The 9 owls of Illinois

The 9 owls of Illinois

Illinois is home to 9 of the 19 different species of owls found in the United States, making it one of the most diverse states for owl spotting. The owls found in Illinois are diverse in size, shape, and behavior. While some species are common to the state, others are rarer and can be found in the forests. These elusive birds, often found deep in woodlands, produce haunting calls that make any birdwatching trip worth it if you’re lucky enough to encounter them.

In this article, we will explore the 9 different owl species found in Illinois, examining their unique behaviors and habitats, and providing tips on how to find them.

1. Great Horned Owl

  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Life span: 25 – 50 years
  • Size: 43 to 64 cm (17 to 25 in)
  • Weight: 1200 to 1600 g (2.64 to 3.52 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 91 to 153 cm (3ft 0in to 5ft 0in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Great Horned Owl is highly adaptable, residing in various habitats such as deserts, wetlands, grasslands, cities, and forests across North America and as far south as Brazil. Active at night and sleeping during the day, this owl is known for its camouflage ability with its mottled brown feathers. Its “horns” are actually plumicorns (feathers) that may serve as visual cues or social displays for other birds, but their exact function is not yet understood.

Great horned owl

The Great Horned Owl is an early breeder in North America, beginning the selection of mates in January. The male chooses the nesting site and attracts the female by flying around it and stomping on the nest. These owls prefer open abandoned nests from other large birds such as hawks, and do not build their own. Their nesting areas vary greatly, as they have been known to use caves, cacti, cliffs and more as foundations for their nests.

The Great Horned Owl is a versatile and opportunistic predator. In Illinois, their diet varies depending on the season and what is available in their environment, but they primarily feed on small mammals such as voles, mice, and rabbits, as well as birds, such as ducks, pigeons, and pheasants.

They also eat reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates, especially when they are young or the primary food source is scarce. They are also known to take larger prey, such as skunks, raccoons and even porcupines, when the opportunity arises. Great Horned Owls hunt mainly at night and use their sharp talons and beak to capture their prey.

Despite not being a threatened species, the Great Horned Owl’s North American population has decreased significantly over the past 40 years. The main threat to these owls is human intervention. Over 65% of owl deaths are caused by human activities, such as being shot, trapped, hit by cars, electrocuted by power lines, and poisoned by rat poison. Historically, the Great Horned Owl has been seen as a pest due to its hunting of domestic chickens and small game and has been killed by hunters and farmers for centuries.

Where to look for Great Horned Owl

The best place to look for Great Horned Owls in Illinois would likely be in areas with a mix of mature trees and open spaces, such as woodlands, wetlands, and prairies. They are found throughout the state, and you can find them in a variety of habitats. Some of the best places to look for Great Horned Owls in Illinois include Shawnee National Forest, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Channahon State Park and Starved Rock State Park.

The best time to look for Great Horned Owls in Illinois is during the breeding season, which typically runs from December through March. It’s also important to note that Great Horned Owls are nocturnal, so your best chance of seeing them is at dawn or dusk.

2. American Barn Owl

  • Scientific name: Tyto furcata
  • Life span: 10 years
  • 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, which is nocturnal and hides in hollow tree trunks and dense vegetation during the day, is part of the subspecies group that includes the Western and Eastern Barn Owls. It has a creamy white face, chest, and belly, with a pale brown upper body and wings. Its distinctive face has led to many myths about it being divine or otherworldly.

A sleepy American Barn Owl in the daylight.

During the nesting season, which typically occurs between March and June, American Barn Owls form monogamous pair bonds and typically only have one partner for life. The male will search for a suitable nesting location, such as a nesting box, tree cavity, or cliffside and fly around the area to mark his territory. Once the female arrives, he will engage in courtship behavior, such as chasing and swooping around her, before breeding.

In Illinois, the diet of American Barn Owls primarily consists of small mammals such as voles, shrews, and mice. These owls hunt exclusively at night, using their asymmetrically placed ears to locate prey through sound. They are able to hunt in complete darkness and their higher metabolic rate requires them to consume more food than other owls of their size.

American Barn Owls in Illinois may also eat other small animals such as insects and small birds, although these make up a smaller portion of their diet. Due to the agricultural nature of Illinois, American Barn Owls may also consume small rodents, such as rats and mice, that are attracted to farm fields.

Although American Barn Owls are not considered globally threatened, their populations have decreased in North America as a result of the increased use of pesticides and rodenticides. These chemicals can make their food sources poisonous and lead to the death of large numbers of individuals. Despite this, the species has demonstrated the ability to recover from such losses in the short-term.

Where to look for American Barn Owl

The best place to look for American Barn Owls in Illinois would likely be in rural areas with a mix of open fields and wooded areas, as these provide the diverse habitat that the owls need for hunting and nesting. They typically nest in cavities in trees, old buildings, or man-made nest boxes, so areas with these types of structures would be good places to start looking.

American Barn Owls are also known to use agricultural fields, such as corn and soybean fields, for hunting, so areas with active farms would be another good place to search for them. If you’re interested in observing the species, it’s best to do so during the breeding season, typically between March and June, as this is when they are most active.

It’s also worth noting that American Barn Owl populations can be affected by human activities such as habitat destruction, pesticide use, and light pollution, so areas with less human disturbance would be more likely to support healthy populations of these owls.

Some good areas to find them include Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Starved Rock State Park.

3. Barred Owl

  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Life span: 8 years
  • Size: 40 to 63 cm (15 to 25 in)
  • Weight: 610 to 1,150 g (1.34 to 2.54 lb)
  • Wingspan: 96 to 125 cm (38 to 49 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

Barred Owls are non-migratory and have small territories compared to other owl species. In a study where 158 owls were banded and later found, none had moved farther than 6 miles from their initial location. Despite their limited range, these owls are common in most eastern states and southern Canada. They have a brownish-grey plumage with dark striping on the underside.

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

The Barred Owls, similar to the American Barn Owl, form monogamous pair bonds for life. During courtship, males will display to females by nodding and bowing with spread wings, awaiting their acceptance. Barred Owl courtship typically begins in February. Once mating has occurred, the owls will construct their nests in hollow tree trunks within dense, dark forests.

In Illinois, the diet of barred owls primarily consists of small mammals, such as mice and voles, as well as other small animals such as birds, reptiles, and insects. They also occasionally eat larger prey, such as rabbits and squirrels. Barred owls are opportunistic hunters and will also eat carrion if available. They are known to hunt during the day and night and are able to locate their prey by sound. They typically hunt around forest rivers and wetlands.

The Barred Owl is listed as Least Concern on IUCN’s Red list, and is thus not endangered and is a prevalent owl in North America, with an estimated global population of 3 million. Unfortunately, like other owls, they are threatened by the poisoning of their prey and destruction or disturbance of their preferred habitat, deep dark forests.

Where to look for Barred Owl

The best place to look for Barred Owls in Illinois would be in mature, dense forests with a mix of hardwoods and conifers, as they prefer to live in these types of habitats. The forested areas of the southern third of the state, such as the Shawnee National Forest or the Cache River State Natural Area, would be good places to spot them. Additionally, you can check with your local nature centers or birding clubs for specific locations within the state where Barred Owls are known to reside.

4. Eastern Screech-Owl

  • Scientific name: Megascops asio
  • Life span: 8 to 10 years
  • Size: 16 to 25 cm (6.5 to 10 in)
  • Weight: 121 to 244 g (4.25 to 8.5 oz)
  • Wingspan: 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Eastern Screech-Owl is well-adapted to human development and is not afraid of humans. It can be found throughout the eastern states and down to Mexico. The bird displays two distinct color morphs, with southern populations appearing more reddish and northern populations being more greyish. This variation in color is thought to be a result of the color of the woodlands where they reside.

Eastern screech owl

The Eastern Screech-Owl is typically solitary, with pairs only seen during mating season in April. After mating, they make their nests in hollow tree trunks in dense and dark forests. These owls tend to be monogamous, remaining with the same mate for life. However, some males have been known to mate with multiple females. In these cases, the second female will typically evict the first and lay her own eggs in the nest.

The Eastern Screech-Owl is a generalist predator, which means it feeds on a variety of prey depending on what’s available in their environment. In Illinois, their diet primarily consists of small mammals such as voles, mice, shrews, and rats. They also consume a fair amount of insects, particularly beetles and moths, as well as other invertebrates like spiders, worms, and snails.

They also feed on small reptiles, birds, and amphibians. They are also known to opportunistically eat fruits and berries. Eastern Screech-Owls primarily hunt at night and they are able to locate their prey by their calls. They are able to swallow their prey whole and they regurgitate the indigestible parts, such as the fur, feathers, and bones in the form of pellets.

The Eastern Screech-Owl is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN redlist, and is therefore not endangered. However, it is like the other owls, in risk of having their prey poisoned and they’re facing habitat destruction and disturbances.

Where to look for Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern screech-owls can be found in a variety of habitats in Illinois, including woodlands, wetlands, and suburban areas. Some of the best places to look for them include forest preserves, state parks, and nature centers. Forest preserves such as the Kickapoo State Park, Kankakee River State Park, and the Middle Fork Savanna Nature Preserve are known to have good population of Eastern screech-owls.

State Parks such as Starved Rock State Park and Pere Marquette State Park also has good population of Eastern screech-owls. Nature centers such as the Sand Ridge Nature Center and the Chicago Botanic Garden have Eastern screech-owls on display as part of their live animal exhibits. Residential areas with large trees, such as old-growth neighborhoods or parks with mature trees, also provide ideal habitat for Eastern screech-owls. Remember that these birds are active at night so it would be best to look for them at night and also listen for their distinctive call.

5. Long-eared Owl

  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Life span: 10 to 27 years
  • Size: 31 to 40 cm (12 to 16 in)
  • Weight: 160 to 435 g (5.6 to 15.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 86 to 102 cm (2ft 10in to 3ft 4in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Long-eared owl, with its brown and black plumage that blends seamlessly with pine trees, is an expert at camouflage in dense foliage. This species is one of the most prevalent and abundant globally. Even in dense forests, the calls of this bird can travel up to a mile, making it a familiar sound for those visiting wooded areas.

A Long-Eared Owl with its characteristic ears and wide-open eyes, sitting camouflaged in a pine tree.

The Long-Eared Owl begins its breeding season in March and is monogamous. The male establishes its territory by singing and clapping its wings, while the female searches for a suitable nesting site. Like many other owl species, they do not construct their own nests and instead typically utilize existing hawk nests or hollows in old tree trunks.

The Long-eared owl is a carnivore and its diet in Illinois primarily consists of small mammals such as mice, voles, shrews and other small rodents, as well as insects, birds, and other small animals. They can also consume small reptiles and amphibians. Their hunting technique is to perch and wait for prey to come within striking distance, they can also fly low in search of food on the ground. Long-eared Owls are also known to be opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of food sources that are readily available in their environment.

Although the Long-Eared Owl is widely present, its population is decreasing due to habitat destruction and deaths from collisions with vehicles. Despite this, the species is expanding its range globally, and as such, is classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN’s Red List.

Where to look for Long-eared Owl

Long-Eared Owls can be found in a variety of habitats in Illinois, including woodlands, wetlands, and suburban areas. Some of the best places to look for them include forest preserves, state parks, and nature centers. Forest preserves such as the Kickapoo State Park, Kankakee River State Park, and the Middle Fork Savanna Nature Preserve are known to have good populations of Long-Eared Owls.

State Parks such as Starved Rock State Park and Pere Marquette State Park also have good populations of Long-Eared Owls. Nature centers such as the Sand Ridge Nature Center and the Chicago Botanic Garden have Long-Eared Owls on display as part of their live animal exhibits.

Residential areas with large trees, such as old-growth neighborhoods or parks with mature trees, also provide ideal habitat for Long-Eared Owls. Remember that these birds are active at night, so it would be best to look for them at night and also listen for their distinctive call.

6. Short-eared Owl

  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Life span: 12 years
  • Size: 34 to 43 cm (13 to 17 in)
  • Weight: 206 to 475 g (7.3 to 16.8 oz)
  • Wingspan:  85 to 110 cm (33 to 43 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Short-Eared Owl is widely distributed globally and is one of the most prevalent owl species in the world. It has a short, black bill and is characterized by its brown-dotted body, barred tail and wings, and breast feathers that are brownish with a light belly. Unlike other owls, it is more likely to be seen hunting during daylight hours.

Short-eared owl

The Short-Eared Owl is serially monogamous, which means that they pair up for a single breeding season which typically begins around March. Unlike other owl species, these birds congregate in flocks and build their nests on the ground in areas with low vegetation such as prairies, meadows, or tundras.

The Short-Eared Owl’s diet in Illinois primarily consists of small mammals such as voles, shrews, and other small rodents, as well as other small mammals such as rabbits, weasels and hares. They also eat small reptiles, amphibians, and insects and also birds such as sparrows and larks.

Short-Eared Owls are known for hunting during daylight, they are active hunters that fly low to the ground, searching for prey in grasslands, meadows, and other open habitats. They can also take advantage of food sources that are readily available in their environment. They are opportunistic feeders and are able to adapt to different environments and changing food sources.

Although the Short-Eared Owl is widely present, its population is decreasing due to habitat destruction and deaths from collisions with vehicles. Despite this, the species is expanding its range globally, and as such, is classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN’s Red List.

Where to look for Short-eared Owl

Short-Eared Owls can be found in a variety of habitats in Illinois, including grasslands, meadows, and open habitats such as prairies and tundras. Some of the best places to look for them include grasslands and meadows, where they are often seen hunting during daylight hours. Forest preserves like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which have open habitats suitable for Short-Eared Owls, are also good locations to spot them.

State Parks such as Channahon State Park and Chain O’Lakes State Park also provide good habitats for these birds. Nature centers like Sand Ridge Nature Center and Chicago Botanic Garden have Short-Eared Owls on display as part of their live animal exhibits. Agricultural areas with grassland and meadow habitats are also known to have good population of short-eared owls. Remember that these birds are active during the day and at night, so it would be best to look for them during the day and listen for their distinctive call at night.

7. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Life span: 7 to 17 years
  • Size: 17 to 22 cm (6.7 to 8.7 in)
  • Weight: 54 to 151 g (1.9 to 5.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 42 to 56.3 cm (16.5 to 22.2 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a small, elusive bird found in North America known for its secretive behavior. With a round, whitish face featuring brown streaks, a dark beak, and yellow eyes, it has a pale belly with brownish areas and a darker brown upper body with whitish spots. The name of the owl is believed to have originated from its call which sounds similar to a saw being sharpened with a whetstone.

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

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is known for its serial monogamy, where it forms pairs that stay together for one breeding season, usually starting in March. However, during times of plenty of prey, males may mate with multiple females in the same breeding season. These owls construct their nests in pre-existing holes made by woodpeckers, tree trunks or man-made nest boxes.

The Northern Saw-whet Owl’s diet in Illinois primarily consist of small mammals such as voles, mice, and shrews. They also occasionally eat insects, birds and some other small animals. These owls are known to be opportunistic hunters and will take whatever prey is available to them. They hunt mainly at night and use their sharp talons and beak to capture and kill their prey. Due to their small size, they are able to hunt in tight spaces and are able to take down prey larger than themselves.

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is widely distributed, but its numbers are declining due to loss of habitat and competition for nesting sites with other birds, such as Boreal Owls, Starlings, and squirrels. As a small bird, it is also frequently preyed upon by larger mammals and birds. Despite these threats, it is currently listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Where to look for Northern Saw-whet Owl

Some of the best places to look for Northern Saw-whet Owls in Illinois are forested areas, particularly dense, mature forests with a mix of conifers. These owls are also found in wooded wetlands, and along riparian corridors. They also have been observed in some urban areas that have large old trees or wooded areas. The best time to look for them is during the breeding season, which typically begins in March, and during migration, which occurs from October to November.

Additionally, since they are nocturnal birds, it’s best to look for them during the night. It’s also important to note that these owls are elusive and can be difficult to spot, but you can try listening for their call, which is a repetitive “toot” sound, similar to a saw being sharpened on a whetstone. Places like Cook County Forest Preserves, Starved Rock State Park, The Shawnee National Forest, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Chicago Botanic Garden are great places to look for the owl.

8. Snowy Owl

  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Life span: 10 to 28
  • Size: 52.5 to 64 cm (20.7 to 25.2 in)
  • Weight: 1706 to 2426 g (3.76 to 5.34 lb)
  • Wingspan: 146 to 183 cm (4ft 9in to 6ft 0in)
  • Status: Vulnerable

The Snowy Owl is a highly recognizable bird, known for breeding in the Arctic and spending its winters in North America. As its name suggests, it is incredibly white and considered one of the purest white animals in the world. The males tend to be more white, while the females have more dark feathers mixed in with the white ones.

Unlike other owls, the Snowy Owl can be active during both day and night, possibly due to its Arctic habitat where the days are extremely long in the summer and short in the winter. This owl is highly nomadic, covering vast distances from its breeding grounds to wintering grounds, and its wintering grounds can vary greatly from year to year.

A Snowy Owl hiding in a seemingly wrong place according to its name.

The Snowy Owl typically arrives in the Arctic tundra by April, where it begins its breeding rituals. The male selects a spot, often a shallow hole in open tundra, and performs aerial acrobatics and sings to attract females. He also presents food to an interested female and bows before her while showing her the nest area. Unlike other owls, Snowy Owls do not construct a nest, the female may only scrape the floor of the nest area to create a slight hole for her eggs.

The Snowy Owl’s diet in Illinois primarily consists of small mammals such as lemmings, voles, and mice. They also consume other small mammals, birds, and sometimes fish. These owls are opportunistic hunters and will take whatever prey is available to them, depending on the time of the year and the availability of prey.

They hunt mainly during the daylight hours and use their sharp talons and beak to capture and kill their prey. Due to their large size, they are able to take down prey larger than themselves. Snowy Owls can be seen hunting over open ground, often on the edge of the tundra, or on the coast.

Due to their highly nomadic nature, it is difficult to estimate the population of Snowy Owls, but it is believed that the global population is decreasing. Climate change is widely considered to be the primary driver of this decline. As temperatures rise, there is more rain and less snow, which negatively impacts lemming populations at the Snowy Owl’s breeding grounds and in turn, the Snowy Owl population. Additionally, high temperatures decrease the amount of sea ice on which the Snowy Owls heavily rely. 

Where to look for Snowy Owl

Some of the best places to look for Snowy Owls in Illinois are the areas where it is more likely to find its prey during the winter, such as open fields, grasslands, wetlands, airports, and coastal areas. Also, places like Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Midway Airport, and Chicago Executive Airport, have been known to have Snowy Owls in the past.

The best time to look for them is during the winter, when they migrate to Illinois and their populations increase in the state. Keep in mind that Snowy Owls are elusive and can be difficult to spot, so you might want to look for them during the daylight hours, and also try to listen for their call, which is a deep, mellow “hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo.”

9. Northern Hawk Owl

  • Scientific name: Surnia ulula
  • Life span: 10 years
  • Size: 36 to 42.5 cm (14.2 to 16.7 in)
  • Weight: 300 g (11 oz)
  • Wingspan: 45 cm (18 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

As its name suggests, the Northern Hawk Owl inhabits the northern regions of North America and exhibits behavior similar to that of a hawk. It can often be seen perched high in trees or poles, scanning for food, similar to a hawk. The Northern Hawk Owl has a dark brown plumage with a whitish pattern of spots on parts of its body, and its belly is also whitish. It has a long, hawk-like tail, and its face is whitish with a black border.

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

The Northern Hawk Owl practices serial monogamy, meaning that it forms pairs that last for a single breeding season, which typically begins in March. They build a nest, often using an old nest as a foundation, after mating. The male guards the nest aggressively until the chicks leave. Unlike other owls, the Northern Hawk Owl construct its own nest.

The Northern Hawk Owl’s diet in Illinois primarily consists of small mammals such as voles, mice, and shrews, as well as small birds, insects, and other small animals. These owls are opportunistic hunters and will take whatever prey is available to them, depending on the time of the year and the availability of prey. They hunt mainly during the daylight hours and use their sharp talons and beak to capture and kill their prey. They are also known to hunt on the ground, and they are able to take prey larger than themselves. Due to their hunting style, they are known to be highly active hunters and they can be seen hunting over open fields, grasslands, and wetlands in Illinois during the winter.

The Northern Hawk Owl is not considered threatened on a global scale, however, populations have declined in North America due to the widespread use of pesticides and rodenticides which can poison their food and kill large numbers of individuals. Additionally, habitat loss has also had a negative impact on population size.

Where to look for Northern Hawk Owl

Some of the best places to look for Northern Hawk Owls in Illinois are open fields, grasslands, wetlands, and the forest edges, particularly those with mature conifers and deciduous trees. They are also known to be seen hunting over the airport fields and open spaces during the migration season. The best time to look for them is during the winter, when they migrate to Illinois and their populations increase in the state.

Keep in mind that Northern Hawk Owls are elusive and can be difficult to spot, so you might want to look for them during the daylight hours, and also try to listen for their call, which is a series of high-pitched, screeching calls. The Cook County Forest Preserves and the Starved Rock State Park are great areas to look for The Northern Hawk Owl.

Conclusion

Illinois offers excellent opportunities for spotting a variety of owl species, as it boasts diverse habitats that range from north to south and east to west. The state is home to most of the owl species native to the United States, making it highly likely to spot at least one species.

While some species are more common to see than others, many can be spotted even during the daylight hours near human settlements without much effort. For those looking to see rarer species such as the Boreal Owl or the Snowy Owl, experienced owl-watchers will have ample opportunities to do so in Illinois.