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8 Owls In Tennessee: From Common To Rarest Species

Owls in Tennessee

Can you see owls in Tennessee? The woods and hollows of Tennessee are perfect habitat for Barred Owls, big Great Horned Owls, and small Eastern Screech-Owls. Do enough birding in Tennessee and you might also find some less common species!

Which owls live in Tennessee? Which species are common and which are rare?

See this article for answers about the owls of Tennessee!


How Common Are Owls In Tennessee?

While it might not seem so, Tennessee has a solid owl population. Sure, they are solitary, but that just makes it more interesting for us!

Based on eBird data, there are several different owl species living here. Some are rarer than others, so let’s take a closer look!


Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

  • Range: A permanent resident in most forested areas in Canada, parts of some Pacific Northwestern states, and most of the eastern USA.
  • Length: 21 inches
  • Wingspan: 42 inches
  • Call: Makes loud hooting and caterwalling sounds, “Who cooks for you?! Who cooks for youaaaal!”

The Barred Owl is a medium to large owl with a round head and a narrow black border on its pale gray face. It has dark brown upperparts with white markings, and dark brown streaks on its belly.

This species also has a yellowish beak and dark eyes. Both sexes look the same except that females are a bit larger than males.

The Barred Owl lives in deciduous and coniferous forests and woodlands. They usually nest in abandoned nests of other raptors and crows, and in tree cavities

Key Identifications:

  • Big owl with a round head that has white marks on dark brown upperparts, and dark brown streaks on pale underparts.
  • Perches and swoops through wooded areas at night but can also be active in the day.
  • Nests in tree cavities and in abandoned nests of crows and hawks.
  • Catches a wide variety of small animals.


Great Horned Owl

Great-Horned Owl
  • Range: Permanent resident in much of Alaska, Canada, and the USA.
  • Length: 22 inches
  • Wingspan: 44 inches
  • Call: Makes a low, gruff, “hooo, hoo hoo hoo hoooo”.

The Great Horned Owl is a big, bulky owl with big ear tufts and a black beak. It is mottled gray and brown, has a rufous or gray face, and fine black barring on its underparts. This owl also has a white throat and some dark marks on its breast.

Males and female Great Horned Owls look the same but females are larger. They also have a medium-length tail with dark bands, and long, broad wings.

This nocturnal owl species lives in every habitat, including urban areas. As they are quite hefty, Great Horned Owl nests resemble those of bigger raptors, such as hawks and eagles.

Key Identifications:

  • Big, bulky brown or gray owl with ear tufts and fine barring on its underparts.
  • Nests in old stick nests of other large birds, on ledges, and in other situations.
  • Watches from a perch or glides over open habitats at night, to catch mammals and some birds on the ground.


Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern screech owl
  • Range: Permanent resident in parts of southeastern Canada, and in much of the eastern USA.
  • Length: 8.5 inches
  • Wingspan: 20 inches
  • Call: Makes a rather high-pitched, descending whinny call, and a tremulous, vibrating call on the same pitch, “wududududududududududu”.

The Eastern Screech Owl is a small owl with ear tufts. It can be reddish, brown, or mostly gray, has “V”-shaped pale eyebrows, and some black on the edge of its face. It is also mottled above with some white spotting, and has pale underparts with dark barring and streaks.

Males and females look alike but females are a bit larger. This species also has yellow eyes, a pale yellow-gray beak, and some white bands on its broad tail.

Eastern Screech-Owls flap and glide on long, broad wings.

During the day, this owl hides in holes, or in dense vegetation. Eastern Screech Owls are pretty common and live in wooded and park-like habitats.

Key Identifications:

  • Small owl with ear tufts and mottled brown or gray plumage that lives east of the Rocky Mountains.
  • Lives in a variety of wooded and park-like habitats.
  • Nests in tree cavities and nest boxes.
  • Swoops down to the ground catch a variety of small animals at night.


Barn Owl

Barn Owl
  • Range: In Canada, occurs mostly in southwestern British Columbia. In the USA, they live in many areas but are absent from mountains and cold, northern regions. They range north to Washington, Nebraska, Iowa, and New York.
  • Length: 16 inches
  • Wingspan: 42 inches
  • Call: A shrill, loud, hissing “shriiiiii!”

The Barn Owl is a medium to large, pale owl with golden tan and gray upperparts, and white underparts. It has a distinctive, white, heart-shaped face.

Both sexes are alike but females are a bit larger than males and have buff on their chest.

In flight, Barn Owls look like a large, pale, moth-like bird with a big, rounded head.

This owl lives in urban and open habitats. They love older buildings, which is why they are named after barns.

Key Identifications:

  • Large pale owl with a heart-shaped face.
  • Glides and flutters over fields and other open areas at night.
  • Nests in tree cavities, crevices in church steeples and other structures, and next boxes.
  • Preys on rats and other small animals.


Short-eared Owl (rare)

Short-eared Owl
  • Range: Summer resident in Alaska, Canada, and the western and central USA. Northern birds migrate to the USA, south to California and Texas.
  • Length: 15 inches
  • Wingspan: 38 inches
  • Call: Makes a hoarse, raspy, cat-like call, “rehw”.

The Short-eared Owl is a medium-sized, pale brown owl with dark eye patches on a pale face. They have a dark breast and streaks on pale underparts. This species has long wings with buff wing patches.

Both sexes look similar but females are a bit larger and usually darker and buffier.

This owl is active day and night in open fields. You can see them during the non-breeding season in Tennessee. Short-eared Owls breed in Canada and in some northern states.

Key Identifications:

  • Medium-sized pale brown and buffy owl with very short ear tufts.
  • Dark eye patches on a pale face and long wings with buff patches near the wingtips.
  • Nests on the ground in dense vegetation.
  • Glides over open fields to catch small animals on the ground.


Northern Saw-whet Owl (rare)

Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Range: Lives in coniferous and mixed hardwood forests of Alaska, a large area of Canada, and parts of the northern and western USA.
  • Length: 8 inches
  • Wingspan: 17 inches
  • Call: Makes a repeated tooting whistle call, over and over, “tu, tu, tu, tu, tu, tu, tu, tu, tu”.

The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a small, dark brown owl with a round head and brown streaks on white underparts. It also has some pale streaks on its head, a brown and white face, and some white spotting on its back.

Both sexes look the same but females are a bit larger. This species also has yellow eyes, a dark beak, longish, rounded wings, and a short, broad tail.

This nocturnal owl lives in forested habitats and might occasionally stay for summer. Usually they are only found during winter, but even then, their numbers are pretty small in Tennessee.

Key Identifications:

  • Small, dark brown owl with a round head, broad white eyebrows, and thick dark streaks on pale underparts.
  • Occurs in dense coniferous and mixed forest.
  • Nests in old woodpecker holes and can use nest boxes.
  • Swoops down to catch insects and small animals at night.


Long-eared Owl (rare)

Long-eared Owl
  • Range: Migrant in southern Canada, resident and winters in much of the USA. Absent from parts of the Pacific Northwest and southeastern states.
  • Length: 15 inches
  • Wingspan: 36 inches
  • Call: Makes a single, one second long “Hooo!” call at regular intervals.

The Long-eared Owl is a medium-sized, slender owl with long ear tufts. It has an orange face, is mottled gray above, and has dark brown streaks and marks on pale underparts. This owl also has long wings with a rufous patch in its primaries.

Male and female Long-eared Owls look similar but females are larger. This owl species also has yellow eyes, and some pale markings between its eyes and around its dark beak.

This nocturnal owl sometimes spends its winters in Tennessee.

Key Identifications:

  • Medium-sized, slender owl species with long ear tufts, orange on its face, and long wings with an orange-brown patch near the wingtips.
  • Occurs in coniferous and mixed forests near meadows, bogs, and other open areas.
  • Nests in old crow, magpie, and hawk nests.
  • Glides over open habitats near forest at night to catch small animals on the ground.


Burrowing Owl (vagrant)

Pair of Burrowing Owls

© Alan D. Wilson

  • Range: Summer resident in central-southern Canada, the Great Plains, and much of the western USA. Permanent resident in California, Texas, and Florida.
  • Length: 9.5 inches
  • Wingspan: 21 inches
  • Call: Makes a raspy, chattering call, “rap, rip,rip,rip,rip”, and a quail-like, “whup waaah!”.

The Burrowing Owl is a small, long-legged owl with a white throat and white eyebrows. It has a round head, is dark brown with white spots above, and has pale underparts with dark barring.

Males and females look alike although females are a bit larger. Young birds are uniform dark brown and buff.

Adult Burrowing Owls in Florida are more heavily marked below than western birds but juveniles from Florida are paler.

Tennessee is out of their usual range – Burrowing Owls usually live in southern areas and while they do migrate, they prefer western areas. Tennessee is pretty far east for them.

Key Identifications:

  • Small, long-legged owl with a round head, and some brown barring on pale underparts.
  • Lives in grasslands and other wide-open habitats.
  • Nests in burrows made by prairie dogs and other animals although birds in Florida make their own burrows.
  • Catch small animals on the ground at any time of the day or night.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most common owl in Tennessee?

The most common owl in Tennessee is the Barred Owl. This species is common throughout the state.

Are owls protected in TN?

Yes, native owls are protected in TN by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

What kind of owl can you own in Tennessee?

In Tennessee, you can own non-native owls.

Are there screech owls in TN?

Yes, there are screech owls in TN. The Eastern Screech-Owl is common in most parts of the state.

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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