Forest Feature: Owls

Great horned owl

Owls, members of the order Strigiformus, are amazing creatures – and Pacific Northwest “Forest Feature” for the month of January! Their piercing gaze, sharp hearing, sharper talons, strong beaks, and powerful night vision, and ability to rotate their head to take in a near- 360 degree views place the order’s approximately 200 species among nature’s greatest hunters, and contribute to their perch as one of the world’s most fascinating birds.

In the Pacific Northwest, owls you might encounter include the Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Western Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Spotted Owl, Northern Pygmy Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Western Burrowing Owl, Great Gray Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Boreal Owl, and the Flammulated Owl, and Northern Hawk Owl.

Western screech owl

Some of these owls are commonly found in our region. If you live or have visited Washington and Oregon, you may have heard the Great Horned Owl’s “hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo.” If you are up just before dawn, you could hear a Barn Owl’s scream, or the Western Screech Owl – whose signature call sounds like a cross between a cat’s purr and a whistle!

But there are other native northwest owls that you are less likely to hear, because they are in need of conservation help. Most notably, the Northern Spotted Owl is listed as a threatened under both the Oregon and federal Endangered Species Acts.

Northern Spotted Owl Olympic NF

The spotted owl faces habitat loss and increased competition for the range that remains from the Barred Owl, originally an eastern U.S. species, which has expanded its range west in recent decades.

The Great Gray, Short-eared, Flammulated and Western Burrowing Owls are also listed as species of conservation concern in the Oregon Conservation Strategy.


Project: Build a Barn Owl nest box!

The Barn Owl is a stealthy hunter, who silently stalks mice, gophers, and ground squirrels at night. Farmers sometimes encourage owls to nest in barns and other areas on their property, because they eat the rodents that damage crops!

Barn owls don’t build nests, but they lay eggs in small holes inside rotted trees, along rocky cliffs, or on bluffs in late summer and early fall. If natural sites are not available, they seek out barns, silos, and abandoned buildings… or, you can encourage them to nest by offering a suitable nesting box!

Instructions: How to build a Barn Owl nest box

Fun facts about OWLS:

  • Have you ever heard someone called a “night owl?” Actually, most – but not all – owls are most active at night!
  • The smallest northwest owl is the Northern Pygmy Owl. It’s only 7 inches tall! (It’s also one of the only owls that’s active during the day).
  • The Western Burrowing Owl got its name because it’s the only North American owl that nests underground, usually in dens abandoned by other animals.
  • Snowy owls are uncommon in Washington and Oregon, they usually prefer the arctic circle. (They also are daylight hunters! And the Barred Owl also hunts during the daytime, and lives in the northwest).
  • A Great Horned Owl can stand one-and-a-half to nearly two feet tall, and has a wingspan of three to four feet!
  • The “wise owl” is a symbol that may date back to ancient Greece. The owl was the symbol of the goddess Athena, who represented wisdom. (The northwest’s Boreal Owl gets its name from another ancient Greek deity, Boreas – god of the wind. In other cultures, including Roman civilization and many Native American cultures in the Pacific Northwest, owls’ haunting calls and typically evening hunting habits may have inspired their symbolic association with death and as messengers for the spirit world or from the afterlife).


Did you know…?

Woodsy Owl has helped the Forest Service keep America informed about how to help the environment since 1970: “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” “Lend a hand, care for the land!” Woodsy first appeared on TV in 1971 in a public service announcement that aired during an episode of “Lassie.” (At the time, the long-running series featured the famous collie’s adventures with a Forest Service Ranger and his family).

Woodsy Owl Lady Bird Johnson

Forest Features highlight a new Pacific Northwest species (or sometimes order or genus) each month as part of our regional youth engagement strategy. If you’re an educator who would like more information about incorporating Pacific Northwest environmental and forest science in your classroom, email us at

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