Photo: Alberto Lopez/Audubon Photography Awards

Northern Hawk Owl

Surnia ulula

In the northern forest, a lucky observer may spot this long-tailed owl perched upright at the top of a spruce. Rather hawklike in both appearance and behavior, it often hunts by day. Going from tree to tree, it flies fast and low, swinging up at the last moment to alight on the topmost twigs. The occasional Hawk Owl that wanders into the northeastern United States in winter may remain for weeks, attracting birders from far and wide.
Conservation status Most of North American breeding range is remote from effects of human disturbance.
Family Owls
Habitat Open conifer forests, birch scrub, tamarack bogs, muskeg. Found in northern forest of spruce and other conifers mixed with aspen or birch, north to treeline. Generally in semi-open sites, as around edges of clearings, bogs, burned areas.
In the northern forest, a lucky observer may spot this long-tailed owl perched upright at the top of a spruce. Rather hawklike in both appearance and behavior, it often hunts by day. Going from tree to tree, it flies fast and low, swinging up at the last moment to alight on the topmost twigs. The occasional Hawk Owl that wanders into the northeastern United States in winter may remain for weeks, attracting birders from far and wide.
Photo Gallery
  • adult
  • fledgling
  • adult
  • adult
Feeding Behavior

Hunts mostly by day, or at dawn and dusk. Watches for prey from a prominent raised perch, often moving from one hunting perch to another; when prey is spotted, attacks in very fast flight. May hover while hunting. Sometimes catches birds in the air. May sometimes locate prey by sound alone, plunging into snow to catch unseen rodents.


Eggs

5-7, sometimes 4-9, rarely 3-13. May lay more eggs in years when rodents are abundant. Eggs white. Incubation is by female only, 25-30 days. Young: Female stays with young most of time for about first 2 weeks; male brings food for them. Later, both parents bring food. Young climb around in nest tree before capable of flight, may be able to fly at about 5-6 weeks. Young may remain with parents for several months after fledging.


Young

Female stays with young most of time for about first 2 weeks; male brings food for them. Later, both parents bring food. Young climb around in nest tree before capable of flight, may be able to fly at about 5-6 weeks. Young may remain with parents for several months after fledging.

Diet

Mostly rodents. Especially in summer, eats mostly voles, mice; also some small squirrels, weasels, shrews. Also eats small birds, especially in winter. May take insects, frogs, even small fish at times.


Nesting

Members of mated pair call in duet, sometimes bow stiffly. Male feeds female, and may store uneaten prey near nest. Nest site varies, includes large cavities in trees, broken-off tops of snags, or old nests of other birds, such as crows or hawks. In northern Europe, may use artificial nest boxes. Usually 10-40' above ground.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

No regular migration, but somewhat nomadic, moving around to track available prey. A few may move well southward in winter.

Download Our Bird Guide App

Migration

No regular migration, but somewhat nomadic, moving around to track available prey. A few may move well southward in winter.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Whistling ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki, similar to call of a kestrel.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

How climate change could affect this bird's range

In the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change.

Learn more

Read more: climate.audubon.org
Owls

Northern Hawk Owl

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season.

More on reading these maps.

Each map is a visual guide to where a particular bird species may find the climate conditions it needs to survive in the future. We call this the bird’s “climatic range.”

The colors indicate the season in which the bird may find suitable conditions— blue for winter, yellow for summer (breeding), and green for where they overlap (indicating their presence year-round).

The darker the shaded area, the more likely it is the bird species will find suitable climate conditions to survive there.

The outline of the approximate current range for each season remains fixed in each frame, allowing you to compare how the range will expand, contract, or shift in the future.

The first frame of the animation shows where the bird can find a suitable climate today (based on data from 2000). The next three frames predict where this bird’s suitable climate may shift in the future—one frame each for 2020, 2050, and 2080.

You can play or pause the animation with the orange button in the lower left, or select an individual frame to study by clicking on its year.

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season. More on reading these maps.
Winter
Summer

Winter Range
Summer Range
Both Seasons
Zoom InOut

Explore Similar Birds