Owls in New Mexico

A popular bird finds its habitat on the decline.

Story Highlights
  • There are 19 species of owls that call North America home.
  • Growing threats to owl habitat, such as over-development and the disappearance of old growth trees, are making it harder to spot these spectacular creatures in the wild.
  • The saw-whet owl occurs at high elevations of 10,000 feet or higher and can be found in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The great gray owl sits nearly 30 inches tall and has a wing span of more than 4 feet.

You don’t have to be a wizard to catch sight of a real life owl just like the ones featured in the renowned Harry Potter book series. While the books feature a variety of owls helping out their wizard owners, non-magical New Mexicans can see many owl species in our forests, prairies and bosques. 

In New Mexico, our bosques and other riparian areas are breeding areas for the great horned owl and western screech-owl. Visitors to The Nature Conservancy’s Gila and Mimbres preserves near Silver City or along the Corrales bosque, which the Conservancy helped protect, might spot one of these owls. Several Conservancy staff have also reported seeing western screech-owls in their back yards in Albuquerque’s north valley. A trip to Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Nature Center or Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge might also yield a successful sighting. 

Nineteen species of owls can be found in North America, ranging from the tiny elf owl, which stands less than six inches tall, to the great gray owl, nearly 30 inches tall with a wing span of more than 50 inches. However, growing threats to owl habitat, such as over-development and the disappearance of old growth trees, are making it harder and harder to spot these spectacular creatures in the wild. 

“Human population growth and development is destroying much of the owls’ natural habitat,” says David Mehlman, an Albuquerque ornithologist who works in the Conservancy’s migratory bird program. “Clear cutting has also reduced the number of trees that would have otherwise grown old enough to develop cavities that owls can nest in.” 

The Conservancy, together with government agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the U..S Fish and Wildlife Service, is protecting landscapes that are most critical to declining bird populations. The burrowing owl can be found at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge—the Conservancy’s first New Mexico conservation project. The burrowing owl is found throughout New Mexico at lower elevations, particularly areas with prairie dogs and other rodents that make their homes underground. Restoration of the owl hinges on sustaining burrowing mammal populations to provide adequate habitat. (Learn more about our conservation efforts in northern Mexico's Janos Grasslands, home to the world's largest prairie dog complex and, of course, burrowing owls.) 

“I've heard a rumor that burrowing owls are nesting in the end zone at New Mexico State University’s stadium in Las Cruces,” says Mehlman. “The owls can still be found nesting around Albuquerque and they should be looked for in any existing prairie dog colony.” 

Elf owls are very small creatures which occur in low numbers in southwestern New Mexico along the lower reaches of the Gila River and surrounding areas. Mehlman points out that New Mexico is at the extreme northeastern limit of the elf owl’s range, so probably the best way to see this species is to rent a Harry Potter movie.

Because some owls are migratory, the Conservancy is working with scientists to monitor the flight paths of owls to better determine what lands should be protected to save the birds. The flammulated owl is uncommon though widespread in the New Mexico mountains among the ponderosa and mixed-conifer zones, such as the Sandia and Sangre de Cristo mountains and in the Gila National Forest. These owls are only present here in the summer and migrate south to the mountains of western Mexico for the winter. 

Other owl species found in New Mexico include the long-eared owl, which occurs in very low numbers and is extremely hard to find. The saw-whet owl occurs at high elevations—10,000 feet or higher—in the Sangre de Cristos. The whiskered screech-owl is restricted to the southwestern part of the state in the Peloncillo and the Animas Mountains. The Mexican Spotted Owl, listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993, inhabits canyon and montane forest areas across the state. The service designated 4.6 million acres on federal lands in four southwestern states as critical habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl. In New Mexico, this includes federal lands in McKinley, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, Socorro and Taos counties.

Read more fun facts about owls.


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