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11 Owls in Wisconsin

11 Owls in Wisconsin

The United States is home to 19 different species of owls and due to Wisconsin’s climate and biodiversity, 11 of these species can be found in the state, making it one of the most owl-filled states in the country!

The owls found in Wisconsin vary greatly in size, shape and way of life. There are many common owls in Wisconsin, but some of the rarer species are also to be found in the forests of Wisconsin. Usually living deep in the woodlands, these animals produce some otherworldly sounds that will make every birdwatching trip worth it if you stumble upon them.

In this article we will look at the 11 different owl species of Wisconsin and learn about their ways of life and how to find them.

1. Great Horned Owl

  • Scientific name – Bubo virginianus
  • Lifespan – 13 years (average), 28 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 18.1 to 24.8 in (46 to 63 cm)
  • Weight – 32.1 to 88.2 oz (910 to 2500 g)
  • Wingspan – 39.8 to 57.1 in (101 to 145 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

The Great Horned Owl is one of the most adaptable birds in all of North America, using deserts, wetlands, grasslands, cities and forests as its home, and can be found between northern Alaska all the way down to southern Brazil.

Great horned owl

The Great Horned Owl is a nocturnal animal, meaning its awake and hunting at night, while spending the day sleeping. It’s clear that this owl is dressed for camouflage with its mottled brown feathers, making it easily blend in the forests.

The owl’s “horns” are actually just feathers called plumicorns and their function is not fully understood. They are believed to be part of a visual cue and social display for other birds.

Nesting

The Great Horned owl is one of the earliest breeding animals in North America, selecting their mates in January. Males select the nesting site and will lure the female to it by flying around it and stomping the nest.

The Great Horned Owl prefers open abandoned nests from other large bids like hawks and will never build their own.

As their habitat varies greatly, so too does their nesting areas, and they have been seen using caves, cacti, cliffs and much more as the foundation for their nests.

Diet

Due to their large variation in habitat, The Great Horned Owl will eat almost about anything and is said to eat anything that walks, crawls, flies or swims.

Analysis of their stool shows that the diet of the Great Horned Owl is one of the least picky animals on the globe. The largest part of their diet consists of small mammals like mice, jackrabbits and small birds.

Conservation

The Great Horned Owl is by no means a threatened species, but its North American population has been declined greatly in the last 40 years.

By far the largest threat to the owls is human intervention. Over 65% of the owls that die are either shot, trapped, hit by cars or electrocuted by power lines and poisoning from dead rats killed by rat poison also account for a large number of deaths.

In the culture, the Great Horned Owl has been seen as a pest due to its hunting of domestic chickens and small game and has for centuries been killed by hunters and farmers.

Where to look for them

The Great Horned Owl can be found in all of Wisconsin. The highest concentration of spottings seems to be around the Kettle Moraine State Forest, which offers optimal hunting and nesting conditions for the bird with its open areas, deep forests and swampy hunting grounds.

When looking for this bird, you’ll have the best chances by going to the forest, especially the edges of it, before the sun rises and sit around to wait. Listen for the distinguished hoots and calls from the bird and look up against the sky to spot it.

2. American Barn Owl

  • Scientific name – Tyto furcata
  • Lifespan – 10 years (average)
  • Size – 34 to 38 cm (13 to 15 in)
  • Weight – 400 to 600 g (0.88 to 1.3 lbs)
  • Wingspan – 29 to 36 cm (11 to 14 in)
  • Status – Least concern

The American Barn Owl is a subspecies group that together with the Western Barn Owl and the Eastern Barn Owl, make up the species Barn Owl. The American Barn Owl is strictly nocturnal, hiding away in hollow tree trunks and dense vegetation in the daytime.

A sleepy American Barn Owl in the daylight

It has a creamy white face, chest and belly with a pale brown upper body and wings. Its face has a distinguished look that has given raise to many myths around the world of the bird being godly and otherworldly.

Nesting

American Barn Owls are usually monogamous and have only one partner for life. When it’s time for nesting between March and June, the male will find a suitable nesting spot, usually a nesting box, large cavity in a tree trunk or a cliffside.

He will then fly around the area marking his territory waiting for the female to join him. When the female joins him, he will begin chasing her and swooping around her before it’s time to breed.

Diet

In North America voles and shrews make up approximately 90% of the American Barn Owls diet, which it hunts exclusively at night.

The ears of the American Barn Owl are not symmetrically placed. This makes it able to pin point exactly where its prey is based on its hearing making it able to hunt in complete darkness.

The American Barn Owl has a higher metabolic rate than other owls its size and is therefore requiring more food to sustain itself.

Conservation

The American Barn Owl is not threatened on a global level, but populations have decreased in North America due to the rise of pesticides and rodenticides.

This will in turn make their food poisonous and can kill large amount of individuals. The American Barn Owl is, however, able to recover from such losses of individuals in the short-term.

Where to look for them

The American Barn Owl can be found in most of Wisconsin but is more widespread in the Northern forested part. Barn Owls don’t like strong winds, so finding an open grassland on a wind still day increases your chances of finding this bird.

If looking for them in summer, either stay up late and look for them around sundown or get up early and look for them in the sunrise. In winter, they will usually extend their hunting hours, making it possible to spot them during the day also.

Unlike other owls, they don’t have the characteristic owl “hoot” but make use of a very harsh screeching sound. A horrifying sound that you won’t miss if you hear!

3. Barred Owl

  • Scientific name – Strix varia
  • Lifespan – 8 years (average), 26 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 16.9 to 19.7 in (43 to 50 cm)
  • Weight – 16.6 to 37 oz (470 to 1050 g)
  • Wingspan – 39 to 43.3 in (99 to 110 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

The Barred Owls don’t migrate, and their territories are extremely small compared to the other owls. In a study where 158 owls were banded and then found later, not even one had moved farther than 6 miles away.

A Barred Owl taking a rest in the daylight in a maple tree

Despite their small territories and lacking adventure lust, the Barred Owl is common in most of the eastern states and southern Canada. The Barred Owls are brownish grey on the whole body, with dark striping on the underside.

Nesting

Like the American Barn Owl, the Barred Owls are monogamous and pair for life. When selecting a partner, the male will start nodding and even bowing for the female with spread wings, waiting for her accept.

The courtship of the Barred Owls starts around February. When the mating has taken place, the Barred Owls will make their nests in hollow tree trunks in deep and dark forests.

Diet

The Barred Owls hunt in the forests. Sitting on branches they swoop from tree to tree until prey is found. Prey mostly consists of small mammals, but fish and small birds are also among their usual diet. They typically hunt around forest rivers and wetlands.

Conservation

The Barred Owl is one of the most common North American owls and there is estimated to be around 3 million individuals globally.

Like with the other owls, poisoning of their prey is a big threat to them, and habitat destruction and disturbance is also very detrimental to the Barred Owl as they prefer deep dark forests.

Where to look for them

Barred Owls can be found in all of Wisconsin, with their most dense distribution being in the western parts, west of the Wisconsin River.

Also, a nocturnal animal, they’re easiest to find around dusk or dawn. Looking around rivers and lakes within bottomland forests are the best places to find this bird.

Their call is very distinguished sounding like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all?” In thick forests and from far away their call can sound a lot like a large dog barking.

4. Eastern Screech-Owl

  • Scientific name – Megascops asio
  • Lifespan – 4 years (average), 14 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 6.3 to 9.8 in (16 to 25 cm)
  • Weight – 4.3 to 8.6 oz (121 to 244 g)
  • Wingspan – 18.9 to 24 in (48 to 61 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

The Eastern Screech-Owl is not afraid of humans. In fact, it has adapted extremely well to human development. It resides in the eastern states and all the way down to Mexico.

This Eastern-Screech Owl seems to have spotted the camera man

The bird seems to have two different color morphs, with the southern population being more reddish and the northern population being more greyish.

This color change seems to be a result of the woodlands color of where they reside.

Nesting

The Eastern-Screech Owl is solitary for most of the year and seeing a pair will only happen during mating season around April. When the mating has taken place, the barred owls will make their nests in hollow tree trunks in deep and dark forests.

The Eastern Screech-Owl is usually monogamous and pair for life. Some males, however, are known to mate with two different females. The second female usually evicts the first female and will lay her own eggs in the nest.

Diet

The Eastern-Screech Owl usually hunts around open woodlands, along the edges of open fields or wetlands. Unlike the other owls on the list, the largest part of the Eastern-Screech Owls diet consists of insects and worms. Small mammals are, however, still a stable part of their diet.

Conservation

Like with the other owls, poisoning of their prey is a big threat to them, and habitat destruction and disturbance is also very detrimental to the Eastern-Screech Owl as they prefer forests. This owl is also the prey for a lot of mammals and larger birds.

Where to look for them

The Eastern-Screech Owl can be found mostly in the southern parts of Wisconsin. In the nighttime they will hunt at woodland edges like the other nocturnal owls. If you want to look for them in the daytime, you might be lucky to find them in tree cavities or nest boxes where they like to sit in the entrance while sleeping.

5. Long-eared Owl

  • Scientific name – Asio otus
  • Lifespan – 11 years (average), 27 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 13.8 to 15.8 in (35 to 40 cm)
  • Weight – 7.8 to 15.3 oz (220 to 435 g)
  • Wingspan – 35.4 to 39.4 in (90 to 100 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

The Long-eared owl is one of the most common and most numerous owl species globally. Blending well with pine trees, the brown and black plumage of this bird makes it well camouflaged for its environment in dense foliage.

A Long-Eared Owl with its characteristic ears, sitting camouflaged in a pine tree

The calls of this bird can be heard up to 1 mile away, even in dense forests, making it a well-known sound for forest visitors.

Nesting

Long-Eared Owls are monogamous and start their breeding around March. The male will claim its territory with singing and by clapping its wings, while the female will look for nesting areas.

Like most other owls, they don’t build their nests themselves and often use old hawk nests or cavities in old tree trunks as their nests.

Diet

Nesting in dense vegetation, the Long-Eared Owl will move out to more open areas at night to hunt. Almost their entire diet is based on voles and only in extremely bad years for voles will they change their diet to other small mammals and birds.

Conservation

The Long-Eared Owl is very common, but the population is in decline due to habitat loss and roadside killings. It’s distribution globally is expanding and is therefore only listed as Least Concern on IUCN’s red list.

Where to look for them

The Long-eared Owl is found in most of Wisconsin but in higher concentrations in the southeastern parts around Sheboygan and Madison.

These owls are some of the most camouflaged ones on the list, making them extremely hard to find. Should you venture out to find them, a good way to look for them is to find pine stands close to grasslands or pastures, as they usually are roosting here.

In winter, the owls will roost in large numbers in a single tree, making them easier to find. Looking for bird droppings and pellets in winter is therefore a great way to identify a potential roosting tree.

6. Great Gray Owl

  • Scientific name – Strix nebulosa
  • Lifespan – 13 to 27 years(maximum recorded)
  • Size – 24 to 33 in (61 to 84 cm)
  • Weight – 1.28 to 4.19 lb (580 to 1,900 g)
  • Wingspan – 4ft 8in to 5ft (142 to 152 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

The Great Gray Owl is the largest owl in the world by length. Being the size of a 2-3-year-old kid, this owl is widely distributed in the northern parts of the world.

A Great Gray Owl taking a rest on a sawed-off tree trunk

Adults have a large round head with a grey face and underparts with dark streaks; the upper parts are also gray, giving name to the bird.

Even though the bird is huge, it’s mostly made up of feathers, with the Snowy Owl weighing more. This makes the Great Gray Owls flight extremely quiet.

Nesting

The owls are monogamous and start the breeding around March in deep forests. Like other owls they will reuse other birds’ nests or use large cavities in dead tree trunks.

In recent years a lot of efforts have been made to increase the man-made nests for this animal in order to help the population. Starting in the 1970’s many states and NGO’s started making platforms and cavities for the bird to breed in.

Diet

The Great Gray Owl eats almost solely small mammals which it finds by listening. They have excellent hearing and may locate and catch prey moving beneath 60 cm (2.0 ft) of snow.

Unlike other owls they’re not picky eaters but they do have a favourite mammal depending on their geographic range.

The northern birds tend to eat mostly lemmings, while voles are the southern birds’ favourite food. They will however switch their diet if their preferred prey is not abundant.

Conservation

The Great Gray Owl is very common, but the population is in decline due to habitat loss, especially due to logging, and roadside killings.

Poisoning of the bird’s prey is also a big factor and has shown to be the reason for a lot of mortality regarding this species.

It’s distribution globally is expanding and is therefore only listed as Least Concern on IUCN’s red list.

Where to look for them

The Great Gray Owl is mostly appearing in the northwest corner of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin in general is the southern limit of the species’ range. In daytime they are usually found right at the edges of forests inside holes in dead trees.

Despite its size, it’s incredibly hard to spot in the holes because they are so well camouflaged. If you want to see them while hunting, you should come to the same areas around dusk and dawn where they are most active.

7. Short-eared Owl

  • Scientific name – Asio flammeus
  • Lifespan – 4 years (average), 12 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 13.4 to 16.9 in (34 to 43 cm)
  • Weight – 7.3 to 16.8 oz (206 to 475 g)
  • Wingspan – 33.5 to 40.5 in (85 to 103 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

The Short-Eared Owl is distributed globally and is one of the most common owls in the world. Its bill is short and black, and its body is dotted brown with a barred tail and wings.

Short-eared owl

The feathers on the breast are brownish with a light belly. Unlike the reputation of other owls, the Short-Eared Owl is mostly seen in daylight in which it hunts.

Nesting

The Short-Eared Owl is serially monogamous, meaning that they form pairs that stay together for a single breeding season which usually starts around March. Unlike other owls, this bird will gather in flocks and make their nests on the ground lowly vegetated areas such prairies, meadows or tundras.

Diet

Hunting both at day and night the Short-Eared Owl flies lowly above open fields looking for its prey. Like many other owls, voles are their favourite meal. When vole populations are low they tend to eat other small mammals before they start eating birds and amphibians.

Conservation

The Short-Eared Owl is very common, but the population is in decline due to habitat loss and roadside killings. It’s distribution globally is expanding and is therefore only listed as Least Concern on IUCN’s red list.

Where to look for them

The Short-eared Owl is mostly found in the southern parts of Wisconsin, especially in the woodlands around the woodlands west of Madison and along the coast of Lake Michigan.

Unlike the other owls on this list, The Short-Eared Owl is more frequently seen in the daytime. They mostly reside in open fields and grasslands, where they will hunt at dusk and dawn.

They often hunt in a circular route, meaning that they might return to the same place if you’re patient enough!

8. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Scientific name – Aegolius acadicus
  • Lifespan – 4 years (average), 10 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 7.1 to 8.3 in (18 to 21 cm)
  • Weight – 2.3 to 5.3 oz (65 to 151 g)
  • Wingspan – 16.5 to 18.9 in (42 to 48 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

Tiny and shy are two very good words to describe this owl. It is one of the smallest and most elusive birds species in North America.

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl has a round, whitish face with brown streaks. They have a very dark beak and yellow eyes. The belly is pale with brownish areas and the upper part is darker brown with whitish spots.

The name of the owl seems to have come from the sound of their call resembling a saw being sharpened by a whetstone.

This Northern Saw-Whet Owl doesn't mind getting its picture taken up close.

Nesting

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is serially monogamous, meaning that they form pairs that stay together for a single breeding season which usually starts around March.

When a lot of prey is available males will sometimes mate with multiple females in one breeding season. The owls will make their nests in old woodpecker holes, holes in tree trunks or nest boxes.

Diet

This bird almost exclusively eats mammals and especially deer mice and voles. In more wet areas, near rivers and wetlands, their diet seems to change, and will eat crustaceans, frogs and insects more frequently.

Conservation

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl are very common, but the population is in decline due to habitat loss and competition with Boreal owls, starlings, and squirrels for nests. Being a very small bird, they’re also prey for a lot of mammals and larger birds.

Where to look for them

The Northern Saw-whet Owl is both small and shy, making it hard to spot. They mostly reside in deep forests, making the northern parts of Wisconsin a better place to look for this bird.

Because of their small size, the best way to look for these birds is by their calls. They almost sound like a tiny truck backing up and is sure to stand out against other bird calls.

9. Snowy Owl

  • Scientific name – Bubo scandiacus
  • Lifespan – 10 years (average), 24 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 20.5 to 27.9 in (52 to 71 cm)
  • Weight – 56.4 to 104.1 oz (1600 to 2950 g)
  • Wingspan – 49.6 to 57.1 in (126 to 145 cm)
  • Status – Vulnerable

The snowy owl is one of the most recognizable owls, breeding in the arctic and spending its winters in North America.

As the name dictates the Snowy Owl is extremely white and is considered one of the most pure white animals in the world. The males tend to be more white, while the females have more dark feathers mixed with the white ones.

Snowy Owl

Unlike the other owls on this list, the Snowy Owl can choose to be active at night or day, possibly as a result of being an arctic bird where the days are extremely long in the summer and short in the winter.

The Snowy Owl is extremely nomadic, covering huge distances from breeding grounds to wintering grounds, showing irregularities in how far south their winter grounds are each year.

Nesting

The Snowy Owl arrives in the arctic tundras by April where they will begin their breeding rituals. The male will pick a spot which is usually a shallow hole in the open tundra where he will begin singing and make aerial acrobatics for the females to enjoy.

He will also present an interested female with food, bowing before her while showing the nest area. The owls will not construct a real nest, but the female might scrape the floor of the nesting area to dig a slight hole for the eggs to lay in.

Diet

As their habitat varies between breeding season and winter, so too does their diet. In the winter are mostly nocturnal and they will often hunt for small mammals like rats and water birds like Teal and Northern Pintails.

In the summer at their breeding grounds the vast majority of their diet consists of lemmings since the majority of the available food for the owl is of this species.

Conservation

Due to their nomadic nature, population estimations are very difficult, but it is estimated that the global population is on a decline. It’s widely agreed upon that climate change drive the decline of the Snowy Owl.

As the temperatures rise, more rain and less snow are negatively affecting the lemming populations at their breeding grounds, which then affects the Snowy Owl population.

Likewise, the high temperature decreases the amount of sea ice that the Snowy Owls are highly dependent on.

Where to look for them

Breeding in the high arctic, this owl will only be in Wisconsin during winter. Here they will spend their time hunting in open areas such as fields and shorelines to get ready for the breeding season.

Their hunting habits make the south and the east of Wisconsin the best areas to look for this bird. This bird blends very well in with the snowy landscapes of winter Wisconsin and is easy to miss when looking a flat snowy field.

The best trick is to look for any bumps or irregularities in the snow. That might just be a Snowy Owl!

10. Northern Hawk Owl

  • Scientific name – Surnia ulula
  • Lifespan – 10 years (average), 16 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 14.2 to 17.7 in (36 to 45 cm)
  • Weight – 8.5 to 16 oz (240 – 454 g)
  • Wingspan – 30.8 to 34.6 in (78 to 88 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

As the name implies, the Northern Hawk Owl lives in the north of North America and behaves much like a hawk.

As seen in the picture it likes to sit high in trees or poles scouting for food, much like a hawk.

The Northern Hawk Owl likes to sit on top of tall things, scouting for prey.

The Northern Hawk Owl is dark brown with a whitish pattern of spots on parts of the body. The belly is also whitish. It also has a long hawk-like tail It’s face is whitish with a black border.

Nesting

The Northern Hawk Owl is serially monogamous, meaning that they form pairs that stay together for a single breeding season which usually starts around March. Unlike the other owls on the list, the Northern Hawk Owl will build its nest, usually using an old nest as the frame, after mating. The male will then guard the nest aggressively until the chicks are gone from the nest.

Diet

Their main diet consists of small mammals such as voles, red squirrels and mice but are also keen to eat birds and amphibians.

Conservation

The Northern Hawk Owl is not threatened on a global level, but populations have decreased in North America due to the rise of pesticides and rodenticides. This will in turn make their food poisonous and can kill large amount of individuals. Reduction of their habitat also seems to negatively affect the population size.

Where to look for them

The Northern Hawk Owl can be seen in most of Wisconsin when it strays down south. Sitting in daylight around large open areas atop of trees and poles, they’re easily mistaken for hawks. Keep that in mind when seeing a bird, you might think is a hawk!

11. Boreal Owl

  • Scientific name – Aegolius funereus
  • Lifespan – 16 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 8.7 to 10.6 in (22 to 27 cm)
  • Weight – 4.6 to 6.3 oz (131 to 179 g)
  • Wingspan – 20 to 24 in (50 to 62 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

Living deep in the woods of North America, this little owl has a secretive life. The color of is brown above, with white spots on the shoulders and a greyish belly with rust-coloured streaks.

The Boreal Owl is well camouflaged against the pine trees in the Wisconsin forests.

This bird is rarely seen by humans due to its secretive nature and shyness and thus little is known about it.

Nesting

The nests are usually old holes made and abandoned by woodpeckers. The owls are monogamous and start the breeding around March in deep forests.

Diet

Their main diet consists of small mammals such as voles and mice but are also keen to eat birds and amphibians when living close to wetter habitats such as wetlands or rivers.

Conservation

Due to logging, their deep forests in the north are shrinking, making it harder for the birds to find proper breeding grounds without disturbances. The poisoning of their food sources also has a negative impact on this species.

Where to look for them

As they’re strictly nocturnal, being in the deep dark woods in the night is necessary to find this bird. When not hunting, they’re usually sitting in conifer trees 20 feet above ground very close or inside the tree trunk, completely camouflaged.

Conclusion

Wisconsin is one of the best states to look for owls. With varying habitats from north to south and east to west, the state contains most of the owls native to the United States, it’s almost impossible to not spot at least one of the species.

Some of them are more common to see than others, and many don’t even require that much effort, as there are many active owls even in broad daylight close to human civilization.

If you want to see some of the rarer ones like the Boreal Owl or the Snowy Owl, experience owl-chasers will have many opportunities to look for them in Wisconsin.