Strix occidentalis caurina
Northern spotted owls are one of three subspecies of spotted owls. The other two are the Mexican spotted owl and the California spotted owl. Each of these owls is brown with white spots, but the northern spotted owl is the darkest brown with the smallest spots and has darker facial disks (the feathers surrounding the eyes). Northern spotted owls are about 1.5 feet (0.4 meters) in length with a wingspan up to four feet (1.2 meters). Females are larger than males.
These owls can be found in northwestern California, western Oregon and Washington, and southwestern British Columbia. Northern spotted owls are non-migratory. They prefer old-growth forests, particularly Douglas fir forests, that typically take 150 to 200 years to mature. These types of forests have high canopy layers, snags (standing dead trees), and open spaces for flying underneath and between trees. In their habitat, young northern spotted owls are prey for great horned owls and northern goshawks.
Small rodents—such as northern flying squirrels, red tree voles, and woodrats—are the primary prey for northern spotted owls, but they also consume birds, reptiles, and invertebrates. Northern spotted owls are nocturnal “perch-and-pounce” predators. They sit on tree branches at night, using their keen vision to scan for prey in the dark. When a potential meal is spotted, they silently swoop down and capture the prey with their talons.
Northern spotted owls are monogamous and usually mate for life. Each pair of spotted owls needs a large territory of its own for hunting and nesting. Nests are often constructed in snags that have hollows large enough for the owls. Females lay eggs in early spring, and the males bring their partners food while they brood the young. Northern spotted owls live about 10 years in the wild, but can reach 15 to 20 when properly cared for in captivity.
Northern spotted owls were federally listed as threatened in 1990. Unfortunately the old-growth forests preferred by the owls are also preferred by the timber industry. Once a forest is logged, it can take decades to grow back to the level at which it can sustain northern spotted owls. Therefore, management plans have been put into effect to protect some of the northern spotted owl’s habitat. The other main threat to northern spotted owls is competition with barred owls, a species that is widespread throughout the eastern U.S. but also overlaps with the range of spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest. Barred owls out-compete northern spotted owls, and sometimes even mate with them, creating hybrids.
Northern spotted owls are an indicator species, which means their presence in old-growth forests indicates a healthy ecosystem.
Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
Defenders of Wildlife
Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
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