Owls, mysterious and wise, are a favorite bird for many. The fact that most of us never see them due to their camouflage and nocturnal habits makes them all the more mysterious. It can also lead you to wonder just how many different kinds of owls can be found where I live? In this article we will look at owls in New Mexico, such as what owls species live in the state, a bit about their size and appearance, as well as what part of the state they can be found in.
The 12 Species of Owls in New Mexico
The 12 species of owls you can find in New Mexico are the barn owl, boreal owl, burrowing owl, elf owl, flammulated owl, great horned owl, long-eared owl, Mexican spotted owl, northern pygmy owl, northern saw-whet owl, short-eared owl, and western screech owl.
While some owl species can be found in desert or suburban habitat, many on this list prefer large areas of forest. These national forests in New Mexico are good places to start if you want to search for some of these owls.
1. Barn Owl
- Scientific name: Tyto alba
- Length: 12.6-15.8 in
- Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 in
- Weight: 14.1-24.7 oz
Barn owls are found year-round across most of the U.S., including New Mexico. They prefer mainly open habitats such as grasslands, fields, ranches, agricultural land and strips of forest.
Barn owls like to nest in man-made structures that have lots of eaves and beams such as barns, attics and church steeples. This is probably one way they got their name. They also nest in tree cavities, caves and cliff-sides. Barn Owls are very nocturnal and are unlikely to be found out during the daylight.
At dusk and through the night, they fly low over fields using their amazing hearing to locate mice and other rodents. Their large, ghostly white face and belly can be quite a spooky sight if you catch a glimpse of them in low light!
2. Boreal Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius funereus
- Length: 8.3-11.0 in
- Weight: 3.3-7.6 oz
- Wingspan: 21.6-24.4 in
Boreal owls, as their name suggests, reside in the boreal forest of spruce, birch and fir trees that spans northern North American and Eurasia. Most of the United States is a too far south for them, except for a population that extends down into the west, all the way to northern New Mexico. So you can potentially find them in places such as Carson National Forest, Wheeler Peak and the mountains northeast of Santa Fe.
They’re mysterious birds and are often hard to spot, especially during the day. They roost in a different tree each day, so don’t expect to find them in the same spot you saw them yesterday. However they will use a nestbox if you happen to live in their range.
At about the size of a robin, they’re small owls with large, square heads, stocky bodies and short tails. At night they perch and wait for prey such as small mammals and birds before swooping down and grasping their meal with their talons.
Boreal owls are usually quiet and don’t call very frequently. However, in the late winter through the spring this behavior changes as males call more often for mates. Listen for these quick hoots at night for a better chance at finding them.
3. Burrowing Owl
- Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
- Length: 7.5-9.8 in
- Wingspan: 21.6 in
- Weight: 5.3 oz
Burrowing Owls can be found during the breeding season in the northern half of New Mexico, and remain all year in the southern half of the state.
These owls are quite small with long legs, and they live underground in burrows. Sometimes they dig these burrows themselves, and sometimes they take over burrows left from other animals such as prairie dogs or ground squirrels. They have even been found to use man-made structures such as pipes, buckets and culverts for burrows.
You’ll find them in open habitats such as deserts and grasslands. They can be hard to spot as they are very small compared to the wide open landscape they call home, and when in their burrows barely peek above the horizon. Burrowing owls are most active at dawn and dusk.
4. Elf Owl
- Scientific name: Micrathene whitneyi
- Length: 4.9 – 5.6 in
- Weight: 1.4 oz
- Wingspan: 10.5 in
Elf owls are very rare in the U.S., and New Mexico is one of the only states you can spot them. During the spring-summer breeding season, the come up into southern New Mexico. Areas around the Gila National Forest are a common region for sightings.
The elf owl is considered the worlds smallest raptor, at less than six inches in length. You can identify elf owls by their tiny size, lack of ear-tufts that give them a round head, and brownish-gray feathers. They feed primarily on insects and arthropods, but will sometimes eat small lizards.
These owls are only active at night. Listen for them along canyon and desert roads. Their call is often described as “yapping” and sounding kind of like a puppy. They may hunt around lights that attract insects.
5. Flammulated Owl
- Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
- Length: 5.9-6.7 in
- Weight: 1.5-2.2 oz
The flammulated owl has a breeding population in New Mexico, look for them in the national forests throughout the state during the spring and summer.
These owls are quite small, and spend most of their time at the top of large evergreen trees, so they are quite hard to spot. The easier way to locate them is probably by sound. They have a repetitive, low pitched hoot.
Their diet consists primarily of flying insects like crickets, moths and beetles, that they hunt at night. They have reddish gray feathers, are well camouflaged, and resemble screech-owls but with shorter ear-tufts.
6. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
- Length: 18.1 – 24.8 in
- Wingspan: 39.8 – 57.1 in
- Weight: 32.1 – 88.2 oz
Great horned owls are one of the most common and recognizable owls in North America due to their large size, yellow eyes and “horns” which are tufts of feathers that stick up on either side of their head. You’ll find them year round throughout New Mexico.
These owls can be found in many habitats, including forests, swamps, deserts and urban areas such as city parks. Their plumage can vary in color but most are either a cool or warm brown.
Great horned owls have a diverse diet, consisting of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and fish. Their hoot is what most people think of when they think of the sound owls make, and is often used in TV and movies.
7. Long-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio otus
- Length: 13.8 – 15.8 in (height)
- Wingspan: 35.4 – 39.4 in
- Weight: 7.8 – 15.3 oz
Long-eared owls can be found in New Mexico year-round. Their preferred habitat is pine stands or woods near grassland and pastures.
Their bright yellow eyes, white V shaped facial pattern, round facial disc, and long feather tufts that point straight up can give them a constantly surprised expression. The very rounded face with white V is a great way to tell them apart from great horned owls.
Their excellent camouflage and secretive nature of roosting in dense woodlands tends to make them hard to find. Listen for their long, low hoots on spring and summer nights.
8. Mexican Spotted Owl
- Scientific name: Strix occidentalis lucida
- Length: 16-19 in
- Weight: 19.5-23 oz
- Wingspan:42-45 in
The Mexican spotted owl is one of 3 subspecies of spotted owls, as well as one of the largest species owls in North America. It is listed as threatened by both the U.S. and Mexican governments. They remain in New Mexico year-round and are sometimes spotted in areas such as the Gila National forest and Lincoln National Forest.
The Mexican spotted owl are a dark brownish-gray with white barring and a pale face. They have a rounded head with no ear tufts.
Despite being large, these owls are rare and hard to find. The Mexican subspecies can be found in forests of pine-oak or mixed evergreen including Douglas fir and pine. They nest and roost in narrow canyons with steep walls. Spotted owls diet consists mainly of small to medium sized rodents, but can also include rabbits, gophers, bats, smaller owls, birds and insects. They hunt mostly at night but may start at dusk.
9. Northern Pygmy-Owl
- Scientific name: Glaucidium gnoma
- Length: 6.4-7.1 in
- Weight: 2.1-2.5 oz
- Wingspan: 14.5–16 in
Northern pygmy-owls are generally widespread in the mountainous western United States, and this extends into the national forests of New Mexico. They’re active during the day, which makes seeing them a little easier than most other nocturnal owls, but they’re also pretty small and tend to perch still waiting for prey — so you still need to keep your eyes peeled.
Try to familiarize yourself with their high-pitched toots and calls to make locating them less tricky. Pay attention to groups of songbirds making a commotion, too. If they find a Northern pygmy-owl, they’ll often mob it and try to scare it away. They don’t want this owl around, since it often eats small song birds.
Northern pygmy-owls have very circular heads with no ear tufts. Their belly has vertical brown stripes, while their head and back are brown with white speckles.
10. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
- Length: 7.1-8.3 inches
- Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz
- Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 inches
Northern saw-whet owls are tiny with a round head and yellow eyes. In addition to their tiny size, there are a few other reasons why these owls are notoriously difficult to locate.
Their mottled brown plumage blends in easily to the trees around them, especially when they’re perched motionlessly on a branch. These owls are also naturally secretive, and are only active at night so you won’t run into them while it’s light out.
The best bet for find a northern saw-whet owl is to learn its call and listen for it at night, especially between January and May when they call most frequently. They have a distinct call that sounds like a blade being sharpened with a whetstone, earning the name “saw-whet” owl. Their too-too-too call is a series of whistled notes of the same pitch.
These owls prefer dense and mature forests, and their diet mainly consists of small mammals such as mice and voles. They are are year-round residents in the western half of the state, but tend to only be seen in the east during the winter.
11. Short-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio flammeus
- Length: 15 in
- Wingspan: 38 in
- Weight: 12 oz
Short-eared owls spend the summer almost exclusively in Canada and the northern United States, but you can find them during the non-breeding winter months in New Mexico.
As their name implies, they do have “ear tuft” feathers but they are so short as to almost never be visible. They have yellow eyes like many owls, but the black surrounding their eyes really makes the color pop.
Their populations in a certain area can vary year to year in close relation to the population of their prey such as moles, rats, rabbits and weasels.
It is thought that their populations overall are in decline, as they are particularly sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation from the large open grasslands they require being turned into farm land, grazing land, recreational areas and housing development.
They are actually found in many places globally, and are able to travel long distances over open ocean.
12. Western Screech Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops kennicottii
- Length: 7.5 – 9.8 in
- Wingspan: 21.6 – 24.4 in
- Weight: 3.5 – 10.8 oz
Western screech-owls can be found all along the coast of western North America and in many states of the western U.S. They can be found year-round throughout most of New Mexico, but tend to be absent from the far eastern part of the state.
Visually, there aren’t any big differences between the eastern and western varieties. They do have different hoots thought. While the eastern variety has a descending whinny, the western screech owl has a series of quick hoots. They don’t tend to overlap their range.
They nest in tree cavities in both rural and urban areas. When hiding inside tree cavities their perfectly camouflaged feathers make them very hard to find. They’re small, robin-sized owls with stocky bodies and short tails. Their mostly gray-brown plumage with streaky undersides camouflages them exceptionally well against trees when they’re roosting in holes during the day.