From tiny northern saw-whets to the majestic great horned, owls are some of the most iconic birds you can hope to see in the wild. They’re also some of the most elusive: nocturnal and private, these raptors are wary of the human world and prefer secluded woodland areas to highly trafficked residential zones. But under the right conditions, it’s possible to increase your chances of glimpsing these magnificent birds. All you need are some simple supplies and a healthy dose of patience.
Understand the Ground Rules
We’re not trying to break any raptor-lovers’ hearts, but there are certain conditions that will never attract owls. If you live in an urban high-rise, a bustling suburb, or have a yard that’s more concrete than foliage, your property isn’t suitable for a feathered visitor. Similarly, you should forgo these tips if you live near a busy road, a construction site, or an industrial area where cars and other machinery are common: the last thing you want is to coax owls closer to places where they’ll be susceptible to collisions or injuries from human infrastructure.
The prime environment for attracting owls will have open, grassy expanses, as well as trees to perch in. Quiet suburbs and rural areas, especially those near forests or other patches of undeveloped land, are the best places to apply the following tips. If this doesn’t sound like your yard, don’t despair: scroll to the end of this article for advice on how to find wild owls near you.
The best way to attract owls is to make your property as similar to their natural environment as possible. This means letting native plants like wild herbs, shrubs, and young trees sprout naturally. These features will also attract other types of native birds and wild animals, signaling to owls that your yard is a safe haven for wildlife. Consider adding a homemade birdbath or a bird feeder to your property to draw in these smaller visitors.
The sounds of nature are almost as important as the sights. Ensure your yard is a quiet, serene place by moving any busy or noisy hobbies elsewhere. This might mean limiting how often you mow your lawn, relocating your whiffle ball games, and keeping your pets leashed rather than letting them run free. It’s unlikely that low-key hobbies like gardening or grilling will prevent an owl from dropping by, but try to keep noise and commotion to a minimum.
Add a Nest Box
Owls normally find naturally occurring hideaways to preen, sleep, and build nests. Many relax in tree hollows, while others get more creative: some desert owls make their homes in cactuses, while burrowing owls dig their own shelters underground. You can make your yard more attractive to owls by providing a ready-made residence in the form of an owl nest box.
A nest box is a bit like a birdhouse without the emphasis on decorative elements. Rather than nailing up a mini cottage painted in bright colors, opt for a plain brown affair that blends in with the environment. Sturdy wooden construction, an entrance hole big enough to accommodate adult owls, and a ledge or textured “front porch” area to let birds perch outside the nest box are all important considerations. You can order these cozy wooden dwellings online, get one from a local artisan, or even build one yourself.
Once you find a suitable box, you’ll need to pick an ideal location. Most nest boxes are best secured firmly to the trunks of sturdy, mature trees with nails or screws. Use a ladder to position the nest box 10 to 15 feet up the trunk of a suitable tree—owls feel most comfortable high off the ground, away from other wildlife. You can also attach one to your barn or shed, provided it’s well off the ground and away from any highly trafficked areas. For best results, do this in the early spring, or just before your local owls’ nesting season.
Build a Buffet
Owls are carnivorous hunters known for feasting on mice, voles, lemmings, and even squirrels. If these critters frequent your yard without any effort on your part, owls may already be inclined to stop by. But a comfortable home requires a steady supply of food, meaning you might have to tip the scales in owls’ favor by encouraging your rodent populations to flourish.
Consider leaving a pile of lawn clippings, sticks, and branches in a quiet corner of your yard. Over time, small furry animals will likely take up residence underneath this haphazard shelter, turning your yard into a reliable source of food for visiting owls. Letting your lawn grow wild by not mowing it (or replacing it entirely with native ground cover) can have a similar effect by providing tasty seeds and greens for wild critters.
If you’re deliberately coaxing wildlife onto your property, you have an obligation to make it a safe and healthy habitat for them to live and thrive. That means no nasty chemicals on your lawn, in your garden, or anywhere on the outside of your building. Pesticides are designed to be highly toxic, and rodenticides are just as harmful: even if an owl doesn’t consume them directly, it’s likely to eat a rodent that did.
Beyond that, turn off your exterior lights at night to reduce confusion during hunting time, and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Try to switch off indoor lights after dark whenever possible to reduce the risk of window collisions. Finally, relocate sculptures with moving parts, precarious construction projects, and any heavy machinery—including your car—to keep them out of owls’ way.
How to Find Owls if You Can’t Attract Them
Even if your property isn’t suited to attracting wild owls, there are still opportunities to catch a glimpse of them in your area. Your local parks and nature preserves are a great place to start—even Central Park in Manhattan hosts a handful of migrating owls every year, much to the excitement of local birders.
Consider connecting with your city or town’s birding community for tips on where to look. Many birders are cagey about owl sighting locations out of respect for the solitary birds’ privacy and safety, so you likely won’t get far by searching the web. But once your local experts clock you as a sincere owl enthusiast who can keep a secret, many will be willing to share their favorite lookout spots.
Natalie Wallington is a contributing writer for PopSci 's DIY section. Her reporting on social and environmental justice has appeared in the Washington Post, Audubon Magazine, VICE News , and elsewhere. In her spare time, she collects stationery and naps on the couch with her retired racing greyhound. Visit her website to see more of her work.