Plus, learn how they help to ward off mice, voles, gophers, and similar small rodents.

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Different species of owls live in all regions of the world. There are currently 19 species of owl in the United States, so there is a good chance that you will either see or hear an owl in your own neighborhood.

Some species are indeed endangered and all species should be protected—which is why you should consider making your backyard more owl-friendly. "Owls are beautiful birds whose haunting calls are, literally, the stuff of legend. Who doesn't love hearing an owl hoot in the night?" says Gregory A. Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences at Kent State University. "When you actually do catch a glimpse of an owl in the trees, it is an experience that most people do not soon forget."

owl resting on tree branch
Credit: Steve Whiston - Fallen Log Photography / Getty Images

Designing Your Outdoor Space

Unlike other types of birds, owls will not be attracted to your yard with typical bird feeders. These mostly nocturnal birds like to eat rodents and are not likely to hang out in your backyard for a lengthy amount of time. "Food can be provided by leaving piles of sticks and brush around the yard. Such structures attract mice, other rodents, and rabbits that the owls eat depending on the species," explains Smith. "Letting part of your yard go natural can also attract owl prey. Of course, you might not like the idea of more rodents around your home, but without a food source, you will probably not see owls."

You can also provide shelter for owls. "Shelter and nesting sites can be most easily provided by leaving dead trees in your yard, as long as it is safe to so. Not all owls are cavity nesters, so providing a variety of nesting areas gives you the best chance to attract owls," continues Smith. "Nest boxes can be used to attract some owls, but you should be careful about their placement. For example, placing the box in a wooded area instead of a more open area can limit colonization by unwanted species such as European Starlings." You can find designs and building instructions on Nestwatch from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Smith recommends talking to your local wildlife department before you start building structures on your property to attract owls.

Bright lights deter owls, so another way to make your backyard more appealing to owls is to dim the lights in the evening. "Owls hunt in silence and in the dark. A brightly lit yards means that mice are more likely to see owls coming and can more easily escape," explains Smith. You also want to make sure to keep your pets indoors when owls are likely to be out. Why? "It will also protect your pets from owls depending on the species and breeds, while at the same time protecting owls from your pets," he says. "As with any effort to attract a wild species, you will need patience. It may take time for owls to discover the resources you have provided for them."

Keeping Owls Safe

Because of the owl's protected status in the United States, there are rules and regulations that must be followed. For instance, consider: Do you live near a busy road? Is there heavy pesticide use in your area? Owls can be harmed by these conditions, so it may be best not to draw the animals to your location. "You could be bringing owls into a dangerous situation," says Smith. "If you cannot reasonably provide an owl-safe yard, you should reconsider attempts to attract them." Instead, if you want to see owls, you should visit local parks or protected natural areas nearby. Not all owls are nocturnal, so it is possible to see owls during the day or toward dusk as well.

Comments (2)

Martha Stewart Member
August 28, 2021
Please know there are at least two species of owls that will attack and kill cats. The Bard owl is one (if I spelled that correctly). My outside feral colony of cats went down from 10-12 to current 5-6. And I can hear the owl in a large tree right across from my house in the evenings/nights. Thanks
Martha Stewart Member
July 10, 2021
I built two Simon’s owl boxes for barn owls. One for our mobile home park and the other for the park next door. We encourage all residents not to use D-CON or any other pesticides to control our inherent rat problem. The boxes are painted white to make them cooler inside and more waterproof.