Have you ever seen an owl up close in the wild?
Owls are some of the coolest birds on the planet. They’re known for being incredibly stealthy nocturnal predators with highly efficient hunting skills.
Yet unlike a lot of other sneaky predators we hear about in storybooks & nature shows, owls are actually surprisingly easy to find in real life (when you take the right approach).
In my personal experience, the easiest way to find owls is by following alarm calls made by songbirds around dawn or dusk.
It simply requires knowing a few basics about owls & how songbirds react to owls, combined with searching in the right location, at the right time of day.
So today I’m going to share everything required for you to actually do this successfully in your local area.
Most people think seeing owls is a random occurrence, but when you take the right approach, it is actually possible to find owls pretty much anytime you want.
So let’s break this entire process down into 7 steps that will help you find owls in your local area!
1. Know Your Local Owl Species
If you want to be able to find owls, it’s helpful to know what types of owls are actually living in your area.
This is useful because owls come in various different size categories with behaviors that adapt to specific habitat types.
We need to answer two basic questions about your local owls:
- Does your area have large owls or small owls or both?
- What’s the habitat type where owls in your area live? (Deep forest vs open farmlands vs desert, etc.)
Luckily, most places only have a few different types of owls, so this is just a matter of knowing which ones live in your bio-region.
- If you’re in farmland with lots of open fields dotted with tree islands then you’re probably looking for something like a Great Horned Owl.
- If your area is more forested with miles of trees covering the landscape, you’re more likely to find large forest owls like Barred Owls, or small forest owls like Pygmy Owls.
- There are also small desert owls like Burrowing Owls, and owls who live in the suburbs right around people like Screech Owls.
These differences in size and habitat all play into knowing where to look when you actually get outside to track and find owls.
You can easily find out what kind of owls live in your area by checking local bird resources like field guides or local government species lists.
A quick google search for “owls + your location” should bring up everything you need for this step.
In a later step, I’ll share an amazing resource to help you identify not only what types of owls are most commonly seen in your area, but also the exact locations where they’ve been positively identified.
2. Find Owl Habitat Near You
The next step is to find out where owls are most likely to be living in your local area – Where should you actually go to find owls near you?
Luckily, owls occupy a huge variety of ecosystems. They can survive in deep forests, meadows and farmlands, even in urban & suburban backyards.
This is great news for locating owls because it usually means you never have to go far in order to find active owl territories.
However the tricky part is that owls are also predatory birds, which means they do have fairly large territories.
This is a VERY important thing to account for on your quest for owls – you need to find an area that has enough range for owls to hunt a variety of small prey animals like voles, squirrels, snakes & even large insects.
In my experience, the easiest way to find these places is by looking at google maps in the satellite view.
Check for local parks, nature reserves, forests, agricultural areas, beaches, or anywhere that has a diversity of trees & plants providing habitat for owl food.
Study these natural areas on the map and pay attention to the overall size of the area it covers.
Pretty much any decent sized natural area that isn’t completely choked off with human development will have owls, especially if it includes a good mixture of trees & open landscape.
Simply make a list of several potential owl spots near you, and we’ll be investigating these places more closely in an upcoming step.
3. Use eBird To Find Actual Owl Sightings
If you get stuck on looking for owl habitat, a great trick is to go over to eBird.org and explore the species maps for owl species in your area.
You might have to create an account with eBird to see some of this data, but it’s pretty amazing how much information is available there.
The recorded data will show you exactly where owls have already been seen nearby.
This can help you identify trends that tell you which species are most common in your area, and where they’ve actually been spotted.
When you find reports of owl sightings in your area, it’s worthwhile to go back over to google maps and use the satellite view again to study the vegetative patterns associated with these sightings.
Focus on big picture patterns, and you’ll be able to get a sense for what types of ecology support the highest owl populations in your area.
Pay attention to where owl sightings are most common in your area:
- Are they all in the middle of a big forest?
- Are they in farmlands?
- Are they mixed landscapes?
In the future, we can use this information to know whether you should be looking in deep forest habitats or old farmlands, or even in city parks.
4. Search For Owls At Dawn Or Dusk
The next important question to ask is – when is the best time to see owls?
It’s important to search for owls at the right time of day if you want to maximize your results.
While it is possible to find owls at any time of day or night, usually you’ll have the best results at dawn and dusk.
This is because it’s light enough for you to navigate the forest and see what’s happening around you, but dark enough that owls are still actively hunting & doing interesting behaviors.
Owls are mostly nocturnal, but the transition between light and dark holds a special window of opportunity when owl activity overlaps with animals that are mostly active during the day. (see also – where do birds go at night?)
This is a time when songbirds are most likely to be directing alarm calls towards owls, which can be heard from very long distances & tell you exactly where the owl is located (we’ll discuss this next).
I would also say that spring & summer are usually easier seasons to find owls than autumn & winter. This is because owls are very actively nesting & hunting to feed the young.
Although winter can be a great time of year to hear owls hooting through the starry nights, which could be your best bet of finding owls at night.
5. Learn What Bird Alarms Sound Like For Owls
By far, the most reliable way to find owls in any habitat is by following the alarm calls made by songbirds.
Many people don’t realize that birds make a lot of noise when owls are perched in a tree. This is sometimes referred to as mobbing, and it’s a very common behavior when owls are close by.
These alarm calls are often quite loud and can be heard from incredibly long distances, especially when made by noisy birds like robins or crows.
Here’s a cool example of just how intense these alarm calls can be when made by a group of crows:
As you can see, the birds will all gather around an owl and make loud repetitive calls to scold and annoy the owl.
These alarm behaviors are so reliable that with just a few hours in the evening, you can become extremely skilled at finding owls pretty much anytime you choose.
I tested this method when I was living in the forest near Seattle and was able to locate 4 different types of owls in a single day in late spring… a Barred Owl, a Pygmy Owl, a Barn Owl and a Saw-Whet Owl.
The American Robin is one of the best songbirds for locating large owls like a Barred Owl or a Barn Owl.
Their voices travel a very long distance, which means you a greatly increased chance of hearing their alarms even in a massive forest.
Without the alarm calls, it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Here’s a video I made of some robins that were alarming at a Barred Owl:
The important thing to notice in this recording is there are multiple birds alarming simultaneously together.
When birds make alarm calls in this pattern, it creates a syncopated rhythm that sounds like they’re trying to talk over each other.
This is a very consistent feature of alarms that are given for owls, especially when the alarm continues for a long period of time without moving.
6. Make Sure You Can Explore Off Trail
While it is possible to find owls in that perfect spot right next to a trail, most of the time, you’re going to have to go off trail in order to get close enough.
This is because you need to listen and investigate the possible sources of alarm calls that will be happening in some distant corner of the landscape.
If you start running into fences & no trespassing signs, it’s going to greatly limit your ability to investigate the action.
I can’t tell you how many times I heard obvious mobbing behavior happening in a neighbour’s backyard where I simply couldn’t access the spot to check things out.
This goes back to step 2: Owls have large territories so you need to go somewhere you can really cover distance and follow those alarm calls.
Look for wilderness areas where you can go off trail, old forest roads or a big park somewhere. Google satellite imagery really comes in handy here.
7. Approach With Care & Respect
As with all things in nature, if you decide to go find some owls, please do it in a respectful way.
It’s important to remember these are living beings who exist in life or death survival situations every day.
When we approach with care & respect, owls can inspire incredible joy and reverence that brings many hours of learning & entertainment.
My personal experience with finding hundreds of different owls using these methods is they are extremely tolerant of people.
I’ve never had an owl show any kind of upset at me, even when I’m close to their nests… but I have heard stories of people being swooped by large owls if you push too hard.
In general, you just want to give as much distance as possible to not affect their emotional state.
If an owl is relaxed, sleeping, or hunting, it’s okay to move a bit closer and get a nice view, but if they start to show signs of stress or frustration, you should back off.
Learn to move quietly & with sensitivity so you’re not putting out unnecessary negative vibes. This is especially true if you consistently cause owls to fly away from you.
Moving respectfully will help to communicate trust & safety with your body language. With practice and repetition, owls will become more and more comfortable having you around.
Follow these 7 steps and you’ll be amazed how easy it is to find owls in your own local parks & wild spaces!
For a simplified cheat sheet, check out the bonus infographic with some key points to remember while searching for owls:
Have fun out there!