A Portrait of the Tampa Bay Estuary
Stealthy and silent flyers, owls often live side by side with people, but are mostly unseen because they are most
active at night. Five species of owls can be spotted in the Tampa Bay region. Owls contribute greatly to the control
of the rodent population preventing massive infestations of bugs, mice, rats, and squirrels. They have exceptional
hearing, and their large eyes provide keen night vision for hunting their prey.
Eastern Screech Owl
The Eastern Screech Owl is the most common owl in Florida and the smallest, ranging from 7 to 10 inches.
Ironically, it does not screech, but produces a soothing whistle heard in the dark of night. It lives in hardwood forest,
swamp, pineland, groves and in urban neighborhoods. The Eastern Screech Owl nests in tree cavities or owl boxes
and eats insects and small rodents and lizards. Perhaps there is one living in your yard?
Great Horned Owl
This nocturnal hunter is Florida's largest owl with a boxy body, yellow eyes and ear-like tufts. The
Great Horned Owl is the prince of the night at 18 to 25 inches in length and a wingspan of 36 to 60 inches.
Found perched high in treetops, in prairies, swamps and marshes, the Great Horned Owl survives on rodents,
rabbits, opossums, ducks, small owls and domestic cats (another reason to keep Fluffy indoors!). Look for a massive
twig nest in the fork of large trees and you may find one. They tend to inhabit abandoned nests of other raptors such as
osprey or eagles.
With its pretty white heart-shaped face and black eyes, it's easy to recognize a Barn Owl. Medium sized at 14-21 inches, it
carries a wingspan of 43 to 47 inches. Barn Owls can be found on the edges of woodlands in agricultural areas but look up and
you may find one perched in the upper reaches of abandoned buildings and barns. They feast mainly on small rodents and call
with a hissing sound.
Named for its white strips or "bars" across the chest and striped belly, the Barred Owl is known for its familiar call
"who cooks for you, who cooks for you." Larger than a Barn Owl, the Barred Owl is generally 16 to 24 inches with a
mighty wingspan of 50 to 60 inches! It nests in cavities in hardwood and palms in pine scrubs, swamps, mixed forests,
marsh and prairies, in sand hills and agricultural areas. It feasts mainly on rodents and small birds.
The burrowing owl is a pint-sized bird that lives in burrows in pastures, savannahs and other open, treeless areas. It's recognized by its flat oval head and white brow. Averaging only nine inches in height with a wingspan of 21 inches, the Burrowing Owl will stand on the ground next to its burrow all day long. Look for burrowing owls on property where forests have been cleared and wetlands drained such as pastures, agricultural fields, golf courses, around airports and in vacant lots in residential areas. Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are active during both day and night.
In Florida, burrowing owls are known to use gopher tortoise or armadillo burrows. The Florida burrowing owl is
classified as a "species of special concern" by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The open,
grassy habitats that the burrowing owl relies upon are fast-disappearing in the Tampa Bay region, making this bird
an increasingly rare sight.
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