The species diversity of southern California's owl populations offers varying degrees of hooting and screeching for ornithological enthusiasts to enjoy. Many species in southern California also reside elsewhere, yet their homes in southern California are as unique as the area itself. Some owls prefer night life; other birds are active during daytime. Some live only in trees, others only underground. Each faces various threats to their existence, with several already protected by federal law.
North American Barn Owl
He has a ghostly white face, chest and belly that gives him an austere appearance adding to the mystery of this strictly nocturnal bird. All of his activities occur at night; his daytime is spent roosting quietly in a spot where humans and predators cannot see him. He does not build a nest, but instead settles on a flat surface -- preferably wood -- to lay eggs. His vast consumption of rodents makes him a favorite with southern California farmers, according to the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, which offers plans on how to build and install barn owl boxes that provide these owls with the privacy they prefer.
Western Screech Owl
Western screech owls living in southern California are a pale gray color. They're silent in flight, able to capture flying insects for snacks and use their stealth approach to catch rodents such as mice, shrews, gophers and rats as well as salamanders, crayfish, worms and snails, according to The Owl Pages website. Western screech owls living in southern California choose to make their homes in the cavities of trees in lowland forests, mesquite groves, Joshua trees and in the saguaro and cardon cactus of desert areas. They are an aggressive species wiling to attack humans if they sense a threat to their nesting area.
Great Horned Owl
He's often mistakenly called the cat owl because of the large tufts of feathers on the top of his head. They aren't ears but they do give his head an appearance similar to that of feline ears, according to the California NatureMapping website. The great horned owl is not limited to southern California, but he is found there in significant numbers, especially in hollow trees in wooded areas and in cliffside caves.
California Spotted Owl
The California spotted owl lives in forest habitats of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the coastal range beginning in Monterey County extending to Baja California in Mexico. He's picky about his forest habitat -- he prefers a multi-layered forest with a mix of hardwoods, Douglas fir, live oak, conifers and redwood trees. He likes a high, closed canopy that creates a more regulated and stable temperature as this bird is extremely sensitive to high temperatures, according to the Los Padres Forest Watch. He is cousin to the Northern and Mexican spotted owls -- both of which in 2013 are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 as endangered. The California spotted owl with its light brown coloring and large white spots remains unlisted.
The burrowing owl makes its home underground in abandoned rodent burrows, particularly in desert areas. It perches on the ground near the hole to its home, diving in there rather than taking flight when danger approaches, according to Audubon California. While these birds are found from Canada to South America, the nesting grounds in southern California are vital winter hold-overs for burrowing owls that migrate. They are about the size of a robin, but have a short tail and long legs. Their eyes are yellow and they have no protruding tufts on the top of their heads. This owl's body features a sandy color on its head, back and upper wing parts. Its belly and breast are white and its chin has a white stripe.
Southern California is also home to a few lesser known owl species. Their population numbers are low and dwindling due to the loss of preferred habitat. Deforestation and urban encroachment in low-lying areas is to blame. Birds such as the northern pygmy owl and the northern saw-whet owl prefer coniferous forests at high elevations -- the type of ecological areas being compromised in southern California.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds: Barn Owl
- California NatureMapping Program: Great Horned Owl
- The Owl Pages: Western Screech Owl
- Barn Owl Box Company: Barn Owls by U.S. States
- Wild Wing Company: Barn Owls: Agriculture, Rodent and Gopher Control
- Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society: Build a Barn owl box
- Los Padres Forest Watch: California Spotted Owl
- Center for Biological Diversity: Saving the Western Burrowing owl
- Audubon California: Burrowing Owl
- Oregon State University: Department of Fisheries and Wildlife: Burrowing Owl: Natural History and Conservation in California
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.