Scientific Name:

Surnia ulula

Population Status:

Least Concern

Body Length:

14-15 in (355 - 381mm)


2-1/2 to 3 ft (762 - 914mm)


9-12 oz (255-340 g)

What makes a raptor a raptor?

Did you know?

  • Unlike most other owls, the Northern Hawk-owl does not fly on silent wings. Its feathers are stiffer than nocturnal owls so when it flies its wings do make some noise.
  • The Northern Hawk-owl is able to catch prey using only its hearing! Scientists have documented it picking up on noises made by prey moving as much as 12 inches beneath the snow - the Northern Hawk-owl then swoops down on this "invisible" prey and grabs it with its sharp talons.
  • Despite its excellent hearing, Northern Hawk-owls do NOT have asymmetrical ear openings, like most other owls.

Though The Peregrine Fund doesn't work directly with Northern Hawk-owls, our efforts in scientific research, habitat conservation, education, and community development help conserve birds of prey around the world. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation.

The Northern Hawk-owl is distributed across much of the Northern Holarctic region - which is the area covered by the Nearctic and Palearctic regions combined. In North America, this owl can be found in Alaska, (in the U.S.) and throughout much of Canada. Though generally this species is not considered to be migratory, individuals have been known to travel further south, particularly in winter, when food may be more scarce in their regular haunts. If this is the case, some of these owls may travel to southern Canada or even as far south as the northern United States in search of prey. In Eurasia, it can be found in parts of China, Siberia and the United Kingdom.

The Northern Hawk-owl makes its home in boreal forests, otherwise known as taiga - open forests where mainly coniferous trees such as pines and spruces, grow. According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Northern Hawk-owl has a particular fondness for "brushy, tangled areas around swamps or streams, or the forest edge near muskeg (peat bogs)."

When you heard the name of this species, Northern Hawk-owl, for the first time, perhaps you asked yourself... well... is it a hawk or an owl? If you were to study this species' behavior and some of its traits in search fof further clues, you might become even more confused. After all, the Northern Hawk-owl has a long tail and pointed wings, like a falcon. Its flight pattern is very similar to that of accipiter hawks and its hunting style has been compared to a Cooper's Hawk. It tends to bob its tail when perched and it is adept at hovering, just like a kestrel. It is also active during the day, like a hawk. So, is the Northern Hawk-owl a hawk or an owl?

It is an owl, of course!

Though it has some characteristics that resemble hawks and falcons, if you look closely enough you will find the tell-tale signs that this magnificent bird is, indeed, an owl. Being stared down by a Northern Hawk-owl is an experience you will never forget. Its piercing yellow eyes, framed by a distinctive facial disk, make for one intimidating glare. But, unless you are a rodent, you have little to worry about. In fact, the longer you look at a Northern Hawk-owl, the more you will realize how sweet-looking it is. It is a lovely combination of dark and light, which makes for some striking plumage patterns dark head covered with white spots - making it look like it was caught out in the snow for too long. Its breast ranges from whitish to rusty, with dark stripes running horizontally across. Its back is mostly black with white mottling along the wings. It has a yellow beak to match its eyes and its legs are feathered in rufous all the way down to its toes. Its light grey facial disk is surrounded by lines of dark feathers.

Unlike most other owls, the Northern Hawk-owl is quite content to go about its business of flying, hunting and perching, during daylight hours. This owl isn't shy when it comes to people and can often be seen perched in the tops of tall, conspicuous trees.

Like many owl species, the Northern Hawk-owl has a variety of calls, depending on its mood. The male emits a rapid, rolling whistle when searching for a mate. A screech ending on a high note or a series of short chips might signal the alarm. When distressed, its call sounds like a combination of a falcon cacking and tires squeeling.

Though, for now, scientists believe that the population of Northern Hawk-owl appears to be stable, this species still faces many threats, not the least of which is the fact that this owl really hasn't been studied very much in North America - meaning there is a whole lot we still need to learn. The owl may be affected by climate change, and other natural or human destruction to its boreal forest habitat could spell trouble for this medium-sized owl.

They feed mostly on voles and other small mammals and birds, hunting from an exposed perch. They swoop down on prey or hover above it before dropping down to catch it. They also fly low over the ground in search of food. It might choose to perche in a area with lots of dead trees - that serve as good lookout or vantage points for spotting and hearing prey. Scientists discovered that they will even take prey as large as Snow-shoe Hares!

They nest in hollows in stumps and trees, as well as the abandoned nests of hawks and crows. The female lays 3-10 or more eggs, depending on the size of the prey population. The eggs are incubated for 25-28 days. The young fledge when they are 3-1/2 to 5 weeks old and are independent at 11 weeks.

In winter, the Northern Hawk-owl might be spotted in the forests of Northern Idaho. In particular, when food is exceptionally scarce in its regular territory, this owl will venture into this lovely state. It has been documented very rarely breeding in the northern part of the state, called Boundary County.

The visitor center at our World Center for Birds of Prey includes owls among its avian ambassadors. Though we do not have a Northern Hawk-owl in our avian ambassador family, we do have a lovely Eurasian Eagle Owl and a Western Screech Owl, that both enjoy visitors. This is a great chance to see owls up close and learn about the wonderful and interesting adaptations they have in order to survive in their respective habitats. There is also a touch table with owl feathers and other natural objects available for exploration. And, our knowledgeable staff and volunteers are always on hand to answer any questions you might have about Northern Hawk-owls or any other raptor.

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