how to attract the fascinating birds with Blain’s Farm & Fleet.

Benefits of Attracting Owls

Owls are predators, but this works to a homeowner’s advantage. They prey on mice, voles and other pesky rodents that can wreak havoc on your home. They also feast on large insects that can destroy your garden. Farmers also appreciate owls, as they’re a natural way to get rid of vermin without using poison around their crops. Barn owls are especially welcome, as they keep rodents away from livestock. There are a few simple ways to attract owls to your property.

As with any bird, owls have some basic needs: shelter, nesting areas, food and water. To attract owls, you’ll need to provide at least one of these in your backyard. If you already have mice, voles and other small rodents in your yard or garden, the owls have a food source. Adding a brush pile and leaving your grass uncut can help attract more of these creatures, which in turn will attract more owls.

Providing shelter and nesting areas are another sure way to attract owls to your backyard. Large, hollow trees are a natural nesting site for owls. However, they’ll also use large nest boxes, placed about 10 – 20 feet above the ground. If you’re going to use nesting boxes, put them up around January or February. Owls begin nesting earlier than most birds. Keep an eye on the nesting boxes to make sure they’re rodent and pest free. Barn owls will also find a home in old, abandoned buildings or barns on your property.

Backyard birding is a great and inexpensive hobby that everyone can enjoy. At Blain’s Farm & Fleet, you’ll find everything you need to keep the birds coming back. For more tips on attracting a variety of bird species to your backyard, visit our Wild Bird Care blog.

Owl Breeding & Reproduction

Owl Reproduction

For Owls, as with other birds, the period during which nesting and rearing young occurs is the most important part of the annual cycle. It is the time during which genes are passed on to the next generation, and considerable effort is expended by the parents to make sure this happens.

In the case of most Owl species, especially those found in temperate or sub-Arctic regions, breeding occurs during the spring. However, all the upbringing of their young, and the period immediately following their fledging, is invariably timed to coincide with the maximum abundance of prey animals. Variations in breeding schedule may correspond to the weather, food availability, competition from other owls, disease, and availability of a suitable mate.

Courtship rituals vary from species to species, but invariably involve calling. The male will usually try and attract a female to a suitable nest site and may use special courtship flights, calls and offerings of food. Copulation often follows the acceptance of food by the female. There is often mutual preening, with the pair perched close together.


Powerful owl pair courtship feeding followed by copulation. Photos © Ákos Lumnitzer

As a general rule Owls are monogamous – pairs are comprised of one male and one female, neither one of which has any involvement with other nesting birds. With some Owl species the pair bonds last only for the duration of the breeding season, especially if the species involved is dispersive or migratory. In others, particularly sedentary species such as the Little Owl, pairs may remain together throughout the year. Tawny Owl pairs are similarly faithful to one another, their bonds remaining for life.

Owls are territorial, a fact that is particularly evident during the breeding season. They vigorously defend the nest and a well-defined surrounding feeding territory against members of the same species and other birds that might conceivably compete for the same resources. If the Owls are dispersive, this territoriality lasts only for the duration of the breeding season. Year-round residents such as Tawny Owls and Eagle Owls will defend their territories throughout the year, their efforts extending to offspring of the previous year once they are more than a few months past fledging. Attacks on intruders are invariably uninhibited and vicious if the intruder stands its ground. Many of the medium-sized and large species will unhesitatingly attack even a human that strays too close to a nest, often directing blows with the feet and talons at the intruder’s face and eyes. There are well-documented cases of people losing an eye due to Tawny Owl attacks, and the ferocity of a Great Grey Owl at its nest is legendary. Smaller Owl species (potential competitors for food and nesting sites) are also attacked, and Tawny Owls, for example, will readily kill Long-eared Owls in their territory. This effectively results in the fact that two species do not overlap in terms of their precise distributions.

Diurnal species of Owls will sometimes advertise their territories in a visual manner. Thus Short-eared Owls perform buoyant-flight and wing-clapping displays to announce their presence to other birds, both potential mates and intruders. Nocturnal species of Owls invariably use sound as a means of advertisement. The calls of sedentary species often involve duets between established pairs, rather than individual birds.

Owls do not construct nests as such, instead they are opportunistic nesters, using ready-made sites or taking over the abandoned nests of other birds. Owl species that breed in open terrain are often ground nesters. The Snowy Owl, which favours the Arctic tundra, will use a hollow in the ground which the female may attempt to scrape out and line with plant material. Short-eared Owls often nest in or beside tussocks of grass; similar sites are sometimes chosen on rare occasions by Long-eared Owls and Tawny Owls, both usually tree-nesting species. Holes in trees are another preferred site for a wide variety of Owls, and a few species, notably the Barn Owl, have adopted the man-made equivalent of these sites – namely, holes in barns and other outbuildings. The abandoned nests of crows and birds of prey are also favoured by many Owl species, with sometimes little or no attempt to embellish the previous owner’s construction. Burrowing Owls nest underground in abandoned burrows dug by mammals, or, if soil conditions allow they will dig their own burrows. Lastly, natural rock crevices or ledges are used by a few species, including the Eagle Owl.


A Spotted Owlet at its nest hollow. Photo © Shah Purav
Great Horned Owl at nest. Photo © Rick & Nora Bowers

Owls will generally try to reoccupy the same nesting territories in consecutive years.

Owls lay between one and thirteen eggs, depending on the species and also on the particular season; for most, however, three or four is the more common number. The eggs are rounded and white; there is little need for cryptic markings given the concealed nature of most nest sites, and the vigour with which they are defended. Incubation of the eggs usually begins when the first one is laid, and lasts, in most species, for around thirty days. During incubation, the eggs are rarely left alone. Female owls, like many other birds, develop a sparsely feathered area on their bellies called a brood patch. The almost bare skin has a higher density of blood vessels than other parts of the skin, providing a direct source of warmth when in contact with the eggs.

Owl chicks hatch with the aid of an Egg Tooth – a unique protrusion on the beak, common to all birds, which drops off a week or two after hatching. Because eggs are laid over a period of several days, the hatching is also staggered. This means that there is always a gradation in the size of the chicks in the nest, the larger and more active individuals invariably getting more food from the parents than their smaller, weaker siblings. As a result, it is rare for all the chicks that hatch from a clutch to survive, except of course when food is plentiful. In most seasons the youngest chicks starve, or are sometimes even killed by their brothers or sisters. This seemingly brutal approach to the rearing of young has in fact positive survival advantages for the family as a whole: it ensures that, whatever the food availability, some offspring will always survive and produce further offspring. If all the young were fed equally there would be a chance that all might starve in years of poor food supply.

The food is delivered as many as 10 times a day to the nest by the male. Larger prey items are ripped apart and fed to the chicks piece by piece. Smaller prey can be swallowed whole by the chicks as they get older. Young owls begin producing pellets as soon as they begin eating whole prey, or prey parts with fur, bones and other indigestible parts.

Upon hatching, owl chicks are blind and have a thin coat of natal down. In 1-2 weeks, a heavier second coat of down appears, called the mesoptile. As early as 3-4 weeks, some species’ chicks may leave the nest and clamber about. In tree nesting species, these chicks are called Branchers. The next stage of development will be fledging, or learning to fly. In Great Horned Owls, this is 9-10 weeks after hatching, Barn Owls take 7-8 weeks and Screech Owls 4-5 weeks. Fledglings are usually cared for by the parents for a short time before leaving to fend for themselves. This time can vary from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the owl species.


Long-eared Owl Female and young at nest. Photo © Rick & Nora Bowers
A juvenile Spectacled Owl in mesoptile plumage. Photo © Johanna Murillo

Most owls reach sexual maturity and are ready to reproduce about a year after they hatch. Some larger species, however, may not begin breeding until their second or third year.

Barred Owl Basics

Barred Owls…
…are generalist, opportunistic predators. They catch small to medium-sized prey, mostly at night. Prey includes: crawfish, goldfish, snakes, rats and mice, small rabbits and gray squirrels, flying squirrels, bats, birds-cardinals, grackles, Cedar Waxwings, Flickers, etc., and large insects, especially cicadas in the summer. They cannot catch cats or small dogs!
… nest once a year. Their first nesting season is usually as they approach their second “hatchday.” Sometimes Barred Owls will mate before they’re 1 year old, but this is unusual.
… lay 1 to 4 (very rarely) eggs, and usually raise 2 young. A Barred Owl in its early teens is getting pretty old.

We’ve had two or three cases of pairs renesting after losing a first clutch of eggs, but this is rare.

… mate for life, but will replace a mate that dies very quickly.

… are found in forested habitats across eastern North America and are now expanding into the Pacific northwest.

In the Charlotte area, eggs are laid around the beginning of March. The young hatch in about 30 days and leave the nest well before they are fully grown or fully feathered, at about 4-5 weeks of age. Once they leave the cavity, they do not go back to it. Downy young can use their beak and claws to climb up trees when they fall, which they do not uncommonly. Young found on the ground with no obvious injury should just be put back up on a branch. The parents will deliver food to them.

Males do all the hunting while the female is on eggs (about 30 days) and probably most of the hunting during the first 2 weeks after the young hatch. As the young get larger and more demanding, the female will join in the hunting. Young are dependent upon their parents roughly through June. In July they leave home and wander only a few miles away in search of good habitat not already occupied by Barred Owls. The farthest we’ve had a young disperse from its nest is 14 miles.

Males use a larger territory than females. In suburban Charlotte, the average male’s territory is about 200 acres vs. 100 acres for females. A 200 acre territory would be 0.6 miles in diameter.
As with most birds of prey, female Barred Owls are larger than males. Females weigh between 1.75 – 2.5 lbs. Males weigh between 1.3 and 1.8 lbs. Their wingspan is about 38-42 inches.

Barred Owls are cavity nesters, usually nesting in holes in trees. Very few owl species actually build a nest. Most nest in holes in trees, while some will use an abandoned crow or hawk nest. Great-horned Owls usually use old stick nests, Barred Owls rarely do.

Barred Owls will use nest boxes. (See plans)

Barred Owls do not nest in pines or magnolias, they roost in them. If you see an owl heading into an evergreen or coming out of one, it was not flying to or from a nest, it was just trying to get a good day’s sleep, away from those pesky songbirds, which will harass any owl they see out and about in the daytime. They do this because owls are a major threat. If a small bird can see the owl first, it’s very unlikely the owl can catch the bird. The bird can then give an alarm call, summoning all his friends and relations to make the owl miserable and drive it away.

In the Charlotte area, eggs are laid around the beginning of March. The young hatch in about 30 days and leave the nest well before they are fully grown or fully feathered, at about 4-5 weeks of age. Once they leave the cavity, they do not go back to it. Downy young can use their beak and claws to climb up trees when they fall, which they do not uncommonly. Young found on the ground with no obvious injury should just be put back up on a branch. The parents will deliver food to them.

Pairs nest as close as 200 yds apart, (usually about 400) with very little overlap in the territories of neighboring males. Females apparently have some visiting privileges with their neighboring males.

This year we had two pairs nesting about 100 yds apart (at the Nature Museum in Freedom Park).

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