The state of Florida hosts a rich diversity of owl species, from the charismatic Great Horned Owl, with its distinctive tufts and penetrating gaze, to the diminutive Eastern Screech Owl, blending effortlessly into its surroundings. This variety of owls, each unique in its features, calls, and habits, paints a wonderful picture of biodiversity, adding depth to Florida’s wildlife narrative.
Types Of Owls In Florida
1. Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl, or Bubo virginianus, is one of the most recognizable owls in North America. This robust, large bird stands out with its prominent ear tufts or “horns” which, along with its deep hooting voice, gave rise to its name. Adults typically range in size from 18 to 25 inches and sport a mottled grey-brown plumage.
Their golden eyes give them a stern, intense gaze, which is accentuated by their broad, round face. This predator is a master of the night, using its exceptional vision and hearing to hunt a wide range of prey, from rodents and rabbits to other birds and reptiles. Despite its imposing appearance, the Great Horned Owl is known for its quiet flight, enabled by soft feathers that reduce noise as it swoops down on unsuspecting prey.
2. Eastern Screech Owl
The Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), a compact yet captivating bird, is one of Florida’s most cherished owl species. Ranging from 6 to 10 inches in size, these owls may be small, but they more than make up for their size with their vocal prowess. They produce a haunting, horse-like whinny or a longer, wavering trill that often serves as a night-time serenade. Eastern Screech Owls come in two color morphs – red and gray – enabling them to blend seamlessly into their environments.
Their feathers boast a complex pattern that mimics the texture of tree bark, making them experts at camouflage. These feisty predators are known for their varied diet, which can include anything from insects and small rodents to birds and reptiles. Unlike many owl species, Eastern Screech Owls are cavity nesters, often occupying tree holes left by other birds, making them an exciting find for the keen observer.
3. Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is Florida’s largest resident owl, standing tall as a testament to the state’s rich biodiversity. This owl measures between 18 to 25 inches in length, and its most striking feature is a pair of prominent ear tufts, or ‘horns’, giving it a regal appearance.
The owl’s overall color is a mix of browns and whites, with a white bib under its chin, but it’s the intense, piercing yellow eyes that captivate most observers. Its hoot, a low “hoo-hoo-hoo,” is one of the most recognized calls in the animal kingdom. From rodents to birds and even other raptors, the Great Horned Owl’s prey base is broad, showcasing its prowess as an apex predator.
4. Barred Owl
The Barred Owl (Strix varia) is a notable denizen of Florida’s forests, its charm and uniqueness making it an avian delight. With a size ranging from 16 to 25 inches, the Barred Owl is often recognized by its distinctive ‘barred’ brown and white plumage, dark, round eyes, and lack of ear tufts. Their gaze is almost soft, exuding a gentleness not often associated with raptors.
Don’t be misled though, as these owls are proficient hunters, feasting on a wide variety of prey, from mice and squirrels to smaller birds and amphibians. Their call, a rhythmic, hooted “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” echoes through the forest, adding an enchanting soundtrack to the Florida woods.
5. Burrowing Owl
Standing at just 9 to 11 inches tall, the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) might be small, but it surely is a bundle of charisma. Unique among North American owls, Burrowing Owls nest and roost in the ground, often in burrows created by prairie dogs or other small mammals. Their slender legs are longer than most owl species, well-adapted to their terrestrial lifestyle.
With a predominantly sandy-colored plumage, white eyebrows, and bright yellow eyes, these owls are a captivating sight. They have a broad diet that includes insects, rodents, amphibians, and small birds. The Burrowing Owl’s call is a rhythmic series of short notes or a two-part coo-coo, which can be heard ringing across their habitats, especially during the breeding season.
6. Barn Owl
The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and cherished owls worldwide. With its heart-shaped face, buff-colored upperparts, and pure white underparts, the Barn Owl is an ethereal presence in the Florida night. Ranging from 13 to 16 inches in size.
This owl is known for its silent flight, piercing screech, and exceptional rodent-hunting skills, consuming more than a thousand rodents per year. Interestingly, Barn Owls don’t hoot like other owls; instead, they emit a long, eerie screech, and at times, hissing sounds, especially when threatened.
7. Short-Eared Owl
The Short-Eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is a nomadic owl species, which, despite its widespread distribution, often remains a hidden gem due to its elusive nature. They are medium-sized owls, ranging from 13 to 17 inches in length, with mottled brown bodies, pale underparts, and striking yellow eyes. True to their name, they have small ear tufts, though these are often hard to see.
Short-Eared Owls are one of the few species that build their nests on the ground, making them unique among their peers. They have a fascinating hunting style, flying low over open fields and marshes in search of small mammals and birds. Their flight is characterized by buoyant, moth-like flaps interspersed with glides.
8. Northern Saw-whet Owl
The Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus), often described as the feathered version of a kitten, is a small owl species, only about 7 to 8 inches long. Named for one of its calls, which is reminiscent of a saw being sharpened on a whetstone, this owl has a rich, rufous color, white streaks on its belly,
and a large, round head with captivating yellow eyes. Despite their small size, they are fierce predators, mostly hunting small rodents. This pint-sized owl is often an elusive sight, making any encounter an unforgettable experience for bird enthusiasts.
Top Spots For Owl-Spotting iIn Florida”
If you’re eager to catch a glimpse of these nocturnal hunters, here are some of the top spots in Florida where you’re most likely to spot them.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Naples
Nestled in the heart of Naples, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a paradise for bird lovers. The sanctuary is home to the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America, providing an ideal habitat for the Barred Owl. The best time to spot these owls is at dusk when they begin their nightly hunt.
Everglades National Park
The Everglades National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a hotspot for owl spotting. The park is home to several species of owls, including the Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, and the rare Burrowing Owl. The expansive wetlands and diverse ecosystems of the park provide ample opportunities for owl sightings.
Oscar Scherer State Park, Osprey
Located in Osprey, the Oscar Scherer State Park is known for its population of Florida Scrub-Jays. However, it’s also a great place to spot the elusive Florida Burrowing Owl. These owls are unique as they nest in burrows in the ground, unlike most owl species that nest in trees.
Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island
This wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island is a bird watcher’s paradise. It’s home to a variety of owl species, including the Great Horned Owl and the Eastern Screech Owl. The refuge’s diverse habitats provide excellent opportunities for owl spotting.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is a vast expanse of beautiful, untouched Florida prairie. It’s a known habitat for the Burrowing Owl, which makes its home in the ground rather than in trees. Visit at dusk or dawn for the best chances of spotting these unique creatures.
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Straddling the Florida-Georgia border, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is a fantastic location for spotting Barred Owls. The swampy environment of the refuge is perfect for these owls, and you can often hear their distinctive calls echoing through the trees at night.
Honeymoon Island State Park, Dunedin
Located in Dunedin, Honeymoon Island State Park is a great place to spot Great Horned Owls. These majestic birds can often be seen perched high in the pine trees, scanning the ground for prey.
Myakka River State Park, Sarasota
Myakka River State Park in Sarasota is one of the oldest and largest state parks in Florida. It’s home to a variety of wildlife, including the Barred Owl. The park’s riverine swamp environment provides an ideal habitat for these owls.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, located in the Big Bend region of Florida, is a haven for bird watchers. Among the many bird species found here, the Eastern Screech Owl and the Great Horned Owl are the most commonly sighted.
Big Cypress National Preserve
The Big Cypress National Preserve, located in South Florida, is a vast wilderness that’s home to a variety of wildlife, including several species of owls. The preserve’s mix of temperate and tropical plant communities provides diverse habitats for owls like the Eastern Screech Owl and the Barred Owl.
Threats To Florida’s Owls
Florida’s owls are a treasure to the state’s biodiversity, but they face a growing number of threats that could significantly impact their populations. One of the primary threats is habitat loss due to urban development. As cities expand and forests and open lands give way to homes and businesses, owls lose their natural habitats.
Pesticide usage also poses a severe threat. Owls that feed on rodents and insects exposed to pesticides can accumulate these harmful substances, leading to health problems or even death. Finally, collisions with vehicles are a growing problem, especially for owls like the Barn Owl, which often hunts over roads and open areas, making them vulnerable to fast-moving cars.