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Arizona Owls: 13 Rare & Orthodox Species To Be Found

Written by Garrett Hayes

Last updated on Apr 26th, 2024
Gray owl on a tree branch

Arizona is home to a beautiful array of rare and orthodox owls.

The mysterious predators of the night (and day, for some) can be found in villages, suburbs, and cities.


You may have to search deeper in the woods or desert if you want a shot at the rarer owls in Arizona.

At a glance, Arizona birds enjoy a welcoming climate for most species. If you didn't know, there are only nineteen species of owls in North America, and thirteen are locals here. Fourteen, if we consider the Boreal Owl, but it's uncertain.

So, below is a list of the 13 types of owls in Arizona, in no particular order.

Identification Of The Great Arizona Owls 

1. Great Horned Owl

  • Brown and white owl in the forestLength: 18.1 to 24.8 inches
  • Wingspan: 39.8 to 57.1 inches 
  • Weight: 910 to 2500 grams

Great horned owls are the uncrowned owl kings of Arizona.

These enormous owls prey across any terrain in the state with little to no repression. They hunt in the evergreen forests, wooded city areas, and in the vast Arizona-Sonora Desert.

Great horned owls rule the few Sonora desert owls in Arizona, which include the precious elf owls and pygmy owls among others.

These apex raptors are also called tiger owls" or "hoot owls" for valid reasons.

On the other hand, they are massive owls that prey on most animals, even those twice their size. From little insects, reptiles, mice to more bulky rabbits and groundhogs.

On the other hand, great horned owls are famous for the deep "hoo-hoo-hoo hoo-hoo" call. It's this famous call most people would attribute to an owl. Most other owl species calling would make solid contestants for "strange sound" in the middle of the night.

Listen for this sound near woods in your locale, and you just might find one lurking.

Well, as long as there are trees to roost in and prey nearby.

2. Barn Owl

  • White and orange brown owlLength: 12.6 to 15.8 inches 
  • Wingspan: 39.4 to 49.2 inches
  • Weight: 400 to 700 grams

The great horned owl might be a king, but barn owls are superstars. They are the most widespread owl species in the world, and you bet Arizona welcomes them in their numbers.

Barn owls, actually, are native owls to Arizona and never leave the state. But they do make local travels to find warmer breeding grounds.

The barn owls, like most owls, have a plain reason behind its name - it likes to take up residence in barns or abandoned buildings.

Perhaps it's the reason they thrive, nesting in man-made structures and readily accepting nest boxes.

Unique to the barn owl is a depressing "skrrr skrr" screech-like call. African myth attributes the call to a witch traveling the night, but it's likely a dude finding a mate. Yes, they are nocturnal, but they can be seen hunting during the day if food is short at night.

The heart-faced barn owl lives in agricultural fields, deserts, and plains across Arizona. But Maricopa County, for one, is home to many.

3. Western Screech-Owl

  • Side view of a gray owlLength: 7.5 to 9.8 inches
  • Wingspan: 21.6 to 24.4 inches
  • Weight: 100 to 305 grams

Western screech-owls are one of many "unconventional" small owls native to Arizona. Minuscule but not rear, these owls are also year-round residents.

But they do prove to be elusive with their mastery of camouflage. Western screech-owls stay in the trunks or cavities that match the color and pattern of their feathers.

Their subspecies in Arizona have a mottled gray plumage.

It can be challenging to spot a bird, no taller than a binocular, hiding amidst a tree at the dead of the night. But you can point out the thrilling call of western screech-owls. It's similar to the tune of a ball dropping on a hard floor.

Funny enough, they don't screech as their name says. Yet barn owls do.

Befitting their miniature size, they eat mainly insects. But they do hunt small animals and can go as far as hunting baby cottontail rabbits.

Western screech-owls in Arizona will accept a nest box if you put one up on a live tree in your backyard.

4. Long-Eared Owl

  • Brown owl with big eyes and long earsLength: 13.8 to 15.8 inches
  • Wingspan: 35.4 to 39.4 inches
  • Weight: 220 to 435 grams

Long-eared owls are prominent owls living in most of Arizona. Oddly enough, they are one of the toughest to see yet so easy to identify.

The long-eared owls roost and nest in dense forests, so they aren't suburban. Plus, they have complex brown and buff patterns on their feathers, which gives them an effective tree camouflage.

What makes it hard to miss long-eared owls is the surprised look on their faces.

The expression is more pronounced in Arizona owls because of their orangey-colored faces and ear tufts.

Speaking of regional differences, long-eared owls are also known to nest in crooks of cactus in the Arizona desert.

If you want to spot a long-eared owl, you're better off listening for their hoots on a hike in the woods. They are pretty talkative during the breeding season but can be silent for the rest of the year.

The call of the long-eared owl is a low, graceful tune that sounds almost like whistling in a bottle.

5. Flammulated Owl

  • blue and white owlLength: 5.9 to 6.7 inches
  • Wingspan: 15.9 to 16.1 inches
  • Weight: 43 to 63 grams

Flammulated owls happen to be one of the smallest owl species and have the deceiving camouflage of their cousins, screech-owls. But with dark eyes as opposed to yellow.

They are called "flammulated" owls because of the flaming - bright red or brows—streaks of feathers from their shoulder to back.

If you spot a flammulated owl perched in its hideout, you might miss it for a sec, and have to refocus your eyes on the bird.

To top that, this Arizona owl sounds like a low-hooting that can be deceiving. They sound distant (ventriloquial) although they are actually just nearby.

Flammulated owls are mainly in the central Arizona area. Spotted across trees in Flagstaff and Phoenix national parks.

These owls are closely tied to ponderosa pine or pine-oak forests and fir trees in Arizona's Transition Zone.

As you'd expect from small birds, they feed predominantly on insects, plunging into attack from a perch. It's one reason most migrate south in winter when insects vanish.

Flammulated owls prefer to nest in tree cavities and would rarely take up a nest box.

6. Whiskered Screech-Owl

  • White and gray owlLength: 7 to 7.3 inches
  • Wingspan: N/A
  • Weight: 85 to 98 grams

Whiskered screech-owls are one of the "true Arizona owls." While they are found in Mexico and much of Central America, the copper state is the only place they are found in the US.

Whiskered screech-owls, however, have been recorded somewhere down in New Mexico. But typically, they are found in dense woodlands at high elevations such as the Santa Catalina mountain ranges of Arizona.

Whiskered owls even have pinpoint locations where you can spot them at the end of the road in Miller Canyon. Or the upper parking lot of the Madera Canyon in the Chiricahuas.

Listen for a series of low hoots in April and June when whiskered screech-owls are more vocal.

Alternatively, if you can't for some reason, that's fine. They'll respond almost immediately to imitation calls when they're preparing to nest in winter.

Not to forget, they are called whiskered owls for a reason, in typical owl-naming fashion. Large insects fill their diet, but on rare occasions, they'd hunt whiskers (rodents).

In any case, despite their rarity (not in Arizona, at least) status, they are predictable and easy to find. You can wake up one morning, decide to go to their habitat and find one.

7. Spotted Owl

  • Brown spotted OwlLength: 16 to 19 inches
  • Wingspan: 24 to 45 inches
  • Weight: 500 to 700 grams

One of the largest owls in the state, Mexican spotted owls, unfortunately, are a shy and endangered species.

Mexican spotted owls ranges cover only the four-corner states - which Arizona belongs to - down to Sierra Mendes, Mexico. Moreso, a majority - about 90 percent - of the owl's territories are in Forest Service lands in Arizona and New Mexico.

Its sad habitat loss drives the spotted owl's population thinner by the day. But you'd still have better luck seeing them in Arizona than most states.

8. Short-Eared Owl

  • Brown and white owl with short earsLength: 13.4 to 16.9 inches
  • Wingspan: 33.5 to 40.5 inches
  • Weight: 206 to 475 grams

The "owl king of the day" and one of the most widely spread owls, short-eared owls, don't really have short ears. What they have are small, almost invisible ear tufts they only ever raise to look intimidating.

While short-eared owls are widely distributed in the states, they are hard to spot in Arizona.

The best time to discover short-eared owls is at dusk or dawn in open grasslands, tundras, prairies, or meadows. 

They have distinctive void-looking eyes - it's the effect of the black outline around their eyes.

These birds have a call that sounds like a cat's whine and a hoot similar to the great-horned owl's.

9. Burrowing Owl

  • small brown burrowing owlLength: 7.5 to 9.8 inches
  • Wingspan: 21.6 inches
  • Weight: 150 grams

Burrowing owls are what I like to call "owls of the wild west" and are native to yours truly - Arizona.

Astonishingly, they are the only owl species that nest underground - in burrows, sewer pipes, or any subterranean cavity.

Yes, yet again, in typical owl-naming fashion, it's why they are called burrowing owls.

Burrowing owls are diurnal and would feed mainly on insects like "regular birds." But they'd eat mice from time to time.

They aren't as vocal as most owls, with their quail-like two-note "hoo-hoo" song. The Arizona varieties sound like they play the flute to hoot.

Although once common in the Phoenix valley, habitat loss, sadly, dwindles their numbers by the day. But you have better luck seeing them in Arizona than most states.

"Downtown owls," as they are sometimes called, are also adversely affected by climate change.

If you're in the city of Phoenix, you can sign-up with Audubon Arizona and Wild at Heart, to relocate burrowing owls to safe sites where they'd thrive.

10. Elf Owl

  • Short brown owl on a treeLength: 4.9 to 5.7 inches 
  • Wingspan: 10.5 inches
  • Weight: 40 grams

Elf owls, only about the size of a sparrow and forty grams, are the smallest owls to ever live. They even appear bow-legged.

Anyway, these little wonders only range within the southwest US, Mexico, and Baja California.

In Arizona, the elf owls are found in the Sonoran desert inside riparian (near water) forests or inside saguaro cactus plants.

Elf owls tolerate humans and even make a hunting ground out of outdoor lights that attract insects.

Nevertheless, they migrate to Mexico in winter when there'll be a shortage of insects in the state.

Elf owls take up woodpecker holes 15 to 30 feet high up in thorny cacti as a shield against predators.

These owls are the least aggressive species you'd see in Arizona or elsewhere. They play dead if they're handled (deceives a predator to loosen its grip) or simply fly away under any threat.

11. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

  • Brown with white streaks owlLength: 6.5 to 7 inches
  • Wingspan: 14.5 to 16 inches
  • Weight: 62 to 77 grams

The ferruginous pygmy owl is the rarest owl in Arizona and perhaps the whole of the US. The only other state it's found is Texas.

In recent times, only about thirty of these birds are documented yearly in Arizona. The majority of them come from the ironwood forests of Tucson and Marana.

Despite their diminutive size, ferruginous pygmy owls are ferocious predators. They don't limit themselves to a diet of insects and indulge in meaty frogs, rodents, and birds.

The cactus ferruginous pygmy owls nest and bring up its young inside cavities of giant saguaro cactus. Also, they use woodpecker holes and natural hollows in trees.

The pygmy owl is in danger of extinction in Arizona.

12. Northern Saw-Whet Owl

  • white and light brown owlLength: 7.1 to 8.3 inches 
  • Wingspan: 16.5 to 18.9 inches
  • Weight: 65 to 151 grams
"Cute as a button" is what first-timers usually call northern saw-whet owls.

These owls have a rusty coffee-colored plumage that's streaked in creamy white.

They are strictly nocturnal, roost in forests, and can be hard to see. But they have a piercing "telephony" call that should give them away if you're in the right habitat.

Northern saw-whets are thought to be regulars in high elevation areas, up to 5,000 feet, in North and Central Arizona. But they do visit the southern corners of the state, only rarely. Luckily, you might see one in Yuma County.

Northern saw-whet owls may take up a nest box attached 12 to 15 feet on a live tree.

13. Northern Pygmy-Owl

  • Dark brown and bluish hawkLength: 6.3 to 7.1 inches
  • Wingspan: N/A
  • Weight: 60 to 70 grams

The pronounced circular head of these owls puts them in competition with northern saw-whets for "Cute as a Button." Their rounded heads are distinctively speckled with snow-white dots.

Again, like northern saw-whets, they hunt during the day but are more vicious. Northern pygmy owls are known to hunt small songbirds, a craving occasionally satisfied at bird feeders.

Oddly enough, they don't have the super-hearing most owls possess and rely on their sight.

They are common at the slopes of most mountain ranges in Arizona. They are more popular in towns during winter when they move to lower altitudes.

Frequently Asked Questions About Owls in Arizona

What Kind of Owls Live in Arizona?

All kinds of owls live in Arizona. But the state is privileged to host some of the rarest American species year-round.

Elf owls, the Pygmy owls, the Screech-owls, and Burrowing owls that stay in the Sonoran Desert, for instance, are rarely seen outside the state. More widespread owls like the great horned owl, barn owl, long-eared owl, and short-eared owls also live in Arizona.

Owls are quite a surprising species, discover what makes them one-of-a-kind here:

What do Owls eat in Arizona?

The large owls have a diet that consists mainly of voles, mice, squirrels, and several types of rodents and small mammals. They'd even prey on songbirds and smaller raptors, including owls.

Alternatively, small owls like an elf or whiskered feed almost entirely on insects. But some, like western screech and burrowing owls, hunt rodents from time to time.

Are Owls Common in Arizona?

Yes, owls are somewhat common in the state. Arizona has 13 owl species, most of which (about 10) are common and predictable to find.

What is the Biggest Owl in Arizona?

The biggest owl in Arizona is the great horned owl. It weighs up to 2500 grams with a large 50+ inch wingspan. Typically, the great horned owl is found in evergreen forests, suburbs, parts, and deserts of Arizona. It'd eat almost anything its size or attack predators even twice or thrice as large.

Are Owls Protected in Arizona?

All birds of prey, which includes owls, are protected by federal and state laws. Killing, capturing, or disturbing the owls in any way can be charged as a felony. The law could issue you a maximum fine of up to $250,000 or two years in jail, depending on your conviction. 

Read Also: Texas Owl Species

Wrapping up

That's a wrap on the magnificent owls of Arizona.

I bet you've seen or heard a few species since you discovered the songs or calls of these apex predators.

Which of the owls of Arizona have you encountered? That’d be really nice to know. Would you tell me in the comments section? 😉

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