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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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How Climate Change Will Reshape the Range of the Northern Hawk Owl

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect this bird’s range in the future.

Zoom in to see how this species’s current range will shift, expand, and contract under increased global temperatures.

Climate threats facing the Northern Hawk Owl

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.

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