Mostly, of course, you don’t see owls; you only hear them in the night. Still, there are those times; just before full darkness at night or when there is barely enough light before sunrise for humans to walk about without bumping into things, when you might get a glimpse of one, flying low over a field or through an opening in the forest.
How do you know whether that owl you just saw in the twilight was a barn owl?
Barn Owls have two cousins that resemble them. All three species are about the same size and, from a distance, look about the same. All three hunt in the gathering dark. The Short-eared Owl and the Long-eared Owl are about the same size and can be difficult to tell apart in the gathering darkness. Here are some suggestions.
First, remember where you are. As a general matter, in North America, the further south you are, the more likely it is to be a Barn Owl. Although the ranges of all three overlap, especially in winter, Barn Owls are more frequent in the South. Short-eared Owls breed in Alaska and northern Canada south to the center of the United States. Long-eared Owls breed from central Canada to the central United States.
Barn Owls are rare in the northern United States. And, if you are in the Rocky Mountains, the higher you are, the less likely you are to encounter a Barn Owl. They won’t be soaring over Pike’s Peak. In fact, you are unlikely to encounter one anywhere above 10,000 feet.
Beyond that, your location won’t tell you much, since any one of the three can be found all over North America. You’ll need three more clues to be certain what it is you just saw.
First, of the three birds, the Barn Owl is the palest and most uniform in color. In the fading light, they can even resemble the pure white Snowy Owl. If it flies directly overhead, it will appear to be white. (Long-eared Owls have streaks all the way down their bodies; short-ears are streaked only part way down the breast.) While you are unlikely to see the orange tinge of the owl’s heart-shaped face, if the bird is uniformly pale you are safe in identifying it as a Barn owl. Both Short-eared Owls and Long-eared Owls have darker wings which are two-toned and high contrast.
The second clue is flight style. Barns fly with regular, steady wing beats. If you notice a slight jerky rhythm in the flight, you are probably not looking at a Barn Owl.
Your third clue may be sound. Barn Owls are the vocalists of this group, often emitting a high-pitched hissing sound. Short-eared and long-eared owls seldom make a sound in flight.
Finally, a consensus exists that barns and short-ears start hunting a little earlier than long-ears. If it is too dark to make out much of anything, assume it’s a long-ear. Unless you really want it to be a Barn Owl. Nobody can be absolutely certain if it is almost full dark.
But, for the most part, identifying owls is a matter of sounds in the night. We’ll be back next time with some clues about that.
For more on Barn Owls see our popular post Halloween and Barn Owls.
The photo of the flying Barn Owl was taken by someone named Jurgen. The drawing of the short-eared is from Lydekker, R. 1895 The Royal Natural History. Volume 4. Frederick Warne and Co. (from http://www.archive.org). The photograph of the long-eared is by Pavlen. All three photos come from Wikipedia because your loyal scribe has no photos of any of the three.