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Owls of Missouri


Owls have captured people’s imaginations for centuries with their mysterious nature and distinct appearance. Owls even have a place in the folklore and legends of many different cultures. They can be a symbol of death or disease or a symbol of wisdom and good fortune. Some cultures believe that owls can predict the weather.

Owls play a significant role in the places they call home. As mostly nocturnal hunters, they fill a specific niche left open by other birds of prey that are diurnal. Since they are such effective hunters, they help to keep the populations of their prey under control. Farmers and others with pest problems often use this to their advantage by attracting owls to their property with nest boxes.

Eight species of these secretive birds live in or visit Missouri. These species are the Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, Long-Eared Owl, Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Short-Eared Owl, and Snowy Owl.

What Makes an Owl an Owl?

Although each species of owl has its own characteristics that make it unique, all owls share certain features that make them owls. Owls are birds of prey adapted to hunting effectively in the night. In order to see well in the night, owls have tube-shaped eyes that maximize the distance between the front and back of the eyeball and face the front, not the side. As a result, owls cannot move their eyeballs to look side to side or up and down, which is why owls are able to rotate their heads 270 degrees with the help of special neck bones and a blood pooling system that keeps blood flowing to the brain when head rotation cuts off circulation.

Sound is very important to owls. Excellent hearing is another essential adaptation that owls have to help them hunt at night. Many owls have asymmetrical ears that help pinpoint where a sound is coming from. In addition, an owl’s face shape is like an acoustic dish that funnels sound to their ears. They also have special feathers that give them the ability to fly silently. Their feathers also help them camouflage with their surroundings so they can rest during the day hidden from potential predators.

Even owl feet are adapted to their specific way of life. Owls are zygodactyl, with two toes in the front and two toes in the back. Unlike other zygodactyl birds, however, owls are able to move one of their back toes to the front. This allows them to walk more easily. The option to switch their toe position helps owls get a better grip on perches in the dark and crush their prey to death in their talons. Crushing their prey helps them keep their prey quiet and swallow it whole or tear it into pieces before eating it.

Owls in Missouri:

*Click the picture of an owl to listen to the species’ calls*

By Peter Trimming from Croydon, England – ‘Tutoke’Uploaded by snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0,

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Family: Barn Owls (Tytonidae)

Size: 16 inches long, wingspan 3.5-4 feet

Appearance: Light brown and gray on top and white underneath with little dark dots on the white parts. Barn owls have long legs, dark eyes, and distinctive heart-shaped faces. About the size of a crow.

Voice: Harsh screeching, screaming, hissing, clicking, grunting, and bill snapping

Habitat: Open areas, clearings, cultivated areas, cities, man-made structures

Nesting: 5-10 eggs in existing cavities or sometimes ground burrows are incubated for about a month. Nesting can happen at any time in the year.

Barn owls are one of the most widespread species of birds on the planet. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica. As a truly nocturnal bird, they usually emerge from their roosts several hours after nightfall. Due to their effectiveness at hunting rodents, farmers and other people who deal with pests sometimes encourage barn owls to live on their property by putting up nest boxes.

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Family: True owls (Strigidae)

Size: 21 inches long, wingspan 3.5 to 4 feet

Appearance: Brown on top with white mottling/stripes and buff-brown on the underside with dark brown streaks. These owls have dark eyes and yellow bills.

Voice: Variety of hoots and screams with a hard to locate voice. The classic series of hoots is commonly heard and described as “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”.

Habitat: Mixed forests with large trees that have cavities for nesting, often near water. They are more likely to be found in large sections of mature forest, which can support a higher diversity of prey and provides more possible nesting sites.

Nesting: These birds nest in natural cavities in large trees, stick platform nests built and then abandoned by other animals, and nest boxes created by humans. They lay 1 to 5 eggs which are incubated for about a month.

Barred owls are a very old species- barred owl fossils from the Pleistocene Era up to 11,000 years ago have been found in some states. They generally stay within a small area and don’t migrate, but they have expanded their range recently into the Pacific Northwest. They are effective hunters and eat a wide range of prey such as rodents, frogs, snakes, rabbits, fish, crayfish, and insects. They are mostly nocturnal but sometimes fly and hunt during the day.

Eastern Screech-Owl (Otus asio)

Family: True Owls (Strigidae)

Size: 8.5 to 10 inches long, wingspan 20 to 22 inches

Appearance: Screech owls are small and mottled, with three different color phases present in Missouri: red, gray, and brown. They have prominent ear tufts and yellow eyes.

Voice: A whistling call that quavers and varies in volume.

Habitat: Open deciduous woodlands with cedars and pines, suburban areas, parks, orchards, and lakeshores.

Nesting: 3 to 8 eggs are laid in natural cavities in trees or bird boxes and incubated for 26 days. Nesting happens from March through May.

Because of their smaller size, screech owls typically eat smaller prey than other types of owls, such as beetles, grasshoppers, mice, crayfish, moles, moths, mice, shrews, small birds, and frogs. This allows them to occupy a specific niche in the environment and not compete with other nocturnal species. They are commonly found around places that humans live, but they are rarely seen due to their effective camouflage and nocturnal behavior.

By Mary C. Kirby –, CC BY 2.0,

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

Family: True Owls (Strigidae)

Size: 22 to 25 inches long, wingspan 55 inches

Appearance: This large owl’s face can be red, brown, or gray. It is mottled brown on the upper parts and streaked and mottled on its underside with a white throat. The ear tufts are spaced far apart and it has yellow eyes.

Voice: Deep hoots that can be heard from very far away. Usually grouped in a pattern: “hoo, h’hoo, HOO, HOO”

Habitat: Many different habitats from deep forests, deserts, city parks, swamps, and open country.

Nesting: 2 to 3 white eggs in unused nests of other birds, natural cavities, the surface of a cliff or cave, or the ground. Nesting occurs in January or early February and eggs are incubated for a month.

Great Horned Owls are the largest owls in Missouri and the second largest owl in North America. Because they have almost no sense of smell, they are one of the few species of animal that will eat skunks. They also prey on a wide variety of other creatures such as rabbits, lizards, beetles, mice, snakes, other owls, and even turkeys. These owls rely on their keen hearing in order to find and hunt prey.

Long-Eared Owl (Asio otus)

Family: True Owls (Strigidae)

Size: 15 inches long, wingspan 3 to 3.5 feet

Appearance: Long-Eared Owls have long ear tufts that are close together. They are mottled brown on the upper parts and streaked and barred on the underside. Their faces are rusty colored or chestnut and they have yellow eyes.

Voice: Usually quiet but can produce a variety of vocalizations such as soft hoots, whines, whistles, shrieks, barks, and meows.

Habitat: Forest and grasslands

Nesting: Rarely nests in Missouri. 4 or 5 white eggs in abandoned nests of crows, squirrels, or hawks are incubated for 28 days. Nesting occurs in March or April.

Long-Eared Owls are very rare in Missouri and typically are only present from mid-November to Mid-April. They are highly secretive during the day and roost together in dense groves of pine. In order to camouflage themselves, they compress their feathers and elongate themselves so they appear to be part of the tree trunk. During the night, they hunt for small rabbits, voles, shrews, rats, and mice in open areas and grasslands.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

Family: True Owls (Strigidae)

Size: 7 to 8 inches long, wingspan 17 to 18 inches

Appearance: Saw-Whet Owls are very small with no ear tufts and yellow eyes. They are mottled brown with white spots on the upper part and white with red streaks on the underside.

Voice: Usually quiet but makes monotonous whistles and rasping squeals during the breeding season. “Too, too, too”

Habitat: Coniferous woodland, evergreen thickets, open country

Nesting: 4 to 7 white eggs are laid in a natural cavity and incubated for 26 to 29 days. These owls rarely nest in Missouri; they spend the winter in Missouri and migrate north in the summer for breeding.

This secretive species is difficult to study, but it is believed that their population is declining due to fragmentation and loss of habitats. They roost in dense foliage during the day and hunt small rodents, insects, bats, and small birds during the night.

Short-Eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Family: True Owls (Strigidae)

Size: 15 to 16 inches long, wingspan 3.5 feet

Appearance: This crow-sized owl has pale and dark brown streaks on the upper parts and buff white and dark streaks on the underside. They have pale faces with yellow eyes surrounded by black patches. The very short ear tufts are difficult to see.

Voice: Usually quiet but can produce a variety of barks, hisses, hoots, and squeaks.

Habitat: Open country and grasslands.

Nesting: Short-Eared Owls no longer nest in Missouri. They typically lay 5 to 7 white eggs in nests on the ground concealed by weeds or bushes.

These owls hunt gophers, mice, rats, lemmings, insects, and birds at night by flying over open grasslands. They roost together and can often be seen during the day as they are active in the early morning and late afternoon. This species is a species of conservation concern in Missouri. Numbers of Short-Eared Owls are declining due to destruction and fragmentation of their habitats.

Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca)

Family: True Owls (Strigidae)

Size: 20 to 25 inches long, wingspan 4.5 to 5 feet

Appearance: Snowy Owls are large and white, sometimes with dark spotting. They have yellow eyes, round heads without ear tufts, and lots of feathers on their legs. Females are typically larger and darker than males. The owls that visit Missouri are usually young, which means they have more black barring than adults.

Voice: Usually quiet but can produce hoarse croaks and whistles during breeding.

Habitat: Open grassland

Nesting: 3 to 11 eggs are laid on open tundra and incubated for a month. Snowy Owls do not nest in Missouri as they visit between mid-November and February and nest in the summer.

Populations of Snowy Owls in Missouri peak about every four years due to drastic decreases in lemming populations. The owls are forced to migrate south in search of prey such as rabbits, birds, and rodents. They are rarely seen in trees and prefer to sit on the ground, rooftops, or fence posts to look for prey. Snowy Owls are especially prone to dangers of power lines, cars, and people since they do not face these hazards in the tundra.


“13 Fun Facts About Owls.” Audubon, Audubon, 16 Oct. 2018.

Bull, John and Farrand, John Jr. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.

“Field Guide: A-Z.” MDC Discover Nature, Missouri Department of Conservation,

Pociask, Stefan. “What Makes Owls So Different From Other Bird Species?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 2 May 2017,

Wilson, Eddie W. “The Owl and the American Indian.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 63, no. 249, 1950, p. 336., doi:10.2307/536533.

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