Sounds Of 11 OWLS In California (Guide With Photos & Calls)
Did you recently hear an owl sound in California, and want to know what species it was?
Identifying owl calls in the Golden State is not as easy as it might seem, since there are many owls that regularly occur in California.
To help you identify the owl you heard, we’ll cover the most common owl sounds of California in this article.
What sounds do California owls make?
Below we’ve uploaded the sounds of the 11 types of owls found in California:
- Great Horned Owl
- Barn Owl
- Long-eared Owl
- Burrowing Owl
- Short-eared Owl
- Western Screech-Owl
- Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Northern Pygmy Owl
- Flammulated Owl
- Great Gray Owl
- Spotted Owl
By learning to recognize their call, you can identify these owls even if it’s hard to see them in the dark of night. This is extremely helpful if you want to identify California owls.
And while most of these owls are regular birds in California, the last three species on the list are vagrants that only rarely occur in the state.
Now let’s dive in and listen to the calls and sounds of these owls:
Great Horned Owl
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
Great Horned Owl sounds:
(Recording source: Christopher McPherson, XC691461, www.xeno-canto.org/691461)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of a Great Horned Owl, which can be heard from both males and females.
With a wingspan up to 4 feet, the Great Horned Owl is the largest owl species breeding in California.
This larbe owl has two ear tufts (also called horns) and big yellow eyes. In California, this owl starts its nesting very early in the year, laying its eggs in January or February.
This owl is almost entirely nocturnal, and can hunt in complete darkness by relying on its keen sense of hearing.
The Great Horned Owl doesn’t build its own nest, but instead occupies the nests of other large birds, such as California herons or raptors.
It is found year-round throughout California, and can be encountered in a wide variety of habitats in California, from woodlands to urban areas.
This big California bird is a fierce hunter, catching birds up to the size of ducks, and mammals up to the size of squirrels, rabbits, and even young foxes.
Scientific name: Tyto alba
Barn Owl sounds:
(Recording source: Jayrson De Oliveira, XC619814, www.xeno-canto.org/619814)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of an American Barn Owl. It is a screeching sound that is hard to miss.
Somewhat softer and less intense-looking than the Great Horned Owl, Barn Owls are characterized by their white coat of feathers, and their “friendlier” appearance.
Armed with exceptional night vision, Barn Owls are strictly nocturnal raptors and therefore hard to spot. However, they can be readily identified by their characteristic screeching calls.
And if you do spot one flying overhead by the light of the moon, you may be able to see the bright glow of these white California birds.
These owls are present in California all year round, and favor open areas and farmland as their hunting grounds.
Scientific name: Asio otus
Long-eared Owl call:
(Recording source: Baltasar Pinheiro, XC737794, www.xeno-canto.org/737794)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of a Long-eared Owl.
These well-camouflaged, elusive owls are smaller than the aforementioned species, and are year-round residents and breeding birds in northern California.
They use their favored habitat of dense wooded areas to prey on the small rodents, small birds and other animals that call the nearby grasslands their home.
Similar to other owl species, Long-eared Owls can fly completely silently due to fringes on their flight feathers.
Together with their keen sense of hearing, this enables these owls to catch prey by surprising it in the dark of the night.
But despite their best efforts to remain hidden, these owls can be identified by their long, low hoots.
Another great characteristic for identifying these owls is by their elongated tufts of feathers on the ears, and their droppings found underneath conifer trees close to grassy areas.
Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
Burrowing Owl sound:
(Recording source: David Ricardo Rodriquez-Villamil, XC524489, www.xeno-canto.org/524489)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of a Burrowing Owl.
The Burrowing Owl is a regular breeding bird in large parts of California, including the Mojave Desert. It digs its own burrows, but also often takes over burrows from prairie dogs or ground squirrels.
This owl is active both day and night, and hunts insects and small rodents in open areas.
Due to their small size, these owls can be hard to spot in the expanse of open prairies.
They are most often observed perching on a small mound, from where they can scan their surroundings in search of food.
Scientific name: Asio flammeus
Short-eared Owl call:
(Recording source: Lars Edenius, XC718743, www.xeno-canto.org/718743)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of a Short-eared Owl.
The Short-eared Owl is a highly migratory owl species, and while it doesn’t breed in California, it is regularly observed in the state outside of the breeding season.
Short-eared Owls are more often observed hunting in daylight than other owls species.
Together with their hunting tactic of flying low over the ground in open areas, this makes these owls relatively easy to spot.
You can encounter these owls in California in any kind of open landscapes, including farmland, airports, and fallow land.
Scientific name: Megascops kennicottii
Western Screech Owl sound:
(Recording source: Lance A. M. Benner, XC540561, www.xeno-canto.org/540561)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of an Eastern Screech-Owl. These owls are common birds in California and can be seen in the state all year round.
Originally birds of open woodlands, Western Screech-Owls have adapted very well to urban habitats, and are regularly found in parks, large gardens, and golf courses.
They breed in tree cavities, and are best identified by their characteristic series of accelerating hoots.
They have a very varied diet, which includes any type of small animal ranging from worms to insects and rodents.
Western Screech-Owls readily accept artificial nesting cavities, which means you can attract them to your backyard by setting up nest boxes.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
Northern Saw-whet Owl call:
(Recording source: Lance A. M. Benner, XC546885, www.xeno-canto.org/546885)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of a Northern Saw-whet Owl.
This is another small owl species that’s hardly larger than a pint. These owls are hard to see, but they are easy to detect if you listen for their characteristic too-too-too call at night.
Northern Saw-whet Owls are regular breeding birds in northern California, and also show up in more southern parts of the state during winter.
In some years these birds erupt southwards during winter, and can be seen far south of their normal range.
They nest in tree cavities, but also readily accept man made nest boxes. So if you have a large garden with mature trees, it’s worth putting up a nest box well before the nesting season.
Northern Pygmy Owl
Scientific name: Glaucidium californicum
(Recording source: Lance A. M. Benner, XC527715, www.xeno-canto.org/527715)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of a Northern Pygmy Owl.
The Northern Pygmy Owl is the smallest owl found in California. But while it may be tiny, it is an aggressive hunter that regularly catches songbirds as large as itself.
This owl likes to hunt during the day. It perches in a hidden spot, and dashes out if a songbird should venture close to it.
When songbirds spot a Pygmy Owl, they will gang up on and mob the owl until it gives up and flies away.
Since Northern Pygmy Owls are usually hard to spot, the best way to find them is by paying attention to mobbing songbirds, and use them as your guide.
Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
Flammulated Owl call:
(Recording source: Lance A. M. Benner, XC553927, www.xeno-canto.org/553927)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of a Flammulated Owl.
The Flammulated Owl is a breeing bird in central California, and also occurs in a few scattered populations in northern and southeastern parts of the state.
These small owls are summer visitors in the Golden State, and migrate south in October to their wintering grounds in south Mexico.
In addition to its small size, it also has the habit of foraging for insects in the crowns of tall conifer trees, which makes it hard to observe.
The best way to identify one of these owls is by their low hooting call. They feed almost exclusively on insects.
Great Gray Owl
Scientific name: Strix nebulosa
Great Gray Owl sound:
(Recording source: Bruce Lagerquist, XC715843, www.xeno-canto.org/715843)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of a Great Gray Owl.
The Great Gray Owl is predominantly a northern species with most of its range located in Canada and Alaska.
However, it also has a small breeding population in the montane habitats of northern California, where it can be encountered year-round.
Similar to many other northern raptors, Great Gray Owls sometimes show up in large numbers far south of their breeding range during winter.
These are called irruptive years, and occur when the owls are forced to move south due to insufficient food in their breeding range.
Scientific name: Strix occidentalis
These owls have become increasingly rare, since their preferred habitat is mature forest, which has been steadily declining across its range in North America.
California is home to the California Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis), which is one of three subspecies of the Spotted Owl in North America.
This owl has a very patchy distribution in the Golden State, which makes it difficult to find. Similar to other owl species, the best way to identify these owls is by their hooting calls.
Similar to other owls, it feeds on small mammals, but likes to specialize on flying squirrels and woodrats.
And there we have the most common owl sounds that can be heard in California!
I think you’ll find that, with a little practice, identifying owls by their sounds is much easier than identifying them by sight.
Of course this doesn’t apply when owls are silent, which can be the case with winter visitors such as Short-eared Owls.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the California birds of prey.