Pennsylvania Owls: 8 Striking Species to See Every Season

Last Updated: April 30, 2022

Have you gone birding in Pennsylvania before?

It's rich in avian species, with over 400 types ranging from chickadees to finches.

If...

You're only looking to see Pennsylvania owls this time, prepare for sightings of 8 species.

That’s right! We did most of the work for you and created a list of these owls so that you only need to note them down in your birding journal.

Ready, let's go!

Owls in Pennsylvania: Here's What Awaits You

We'll not only list the owls in this state but also mention where you're likely to see them. That'll save you the trouble of exploring birding zones that are less likely to host owls.

1. Snowy Owl

Snowy owl perched on the branch

PA is in the southern boundary of the snowy owl's wintering range in North America. Therefore, to see it, explore northern PA's border with New York, from October to May. Snowy owls can fly from the southern region to Long Island. In summer, this species migrates north, as far as the Arctic Circle. 

It loves the Great Lakes and ocean shores, elevated land overlooking airfields, or open areas.

As a diurnal owl, one of the few daytime hunters, it spends most hours looking for waterfowl, rabbits, geese, seabirds, and grebes.

The most picturesque place to see it is on a fence post as it scans the area looking for prey. You'll know it by its white feathers and yellow eyes. The adult male has brown spots, while the female has dark barring and a white face.

A snowy owl's body length ranges from 20.5 to 27.9 inches. Further, it's the heaviest in North America, weighing 56.4 to 104.1 pounds. It's one pound heavier than the great horned owl that we'll look at later. 


2. Barred Owl

a close-up picture of Barred owl

Unlike the striking yellow eyes of the snowy owl, this one has dark eyes and a yellow bill. Its underside is buffy with dark brown streaks, while its brown back has white mottling. It's smaller than other owl species we'll talk about as its body length is between 16.9 and 19.7 inches. 

During the day, it roosts quietly, but you may hear its owl call. If you're birding at night in mature deciduous or evergreen forests, listen for calls that sound like it's asking who-cooks-for-you. You'll love hearing this owl calling.

The barred owl is a resident of most eastern states, with another population in some northwestern states. It eats small mammals, including rats and mice, and hunts birds. Though it mostly hunts by perching on a tree and watching prey on the ground, it may also perch on the water to catch fish.

The barred owl can fly to another territory to run away from a great horned owl. But, it's one of the native owls that rarely migrate at all.

In addition to its hunting style, you'll also enjoy watching a young bird climbing a tree by walking up with the bill and talons grasping the bark.

3. Great Horned OwlGreat Horned owl on the top of the tree

You'll see this owl in most parts of North America, including PA, nesting in pine, beech, cottonwood, or juniper trees. Though it prefers nests of other species, this owl also settles into a tree cavity of a live tree, a cliff ledge, or a nest box.

The great horned owl is a resident; therefore, you can see it any time of the year.

How will you know it's a great horned owl?

It's between 18.1 and 24.8 inches long, larger than a northern hawk owl or a red-tailed Pennsylvania hawk. Look for ear tufts, a gray facial disc, and yellow eyes. Though these eyes don't rotate in the socket, the owl's head turns over 180 degrees. It has commendable night vision. The Cornell Lab notes that the color of the facial disc varies.

This bird has powerful talons; consequently, it can take on raptors like falcons and owls. It also eats smaller animals like scorpions and rodents.

4. Barn Owl

Barn Owl on its nest

If you see a bird with a white heart-shaped face, dark eyes, white underbelly, and a gray and cinnamon back, you're looking at a barn owl. It also has a short tail, long legs, and long rounded wings.

The body length of a barn owl is between 12.6 and 15.8 inches. It lives in most states, including PA, except the northern boundary with New York. 

This PA owl swallows prey and regurgitates pellets of fur, bones, and other undigested material.

Its prey is mainly small mammals like lemmings, rats, and mice. Occasionally, barn owls eat starlings and blackbirds.


5. Eastern Screech OwlEastern Screech on a branch of a tree

This Pennsylvania owl lives in all the eastern states. It's a small bird with an average body length between 6.3 and 9.8 inches. You're likely to see it in suburbs and parks though it can also live in a nest box.

It's monogamous, but some males mate with two females. The second female may take over the nest, chase the first female, lay new eggs, and incubate them alongside the former female's eggs.

The eastern screen owl eats songbirds like the European starling.

There are different morphs; consequently, you may spot red, gray, or brown birds. The Pennsylvania Game Commission notes that you're likely to see the gray more than the red morph. The gray morph has a dark bill, short ear tufts, yellow eyes, and gray plumage with streaks and barrings.


6. Northern Saw-Whet OwlNorthern Saw-Whet on the twigs of a tree

Northern PA has a nesting population, while the southern region hosts the nonbreeding range.

The northern saw-whet owl is small, averaging 7.1 to 8.3 inches long and weighing between 2.3 and 5.3 pounds. Thus, it's smaller than an eastern screech-owl or a boreal owl. This bird has a rounded face like a cat, with a white section above the eyes forming a V. Its plumage is mottled brown and white.

The northern saw-whet owl roosts in evergreen trees during the day and eats adult mice.

It's called a saw-whet because its call resembles either the sound of sharpening a saw or a whetting stone. Since the birding world couldn't agree, it became the saw-whet.

7. Long-Eared OwlLong-Eared Owl floating in mid-air

It's a rare breeding bird listed as threatened in PA.

This loud bird, often heard from a distance, flies silently, and its great sense of sound lets it hear small animals below. 

A long-eared owl regurgitates pellets like the barn owl. It's a colorful bird with an orange facial disc and yellow eyes. Plus, it's also long and slender with distinct ear tufts. 

It grows between 13.8 and 15.8 inches long, so it's smaller than a great horned owl. It nests in woodlands but forages in open fields. 

Since it's nocturnal, an owl prowl will show you how it hunts mice, shrews, and voles.

Sometimes, the long-eared owl eats birds and insects.


8. Short-Eared OwlShort-Eared Owl resting on the ground

This Pennsylvania owl has a nonbreeding range throughout PA, which you're likely to see in winter. 

Look for a species with a round head, ear tufts that are so small you may not notice them, heavy streaks, a pale face, and dark eye patches around yellow eyes.

A short-eared owl grows between 13.4 and 16.9 inches long. It hunts during the day and inhabits grasslands and open fields looking for mice and voles. Sometimes, it prefers birds, shrews, or rats.

You'll see the short-eared owl when birding near reclaimed mines, marshes, meadows, and grass fields. 

Though it's not threatened, the US Fish and Wildlife Service lists it as a bird of concern.


When To See Owls in Pennsylvania

Though some migrate to this state, you'll always have a memorable owl sighting adventure any time of the year. 

You can also join the National Audubon Society or the Birding Club of Delaware County to mingle and learn from other birders, more so during the regular bird count.

Some species, such as the snowy owl, treat you to unforgettable sightings when you least expect them. For example, According to the Olean Times Herald, about four snowy owls showed up during the festive season of December 2021 in Bradford. There were also sightings on Trindle Road in Middlesex Township. 

Snowy owl sightings in an irruption involve most of the central region of the US, from California across to Virginia. Project Snowstorm, formed by Scott Weidensaul and his colleagues, tracks these birds using GPS and GSM to know their speed and location. You'll enjoy using the special sections of their interactive maps to learn more about each bird.

To see more about Snowy Owls, watch this video:

FAQs About PA Owls

What is the most common owl in Pennsylvania?

The great horned owls in Pennsylvania are more common than other species. They may have the advantage of adapting to different climates, which allows them to live in many habitats, from deserts to forests. In PA, you'll see them in forest edges, woodlands, urban parks, and agricultural lands.

What kind of owls live in eastern Pennsylvania?

All resident owls in PA live throughout the state. 

What is the largest owl in Pennsylvania?

The snowy is the largest as it weighs more than the great horned, and it's longer. 

Since the snowy is migratory, the great horned is the largest permanent resident. It's an aggressive bird that can take down a bald eagle or attack humans who go near its nest.

In conclusion:

Final Thoughts

There are eight species of owls in this state, though some migrate after wintering or nesting in the state. The resident birds of Pennsylvania are the great horned, barred, and eastern screech owls.

PA is adventure-ridden as there are rare sightings of migratory birds, such as the irruptive range of the snowy. You don't have to go looking for it, thanks to birders who came up with interactive maps that track them.

Plus, your local birding club can share information and pictures when there's a migratory species in the region.

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