Superb Owl Sunday, our yearly day of celebration of the outstanding owl species of the world, is upon us! The NFL even puts on a special sports ball game to help celebrate our favorite Strigiformes. (Kinda random, but sweet of them nonetheless.)
Introducing the starting lineup for the owls of Northern California:
Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina)
The northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) is probably pretty well-known to EPIC members as a common subject of our work, as well as an emblematic symbol and critical indicator species for old-growth forests in northern California, the greater Pacific Northwest, and southern British Columbia.
Known for its soulful hoots and mottled plumage, this elusive owl primarily feeds on small rodents like mice and flying squirrels. Like many other owl species, northern spotted owls do not make their own nests, instead using the abandoned nests of other birds. Unlike most other owls, however, northern spotted owls have dark brown eyes (instead of yellow or red), and do not nest every year nor have success every time they do nest.
The northern spotted owl has been listed as federally threatened since 1990. Despite the Endangered Species Act listing and other efforts to assist the species, such as critical habitat designations and barred owl removal, the northern spotted owl is still imperiled throughout its range due to habitat loss from unsustainable timber practices and competition with invasive barred owls.
Barred Owl (Strix varia)
An owl historically native to Eastern North America, the barred owl (Strix varia) expanded into dense, human-altered forests in Western North America beginning around the turn of the 20th century, and has since become increasingly prevalent in forests throughout Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.
With its deep, hooting, unusually frequent call of "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" the barred owl is easily recognizable. These large, mottled brown owls are skilled hunters, preying on rodents, birds, and even fish near water sources — a much more cosmopolitan diet than that of their cousin, the rodent-specialist northern spotted owl. Their adaptability to various habitats allows barred owls to quickly colonize new areas as their range expands.
EPIC supports efforts by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to remove barred owls from some of Northern California’s landscape to benefit native wildlife, including the northern spotted owl, rodents, amphibians, and crayfish — all of which are in decline because of the invader. Learn more from our EcoNews Report radio show from December 16, 2023 — listen to or read the episode here from the Lost Coast Outpost.
Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)
The largest owl in North America, the great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) is relatively uncommon and rarely seen by humans. Deserving of its name, they can have a wingspan of up to five feet. The great gray owl is found in dense coniferous forests and wooden bogs across the Northern Hemisphere. Although mainly a nocturnal hunter, it has also been observed hunting during dawn and dusk for mice, mainly, but also occasionally for larger mammals and birds. Because of their graceful and silent hunting techniques and the rarity of sighting, the great gray owl is well known as the “Phantom of the North.” The population dynamics of these owls relies heavily on the abundance of voles since 80 to 90 percent of their diet consists of these small rodents.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
Often seen perching in high places around dusk, the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), with its distinctive ear tufts and piercing yellow eyes, reigns as one of the largest owl species in Northern California and the most widespread owl in North America. Preferring mixed woodlands and open fields, but forging even urban environments, this formidable predator is a master of stealth and agility. With a voracious diet ranging from rodents to small mammals and even other birds (including other great horned owls), the great horned owl plays a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of its habitat. Their mating season occurs in January and early February, and females lay two to three eggs in the abandoned nests of other birds, often hawks or crows. Once they are adults, the great horned owl has no natural predators and has been recorded to live up to 28 years in the wild.
Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii)
Despite its diminutive size, the western screech owl (Megascops kennicottii) is a powerful predator in Northern California's forests and urban areas alike. While they are a smaller owl species, they have been observed taking prey larger than themselves, such as cottontail rabbits. Although the western screen owl avoids higher elevations and extreme desert conditions, they also occupy quite a large range from Southeastern Alaska all the way to Arizona.
Well-camouflaged in tree cavities or man-made structures, these hard-to-detect, adaptable owls feed on insects, small birds, and rodents. When threatened, the western screech owl will stretch its body and tighten its feathers in order to look like a tree branch. They are especially vocal during their breeding season from February until mid-May, and their distinctive trill-like call resonates through the night, adding to the tapestry of sounds in the region's wilderness. Unfortunately, like the northern spotted owl, the western screech owl is threatened by invasive barred owls, which prey on the smaller owl.
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
With its heart-shaped facial disc and ghostly white plumage, the barn owl (Tyto alba) is an iconic sight in Northern California's agricultural landscapes. Utilizing its nearly silent flight and keen sense of hearing to locate prey up to 10 feet away, this stealthy, nocturnal hunter specializes in capturing rodents such as mice and voles in the darkness of night. Barn owls are cavity nesters that breed from March through June and, unlike many bird species, remain monogamous with one partner for life or until one of them passes away. They often nest in old barns, abandoned buildings, and even nest boxes, providing valuable pest control services to farmers.
Northern Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium californicum)
Despite its small stature, the northern pygmy owl (Glaucidium californicum), is a fierce hunter renowned for its fearless demeanor. Inhabiting coniferous forests and oak woodlands, this pint-sized predator preys on small birds, insects, and even small mammals. In serially monogamous pairs, birds stay together for one breeding season that occurs annually between April and June. With its piercing yellow eyes and distinctive head bobbing behavior, spotting a northern pygmy owl amidst the dense foliage is a thrilling experience for birdwatchers in Northern California.
Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
Uniquely adapted to life on the ground, the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) is a ground-dwelling species found in grasslands, agricultural fields, and even urban areas of Northern California.
Recognizable by its long legs and characteristic bobbing posture, this owl constructs its nests in abandoned burrows or artificial structures. Unfortunately, habitat loss and land development pose significant threats to the survival of this charming owl species.
EPIC loves native owls, and considers them “Chiefs” of Northwest California ecosystems for their exquisite athleticism, teamwork with others in their habitats, and roles as indicator species who help speak for the health of the collective. EPIC will also become “49ers” when we celebrate the 49th anniversary of our 1977 founding in 2026. Here’s to superb owls, one and all!