Yellowstone is home to quite a few species of owls. I'm told 11 species, but I include the Barn Owl, so I'll say 12 species in all. Owls are nocturnal, so seeing one in Yellowstone is a rare treat. You can see them in daylight now and then, but I wouldn't count on it. If you camp in or near Yellowstone, you will hear them hooting through the night. You can't see them, but they make their presence known.
So would you like to meet a few of our owl friends? Okay, I'll talk about a few of them, and list the others. I'll start with the Barn owl...
Barn Owls (Tyto alba) are medium to large owls with big heads and heart-shaped faces. They have long strong legs with powerful talons. There is 1 Yellowstone species. When most folks think of owls, they probably picture the barn owl in their minds. Photos of Barn Owls
Next up is the Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa). This owl prefers to live in secluded coniferous forests. It will take over abandoned hawk or eagle nests or tree stumps. They will settle right in and make it their own. They usually eat small rodents like mice and squirrels. The great grey owl has a massive 60-inch wingspan, causing it to look larger and more imposing than it is. An adult weighs only 2-3 pounds. Photos of Great Grey Owls
Now meet the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). This owl is one of the most common in North America and it is the most common in Yellowstone. It gets its name from the tufts of feathers on the upper part of the head that resemble horns. This one has a light gray underside with dark bars or stripes with a white band of feathers on its upper breast. It has yellow-orange eyes. They hunt from high perches, spotting their prey and then swooping down to snatch it up with large, razor sharp talons. I see a Horned owl out where I go running. He lives under an old bridge, and even has some other owl friends drop by now and then. If you're interested, my pics and story are here.
The Long-Eared Owls (Asio otus) have what look like long ears. I call them Dumbo owls. The "ears" aren't ears at all of course, but are tufts of long, black and reddish brown feathers. Their real ears are just holes on either side of their head but are under the feathers so you won't see them. You can tell the difference between long-eared owls and great horned owls by their brownish-colored bodies with heavy barring and stripes on their breast and belly. Photos of Long-Eared Owls
The Short-Eared Owls (Asio flammeus) feel inferior to the long-eared owls. Okay, not really. These guys have a rather unique habit, they’ll play dead to evade a predator. It's the funniest thing to see. They are brown with dark streaks on the chest, belly and back and it provides them with great camouflage. The males are a bit lighter in color than females. Photos of Short-Eared owls
Boreal Owls (Aegolius funereus) are only nocturnal. You won't see these in daylight so hopefully you'll have your night vision goggles handy. They eat small mammals, birds and insects. They take over abandoned woodpecker nests or other recesses in trees. They are quite small with a body length between 8 and 11 inches. Their wingspans however, stretch to between 19 and 25 inches. Photos of Boreal Owls
The Flammulated Owl (Psiloscops flammeolus) is a small, nocturnal owl approximately 6 inches long and has a 14 inch wingspan. The females are larger than the males. This one gets the name flammulated from the flame like markings on its face. The flammulated owl is similar in appearance to the western screech owl but is only about one-quarter the size and lacks large ear tufts. These owls are obligate cavity nesters, meaning they will only create nests in tree cavities and no where else. Photos of Flammulated Owls
The Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii) is a small owl native to North and Central America, closely related to the European scops owl and the North American eastern screech owl. The scientific name commemorates the American naturalist Robert Kennicott. Their length averages 8.7 inches and wingspan is 22 inches. Again, the females are larger than the males. They have a round head with ear tufts, yellow eyes and a yellowish bill. Their appearance is similar to whiskered and eastern screech owls, so it's best to identify them by their calls, which is a series of short whistles at an increasing tempo or a short then long trill falling slightly at the end. Photos of Western Screech Owl
The Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) is a small owl that is relatively common in Eastern North America, from Mexico to Canada. This species is native to most wooded environments of its distribution and, more so than any other owl in its range, has adapted well to man made development, although it frequently avoids detection due to its strictly nocturnal habits. Adults are 6.3 to 9.8 inches and a wingspan of 18 to 24 inches. Photos of Eastern Screech Owl
The Northern Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium gnoma), known as northern pygmy-owl in North America, is a small owl native to North and Central America. I found this and hadn't heard it before: Some experts consider this bird a superspecies with the mountain pygmy owl. The American Ornithologists' Union, the authority for the North American region, does not recognize this split, so the populations are still considered conspecific. Males will regularly perch at the top of the tallest available trees to give their territorial call, making them somewhat ventriloquistic (is that a word?) in sloped landscapes, and causing distress and confusion among observers on the ground hoping to get a glimpse. They are incredibly hard to spot because of their size and color. They are 6 inches and are gray, brownish-gray or reddish-brown in color. This owl has a round white spotted head, weakly defined facial disc, and dark upper breast, wings and tail, the latter quite long compared to other owls. The eyes are yellow and the bill is yellowish-green. The bird has two black nape spots outlined in white on the back of its head, which look like eyes. The mid to lower breast is white with darker vertical streaking. Photos of Northern Pygmy Owl
The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) is a small, long-legged owl. They nest and roost in burrows, such as those excavated by prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.). Unlike most owls, Burrowing Owls are often active during the day, although they tend to avoid the midday heat. But like many other kinds of owls, burrowing owls do most of their hunting from dusk until dawn, when they can use their night vision and hearing to their advantage. Living in open grasslands as opposed to the forest, the burrowing owl has developed longer legs, which enables it to sprint as well as fly when hunting. Burrowing owls have bright eyes; their beaks can be dark yellow or gray depending on the subspecies. They lack ear tufts and have a flattened facial disc. The owls have prominent white eyebrows and a white "chin" patch which they expand and display during certain behaviors, such as a bobbing of the head when agitated. Photos of Burrowing Owl
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) is another small owl. In fact, it is one of the smallest owls in North America. They are close to the size of an American robin. The northern saw-whet owl has a round, light, white face with brown and cream streaks; they also have a dark beak and yellow eyes. The scientific description of one of the sub-species of this owl is attributed to the Rev. John Henry Keen who was a missionary in Canada in 1896. This owl is the one pictured.
Whew! So there you have it. I hope you are lucky enough to spot one of these if you visit Yellowstone. There is something special about being in the presence of an owl. It's a feeling you get that is difficult to explain. Maybe a kind of reverence. You'll know it when you feel it. =]:)