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Spotted Owl

Strix occidentalis ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

In the 1990s the Spotted Owl was catapulted into the spotlight over logging debates in the Pacific Northwest. This large, brown-eyed owl lives in mature forests of the West, from the giant old growth of British Columbia and Washington, to California's oak woodlands and the steep canyons of the Southwest. At night it silently hunts small mammals such as woodrats and flying squirrels. Despite federal protection beginning in 1990, the owl is still declining in the Northwest owing to habitat loss, fragmentation, and competition with Barred Owls.

Keys to identification Help

Owls
Owls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Spotted Owls are large owls with rounded heads that lack ear tufts. The wings are broad and rounded; the tail is short.

  • Color Pattern

    Spotted Owls are dark-brown overall dappled with white. The chest and belly are marked with large, oval white spots. The facial disks are dark brown with pale marks forming an X between the eyes. The Mexican subspecies has a paler facial disk. The eyes are brown.

  • Behavior

    Spotted Owls are nocturnal. They hunt small mammals, especially flying squirrels and woodrats, by listening quietly from a perch and then swooping silently down on their prey.

  • Habitat

    Spotted Owls live in mature forests and are sensitive to habitat disturbance. The Northern Spotted Owl lives in expansive old-growth forests with complex, multilayered understories. The California subspecies lives in conifer forests as well as oak woodlands. The Mexican subspecies occurs in pine-oak forests, steep canyons, and mixed conifer forest.

Range Map Help

Spotted Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult (Northern)

    Spotted Owl

    Adult (Northern)
    • Darkest brown subspecies with the smallest white spots
    • Large, dark eyes, round head, no ear tufts
    • Dark brown facial disk with pale marks forming an X between the eyes
    • Dark, mottled brown owl
    • Dark chocolate brown above, paler grey face
    • © Nigel Voaden, Mount Baker, King, California, June 2015
  • Adult (Northern)

    Spotted Owl

    Adult (Northern)
    • Darkest brown subspecies with the smallest white spots
    • Large, dark eyes
    • Dark brown facial disk with pale marks forming an X between the eyes
    • Dark chocolate brown above
    • Dark, mottled brown owl
    • © John Fox, California, June 2015
  • Adult (Mexican)

    Spotted Owl

    Adult (Mexican)
    • Smallest and lightest subspecies with the largest white spots
    • Dark, mottled brown owl
    • Large, dark eyes
    • Dense mottling on breast and belly
    • © Larry Meade, Portal, Arizona, July 2006
  • Adult (Mexican)

    Spotted Owl

    Adult (Mexican)
    • Smallest and lightest subspecies with the largest white spots
    • Dark chocolate brown above, pale grey face
    • Dense, dark mottling and spots on underparts
    • © Lois Manowitz, Miller Canyon, Arizona, May 2010
  • Adult

    Spotted Owl

    Adult
    • Stocky and round-headed
    • Mostly dark brown with dense mottling/spotting on breast and flanks
    • Paler face with dark eyes
    • © Aaron Marshall, April 2012
  • Juvenile (Californian)

    Spotted Owl

    Juvenile (Californian)
    • Sunbathing
    • Rich, dark chocolate brown above
    • Juvenile may have red-brown facial disk
    • © CT Imagery, California, July 2015
  • Juvenile (Northern)

    Spotted Owl

    Juvenile (Northern)
    • Large, dark eyes
    • © John Fox, California, June 2015

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Barred Owl

    Adult
    • Very similar, but slightly larger than Spotted Owl
    • Brown vertical streaks on belly
    • Brown and white mottled wings/back
    • © Ed Schneider, Lafayette, Louisiana, March 2009
  • Adult

    Barred Owl

    Adult
    • Very similar, but slightly larger than Spotted Owl
    • Brown vertical streaks on belly, instead of densely mottled/spotted underparts
    • Brown and white mottled wings/back
    • © Grant Hickey, Ontario, Canada, November 2010
  • Juvenile

    Barred Owl

    Juvenile
    • Very similar to juvenile Spotted Owl
    • Rounded head with large dark eyes
    • Slightly lighter, new feathers more mottled than Spotted Owl
    • © Marcus Sharpe, Mead Garden, Winter Park, Florida, April 2009
  • Juvenile

    Barred Owl

    Juvenile
    • Very similar to juvenile Sptted Owl
    • Rounded head with large dark eyes
    • Slightly lighter, new feathers more mottled than Spotted Owl
    • © Janice Lorentz, Tryon Creek, Oregon, May 2011

Similar Species

Barred Owl is a similarly large, brown-eyed owl that lacks ear tufts. It has a larger range and is found throughout eastern North America; its range overlaps with Spotted Owl in the Northwest. Barred Owl is slightly larger, paler brown, and has vertical brown bars on the chest and belly instead of the Spotted Owl's dappling of large white spots.

Regional Differences

Spotted Owls are classified into three subspecies, each inhabiting a different geographic range and distinguished by slightly different size, coloration, and markings. The Northern Spotted Owl—the subspecies at the center of debate over old-growth logging—inhabits forests from British Columbia to northern California. The California subspecies lives only in that state, while the Mexican Spotted Owl can be found from Utah and Colorado southward into Mexico. The more southerly the subspecies, the paler its plumage and the larger its white spots.

Find This Bird

Spotted Owls are rare and difficult to find. Like most nocturnal owls, your best bet is to find appropriate habitat (which differs among the three subspecies), and then patiently listen for their hooting calls during the night.

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