Owls That Live in Southern California

By Kate McCoy

Southern California is home to several different species of owls. They dwell in various types of landscapes, including desert, mountain and valley areas, as well as city areas populated mainly by humans. The three main species are the western screech owl, the great horned owl and the North American barn owl. Though not as common, the other species that inhabit the region are the burrowing owl, northern pygmy-owl, northern saw-whet owl and the spotted owl.

Mexican Spotted Owl Portrait
Several species of owls, like this spotted owl, dwell in Southern California.
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Western Screech Owl

Western Screech Owl
Western Screech Owl
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The western screech owl is commonly found at lower elevations, including desert, valley and city regions. It thrives in areas that have an abundance of insects and small animals to prey upon, along with hollow spaces to form nests. It is small, nocturnal and very aggressive. It is likely to attack a human if it feels its nesting site is being threatened. In Southern California, this species is a pale gray. Pairs of western screech owls will mate for life unless a mate is lost, in which case the remaining owl will find a new mate.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl in Ojai, CA.
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A powerful bird, the great horned owl gets its name from the tufts of feathers on top of its head that look like horns. These tufts are sometimes referred to as ears, yet play no part in the owl's hearing. These animals vary in color and have large talons which usually kill prey instantly. The great horned owl is a solitary bird, and only stays with its mate during nesting season. They are very aggressive and will in fact attack their own species. Like the western screech owl, the great horned owl is an adaptable creature and can survive in various regions.

North American Barn Owl

Barn Owl
North American Barn Owl in flight
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The most distinctive trait of the barn owl is probably its white face. The barn owl is a much tamer bird than most other owl species. It is not as territorial and therefore less likely to attack humans. Unlike the great horned owl, the barn owl is very tolerant of its own species and will often form colonies with other barn owls. It has an acute sense of hearing, and it is believed these birds can actually differentiate what types of rodents are running across the ground based solely on the sound they make. Adult barn owls tend to stay in one location when they find ideal territory, though the young are known to migrate.

Other Species

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
Burrowing owl
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Some species of owls in Southern California are rarer than others because they mainly dwell in coniferous forests located in the mountains. High elevations and forest destruction complicate expansion of the owls' habitats, and urbanization of the lowlands creates difficulties for migration between mountain ranges. These owls include the burrowing owl (which can also be found in coastal valley areas and the Mojave Desert), northern pygmy-owl, northern saw-whet owl and the spotted owl.