Arizona is home to many dangerous predators, but its owls are perhaps the most graceful as they glide through the air on nearly silent wings. Many of the owls in Arizona are year-round residents, but getting to them all can prove difficult due to their range of homes. In this article, we have included 13 different species of owls who are worth a trip into the wilderness.
With its distinctive white heart-shaped face and dark eyes, the Barn Owl is one of the most recognizable owls in North America. They are sometimes called “monkey-faced” owls. Barn Owls do not have ear tufts, and their body is a golden-brown color with a white belly and long legs. They are about the size of a crow with a length of 12.6 to 15.8 inches and a wingspan between 39.4 and 49.2 inches.
Barn Owls are live in populated areas alongside humans in barns, mine shafts, bridges, and even palm trees. They are found throughout the entire state of Arizona. Barn Owls hunt over open land, such as farmlands, prairies, and deserts. They eat a large number of rats and mice, and they hunt late at night. Barn Owls have such precise hearing that they can catch their prey in complete darkness. Some people have mistaken Barn Owls as ghosts because they appear all-white in the dark and have raspy shrieks. Their babies are especially noisy, crying loudly while their parents feed them.
These adorably small owls are very common across the entire state of Arizona. Western Screech-Owls are small and stocky with square-shaped heads and visible ear tufts. They are about the size of a robin at 7.5 to 9.8 inches in length and have a wingspan between 21.6 and 24.4 inches long. Western Screech-Owls can be brown, grey, or reddish-brown and are streaked with white spots. Their eyes are a piercing yellow.
They often nest inside tree or Saguaro cactus cavities in the woods, and their homes range from the low desert areas into the mountains. They can live in mountains with elevations up to 6,000 feet. Western Screech-Owls enjoy living in nest boxes in forested backyards.
Western Screech-Owls hunt from dusk into the dead of night and eat invertebrates and vertebrates alike. They are usually heard well before they are seen. Western Screech-Owls do not ‘screech’ like Eastern-Screech Owls do; instead, they create a short series of hollow, high toots that sound like a bouncing ball. Songbirds have also been observed “mobbing” Western Screech-Owls in order to protect themselves from the owls.
Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl lives everywhere within Arizona, and it is the largest owl species in the Sonoran Desert. They vary in length between 18.1 and 24.8 inches with a wingspan that ranges from 39.8 to 57.1 inches long. Great Horned Owls have two long ear tufts, grey-brown feathers, and reddish-brown faces. They also have a pronounced white patch on their chest and throat area.
Great Horned Owls mainly eat rabbits and rodents, but they also hunt hawks, snakes, and fish. They are the main predator responsible for keeping the jackrabbit and cottontail populations down in Arizona. Great Horned Owls start to hunt at dusk and feed throughout the night. Their soft feathers have adapted to eliminate any noise made while flying, which also helps them hear their prey better. Since Great Horned Owls are aggressive hunters, they are also known as “tiger owls”. They perform a dramatic aerial dive to catch their prey.
The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl are tiny owls that are rarely sighted and only inhabit a small region in southern Arizona and Texas in the United States. They measure 6.25 to 7 inches long. Their bodies are reddish-brown with white streaks along their undersides, and they do not have ear tufts. They look similar to their slightly larger relative, the Northern Pygmy-Owl, which is also found in Arizona.
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl live in the saguaro deserts and wooded rivers of Arizona. Unlike most owls, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls hunt during the day as well as at night, usually around dawn and dusk. They target smaller birds, lizards, and scorpions. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are known for nesting in saguaro cacti and do not use nesting materials, instead relying on the saguaro cactus to provide everything they need. They are considered extremely bold and aggressive in relation to their small stature. They hunt using their agility and rapid flight, often darting out from their hollow cavities to snatch their prey.
Northern Pygmy Owl
Northern Pygmy Owls are compact and have round heads without ear tufts. They are about the size of robins, ranging from 6.3 to 7.1 inches in length, and are similar to their Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl relatives. They have brown feathers with small white spots across their heads and backs. Northern Pygmy Owls also have dark markings on the back of their necks to look like eyes, potentially fooling predators into thinking the owl is watching them. They live inside tree cavities in the forests and canyons of Arizona. Since they are small and blend into their surroundings, they can be hard to spot. The best way to find them is through their calls, which are high, evenly spaced toots.
Northern Pygmy Owls hunt small songbirds during the day, and sometimes they hover around bird feeders to find easy meals. They have been known to prey on birds three times larger than themselves, including chickens. Northern Pygmy Owls are aggressive hunters who fly fast and close to the ground. They horde extra food in their tree cavities or hang them on thorns. They prey on birds more than most other small owls, but their diet also includes rodents, insects, and lizards. Songbirds will mob Northern Pygmy-Owls to protect themselves. Agitated songbirds are also an indication that a Northern Pygmy Owl is nearby. They rely more heavily on their vision than other owls since their ears are not asymmetrical.
Elf Owls are one of the smallest owls in the world, reaching only about 5 inches in length with a wingspan of 9 inches long. They are about the size of a sparrow. Their feathers are grayish-brown with a white brow along their faces, and they do not have any ear tufts. They are found in the Sonoran Desert and stay in Arizona during the summer before migrating to Mexico in the early fall. Elf Owls take over nest cavities from other Elf Owls or birds, usually old woodpecker homes
Elf Owls primarily eat scorpions, beetles, and centipedes. . Elf Owls only hunt at dusk and in the night. They hunt in two ways: they either hover over their prey before pouncing on it or swoop down from a perch. Elf Owls also eat insects while flying through the air, similar to a bat.
Burrowing Owls are small, measuring between 7.5 and 9.8 inches in length with a wingspan of 21.6 inches long. They have brown and tan spotted feathers, no ear tufts, and long, almost featherless legs. Yellow eyes and a bold white unibrow complete their appearance. They are found all throughout the southern half of Arizona. Burrowing Owls are also called “howdy birds” since they appear to greet cowboys by nodding their heads from the entrance of their burrows.
Burrowing Owls usually nest in burrows created by squirrels or prairie dogs, but sometimes they dig their own homes. They live in wide open areas with little vegetation. They are very adaptable and have been found nesting inside PVC pipes or other unintentional openings. Burrowing Owls are active during the day and can be spotted standing on fence posts or mounds on the ground. They use various methods to hunt, from swooping down from perches to running on the ground and pouncing on their prey. They eat rodents, insects, and small reptiles. Burrowing Owls store extra food in their burrows and can mimic a rattlesnake’s rattle to deter potential predators from entering their homes.
Long-Eared Owls are about the size of a crow, with slender bodies and long ear tufts that stick straight up. They are 13.8 to 15.8 inches long and have a wingspan of 35.4 to 39.4 inches wide. Long-Eared Owls have orange faces and two white lines between their yellow eyes. Their bodies display a complex pattern of black, brown, and tan feathers. Long-Eared Owls have a wide vocal range and make various noises, including hoots, squeals, and barks. During the day, Long-Eared Owls roost in dense trees near the trunk where their feather patterns offer excellent camouflage. They roost in groups together during the winter.
Long-Eared Owls are most active at night and hunt using low, sweeping passes above the ground. They eat mostly small mammals like rodents, but they will hunt birds, lizards, and snakes. Their hearing is so precise that they can catch their prey in complete darkness, just like the Barn Owl. Long-Eared Owls usually stay in the same place year round, but they sometimes travel with their food source. Long-Eared Owls enjoy nesting in artificial baskets or nest boxes. They project long, low hoots and can be found roosting in thick foliage during the spring and summer months in Arizona.
Short-Eared Owls are about the same size as Long-Eared Owls and look very similar because they are from the same genus. Their length ranges between 13.4 and 16.9 inches with a wingspan between 33.5 and 40.5 inches long. Their lack of ear tufts, short tails, and pale faces are the main differences between Short-Eared Owls and their long-eared relatives. They are commonly found throughout Arizona during winter.
Short-Eared Owls are one of the most commonly seen owls in the area since they are active during the day and live in open terrains. They typically fly low over the ground to snatch up their prey and hunt at dawn and dusk. Many people compare them to moths because of their bobbing flight pattern while hunting. Short-Eared Owls eat mostly rodents, but they also catch rabbits and smaller birds. Short-Eared Owls usually stay in one general region, but they can become nomadic to follow large rodent populations. They have been known to travel great distances, and some people have even claimed to see them plunging onto ships in the ocean.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
Northern Saw-Whet Owls are between 7.1 and 8.3 inches long and have a wingspan of 16.5 to 18.9 inches, which is about the size of a robin. They have large, round heads without ear tufts and white facial disks. They have brown with white splattered feathers, catlike faces, and white-spotted heads. Northern Saw-Whet Owls live in the forests and thick shrubs of Arizona. They sometimes migrate up and down the mountains with the seasons.
Northern Saw-Whet Owls are nocturnal and spend their days roosting near the trunk of dense trees, typically evergreens. Female Northern Saw-Whet Owls keep their nests very clean. They mostly eat small mammals like mice and squirrels, but they sometimes dine on birds and large insects. They hunt by diving off of low perches and catch their prey in a single, fluid motion. Northern Saw-Whet Owls get their name from their rhythmic too-too-too call, which can continue for hours and sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.
The Whiskered Screech-Owl looks very similar to the Western Screech-Owl since they are from the same family, and both are common across Arizona. They are between 6.9 and 7.4 inches in length, so they are a little smaller than Western-Screech Owls. Whiskered Screech-Owls usually live at high elevations, but both owl breeds can be found together in the trees of lower canyons. The best way to tell the difference between the two types of owls is by their calls. Whiskered Screech-Owls perform an evenly spaced series of five to eight “toots” or make sounds like Morse Code.
Their grey and brown feathers allow them to blend into the trunks of trees. Whiskered Screech-Owls prefer to live inside cavities in oak and sycamore trees, so seeing them can be a challenge. They hunt from dusk into the night, and they usually stay on perches to swoop down and catch their prey. Whiskered Screech-Owls also glide through the air to eat insects like a bat. They eat large insects like beetles, caterpillars, and crickets, but they also munch on scorpions and small rodents.
Mexican Spotted Owl
The Mexican Spotted Owl is one of three subspecies of the Spotted Owl. They are one of the largest owl species, similar in size to Great Horned Owls. They are about 18.7 inches long and have a wingspan of 39.8 inches. Mexican Spotted Owls have short tails, dark brown feathers with white spots, and a distinct white X between their eyes. They lack ear tufts and have dark eyes. They are found in the wooded areas along the eastern half of Arizona.
Mexican Spotted Owls prey on small mammals like flying squirrels at night. They also eat woodrats, bats, and other owls. Mexican Spotted Owls will hoard extra food in tree limbs, logs, stumps, and rocks. They prefer to live in mature forests around the steep canyons of Arizona. Mexican Spotted Owls are rare to find because they have endured ongoing habitat loss and have been displaced from their homes due to the larger and more aggressive Barred Owls who invade their habitats.
Flammulated Owls are the smallest owls in Arizona, only ranging from 5.9 to 6.7 inches long with a wingspan of 15.9 to 16.1 inches across. They have dark vertical lines across their gray, brown, red, and white bodies, effectively mimicking the bark of a tree. They have small ear tufts and large, dark eyes. Flammulated Owls have an unusually large windpipe which allows them to make low pitched hoots to sound like larger owls. This provides some protection from other, much larger, owls.
Flammulated Owls hunt insects at night and primarily use their vision to hunt. They mainly eat large insects like beetles, moths, and spiders. They also eat scorpions and have been known to eat shrews from time to time. They enjoy foraging for insects at the top of pine or fir trees. Flammulated Owls used to be considered rare because they only travel to Arizona during their breeding season and are extremely well camouflaged. They migrate to Mexico for the winter and come back to Arizona during the spring when insects are plentiful, staying within the various forested regions.
Owls in Arizona Wrap-Up
Arizona is home to a variety of owls, and each one has a preference for their nests. Some enjoy the traditional forests, some prefer the ease of cactus cavities, and still others would rather live inside the ground. The differences among the owls in Arizona make each one a unique experience for any avid bird-watcher.
- Owls have very distinct sounds that they make, especially compared to other birds. Hone your birding skills and give this article a read to improve your own ear when listening for birds: How To Identify Birds By Their Sounds
- Interested in birding? We wrote a Beginners Guide To Birding that can help you get started. Check it out!