Located at the heart of the Great Lakes and with more than half of the state forested, Michigan is a hotspot for a wide variety of bird species. The Wolverine State also falls within the wintering grounds of many northern species. Some of the best birding sites in the state can be found in the Upper Peninsula, such as the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory and Seney Wildlife refuge.
In this article, we take a look at the owls of Michigan. There are eleven species of owls to look out for in the state. Spotting owls can be tricky since most species are not active during the day. And owls, by nature, are shy and elusive creatures.
Here are some tips for successful owling:
- Learn – Find out about the species of owls in the area you are looking.
- Listen – Familiarize yourself with the calls of different owls you can come across and listen actively. You are more likely to hear them before seeing them.
- Look carefully – Owls have excellent camouflage, and their plumages are adapted to blend into the night.
- Signs – Also look out for their pellets which are oblong or spherical and brown or grey in color. A large number of pellets indicates a nearby nesting or roosting owl.
- Be respectful – Be still and silent, and refrain from using bright lights, so as not to disturb or frighten them away.
Types Of Owls In Michigan:
1. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific name – Bubo virginianus
- Lifespan – 28 (maximum recorded)
- Size – 17 – 25 in
- Weight – 2.6 – 3.5 lb
- Wingspan – 3 – 5 ft
- Status – Least concern
Also known as the tiger owl, the great horned owl is a large raptor named for its sizable tufts. Its plumage is mottled greyish-brown above and pale below with brown barring. It has a reddish-brown or grey facial disc and a white throat patch. Great horned owls have long feathers covering the legs and feet.
They are the most widespread of the true owls, occurring all across North America, extending to parts of Central and South America. These owls need a combination of wooded habitats for nesting and roosting and open areas for hunting. They have a wide range of nesting sites, including tree holes, animal dens, burrows, and human-made structures. They occur all across Michigan year-round since they do not typically migrate and usually remain in the same territory for life. Look for them perched around woodland and forest edges, orchards, and farmlands, often near open fields. They can also be found in parks and quiet suburban areas.
Great horned owls have an array of vocalizations, many of which sound strange and sinister. They can be described as a startling combination of hoots, screeches, growls, mews, and squawks. The song is a low-pitched repetitive series of hoots.
Great Horned Owls have an incredibly diverse diet comprising over 200 species of mammals and around 300 bird species. They also take invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even carrion. Their most common prey are rodents, lagomorphs, and ground-feeding birds. Great horned owls hunt nocturnally but are occasionally active during the day.
The great horned owl is a highly adaptable bird with a wide range. However, surveys reflect that the populations have declined. Historically, they were intensively hunted. Another threat is the indirect poisoning by harmful pesticides targeted toward their prey.
2. Barn Owl
- Scientific name – Tyto alba
- Lifespan – 2 – 4 years (wild); 25 years (captivity: maximum recorded)
- Size – 13 -15 in
- Weight – 8 – 25 oz
- Wingspan – 31 – 37 in
The barn owl is one of the most widespread birds in the world. Owing to their peculiar appearance and eerie call, the barn owl is sometimes called the demon owl, the ghost owl, and even the death owl. Yet barn owls are incredibly useful animals that help keep rodents at bay.
The barn owl is an unusual beauty. It is a medium-sized owl with a heart-shaped face and a characteristic pale, speckled plumage. The upperparts are rusty-brown with dark patches. The face and underparts range from cream to white. It has slender, feathered legs and long, broad wings that enable sharp, agile movements.
Barn owls occur in the open countryside at lower altitudes. They inhabit grasslands, farmlands, open woodlands, and woodland edges. They often nest in barns and old buildings – behavior for which they are named. They also nest in tree holes or in cavities and crevices along cliffs or ridges. They sometimes use the nests of other birds and readily take to nest boxes. The female shreds up dried, regurgitated pellets as nesting material for the chicks.
You are likelier to catch sight of a barn owl in the south of the state. It is an unmissable bird. Look out for a flash of white in the open country at night. Barn owls have an undulating flight pattern. They hunt by gliding low above the ground, scanning for prey. They may also be spotted taking off from a perch or flying to and from the nest. They are sometimes seen during the day flying between roosting sites. Barn owls don’t hoot. The call is a piercing, shrill screech.
Barn owls are strictly nocturnal. In North America, they consume a large number of voles. They also eat other rodents, insects, lizards, amphibians, bats, and birds. Although they are widespread birds, many localized populations are declining due to habitat loss, collision with vehicles, and indirect poisoning from pesticides.
3. Long-Eared Owl
- Scientific name – Asio otus
- Lifespan – 12 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 14 – 16 in
- Weight – 7.8 – 5.3 oz
- Wingspan – 35 – 39 in
The long-eared owl is named for its prominent ear-tufts. It has a dark, patterned plumage which is a mix of brown, grey, and buff. The underparts are buff with dark brown streaks. Its facial disc is buff with white in the middle. It has orange-yellow eyes and a greyish-black bill.
Long-eared owls have a wide distribution across the continent. They inhabit forests and woodlands near densely vegetated open areas such as grasslands and shrublands. They can also be found in farmlands, orchards, parks, cemeteries, and gardens. Long-eared owls use the abandoned stick nests of other large birds. They also nest in tree holes or on the ground.
In the northern parts of the state, they occur mainly in summer, but they can be found year-round in central and south Michigan. But this shy, elusive owl is not easy to spot, so you are likelier to hear them. They have a wide range of sounds that vary regionally. The male has a deep whooping song. Females have a high-pitched, nasal whistle. They also make cat-like yelping noises. They are silent during winter but often roost communally, making them easier to spot despite their excellent camouflage. Populations of the long-eared owl may be declining due to habitat loss.
4. Short-Eared Owl
- Scientific name – Asio flammeus
- Lifespan – 4 years
- Size – 13 – 17 in
- Weight – 7.3 – 16.8 oz
- Wingspan – 33 – 40 in
The short-eared owl is a medium-sized owl of the grasslands. It has a rounded head with small ear-tufts for which it is named. Its plumage is mottled brown, buff, and white above and buff below with dark streaks on the breast. The face is white in the center, with a brown facial disc edged with a pale rim. Its piercing yellow eyes are encircled by dark eye patches.
Short-eared owls inhabit large, sparsely vegetated open areas. They nest on the ground, partially concealed amidst low vegetation. Unlike other owls, short-eared owls build their own nests. The female constructs a bowl-shaped nest using grasses, weeds, and feathers. During the breeding season, they can be found in the north of Michigan.
In the rest of the state, look out for them in winter in open fields and grasslands around dawn or dusk. They may be on the ground or flying low. They have a floppy, bat-like flight. The common call is a raspy bark, but they are mostly silent during winter. Short-eared owls mostly eat rodents, especially voles, rats, and mice. They also take birds and their nestlings. Populations of short-eared owls appear to be in decline due to habitat loss.
5. Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Scientific name – Aegolius acadicus
- Lifespan – 7 years (wild); 16 years (captivity)
- Size – 7 – 9 in
- Weight – 2.2 – 5.4 oz
- Wingspan – 17 – 22 in
The northern saw-whet owl is one of the smallest and most adorable owls on the continent. It has a large, round head and a compact body. Its plumage is a rich brown with small white spots on the upperparts and blotchy white streaks below. The facial disc is paler brown, and it has a white Y-shape from the brows to the bill, between its huge yellow eyes.
Northern saw-whet owls mainly inhabit coniferous forests. They nest in tree holes excavated by woodpeckers or in the old nests of other birds. During winter, they also take to deciduous or mixed woodlands.
Saw-whet owls occur year-round in Michigan and are more prevalent in the north. They are fairly common, but not easy to spot. Listen for the call, which can be heard from a distance. It is a whistly, repetitive toot that can be described as a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone, hence the name.
Northern Saw-whet owls are nocturnal and have exceptional hearing. They can detect prey purely by sound. Rodents make up the vast majority of their diet. To a lesser extent, they also take small birds, bats, amphibians, and insects. The habitat of the northern saw-whet owl is under pressure due to logging and development to a point where populations have declined in some parts.
6. Barred Owl
- Scientific name – Strix varia
- Lifespan – 24 years (oldest recorded)
- Size – 16 – 25 in
- Weight – 17 – 35 oz
- Wingspan – 38 -49 in
The barred owl is a large owl with a drab, barred plumage. It is brown above with cream-white barring and pale below with a scalloped mantle and brown streaks on the lower breast and belly. It has a large, rounded head and a pale facial disk with faint, concentric markings. Its large, dark eyes are close-set, and it has a pale yellow bill. The barred owl feathered legs and yellow feet with black talons.
It is a vocal raptor with a wide repertoire of spectacular, far-reaching calls. The common call is the series of eight hoots that can be described mnemonically as hu hu hu hoo, hu hu hu huhoo. Other vocalizations include eerie cackling, grumbling, screeching, and cat-like screams.
Barred owls mainly inhabit mature deciduous and mixed forests but can also be found in coniferous forests, forest edges, semi-open woodlands, and large parks with old trees. They nest in hollow trunks of large trees or snags in deep, wooded areas. They occur year-round in Michigan. Barred owls prey on small mammals, birds, and amphibians, but they also take reptiles, fish, and invertebrates. They are opportunistic predators that hunt after sunset, typically from a perch.
Despite being one of the most common species of owls in North America, barred owls are sensitive to logging and the destruction of old forests, making them an excellent indicator species. Nonetheless, this is a resilient and adaptable species with an expanded range, and population numbers have increased over the past few decades.
7. Eastern Screech Owl
- Scientific name – Megascops asio
- Lifespan – 14 years (oldest recorded)
- Size – 6.5 – 10 in
- Weight – 4 – 8 oz
- Wingspan – 18 – 24 in
The eastern screech owl is a stocky raptor with broad wings and a short tail. It has a patterned plumage with streaked underparts. There are two color morphs of this species varying from gray to rusty-brown, with the gray variant similar to the closely related eastern screech owl. In Michigan, you are likelier to spot this gray morph. It has a large head with prominent ear-tufts, yellow eyes, and a yellowish bill. The legs are feathered, and it has large, powerful feet.
Eastern screech owls inhabit wooded environments such as mixed woodlands, deciduous forests, riparian woods, orchards, parks, and gardens. They are common in Michigan and can be found year-round. Eastern screech owls adapt well to the presence of humans and are known to live in urban and suburban areas near human habitations, often nesting in neighborhood trees. Listen for their whining call at night, and look out for them in tree cavities, nest boxes, and other human-made structures during the day. They can also be spotted roosting in shrubs or in the dense foliage of trees close to the trunk.
Eastern screech owls are opportunistic predators. They hunt nocturnally, typically from a perch. During the breeding season, insects, spiders, and other invertebrates such as crayfish, worms, and snails make up the majority of their diet. In winter, they prey on small birds and mammals such as mice and voles. The eastern screech owl is a resilient species capable of adapting its diet and habitat, making it possible to thrive in developed areas.
8. Snowy Owl
- Scientific name – Bubo scandiacus
- Lifespan – 10 (average) 23 years (oldest recorded)
- Size – 20 – 28 in
- Weight – 56 -104 oz
- Wingspan – 50 – 57 in
- Status – Vulnerable
With its striking white plumage and bright yellow eyes, the snowy owl is one of the most unmistakable owls in the world. Although mostly white, the plumage is stippled with dark spots on the upperparts. Females are more spotted and have faint brown barring. Snowy owls have relatively small heads, short ear-tufts, and long feathering. They are perfectly camouflaged against the snowy arctic environment and often appear as a lump of snow on the ground.
Snowy owls are raptors of the Arctic tundra, where they inhabit open treeless environments. They nest in shallow scrapes on dry ground, often on elevated sites such as ridges, hummocks, hills, and outcrops. Snowy owls are nomadic birds with unpredictable migration patterns. During some winters, they erupt south, which is when you will have a chance to spot them in Michigan in meadows, prairies, grasslands, lakeshores, and coastal habitats. They can also be found in crop fields, golf courses, and airport fields.
Unlike other owls, snowy owls have a far-carrying barking call instead of the typical hooting. The common call is a series of hoarse kru kru kru notes. Other vocalizations include clucking, squealing, grunting, hissing, and cackling.
Another unique characteristic of the snowy owl is their hunting activity, which unlike other owls can be during the day or night. They also lack the acute hearing typical of owls, so they rely mostly on their keen eyesight. They hunt from a perch or rise and swoop down on their prey on the ground. The main targets are small mammals, specifically lemmings. They also take other rodents, birds, and on occasion, the odd fish, amphibian or invertebrate.
Due to their erratic nature and the remoteness of their breeding habitat, it is difficult to keep track of the population dynamics of this species. They have few predators and a wide, relatively undisturbed breeding range. But it is estimated that their numbers of snowy owls have declined drastically. Possible threats include climate change which impacts their habitat and prey availability. During migrations and in winter, they are also prone to collision with cars, powerlines, and fences. They are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.
9. Great Gray Owl
- Scientific name – Strix nebulosa
- Lifespan – 18 years
- Size – 24 – 33 in
- Weight – 25 – 60 oz
- Wingspan – 54 – 60 in
The great gray owl is the world’s largest owls by length and one of the most peculiar-looking owls. It is gray above with pale bars and pale below with dark streaks. It has a large, rounded head with a gray face and yellow eyes ringed with dark circles.
They breed in dense, coniferous forests and mixed woodlands and hunt in nearby open areas. They do not build nests but rather use the discarded nests of other birds. The common call is a deep, sonorous whoo. They may also hiss and chatter. If you are lucky, you may spot a great gray owl in the far north of the Upper Peninsula, but these owls offer few and rare sightings.
Great gray owls have exceptional hearing and hunt nocturnally from a perch that may be a tree or post. Gray owls swoop down at their prey with immense strength and are capable of plunging through snow to grab their prey. Their diet comprises mainly rodents.
The greatest threat to great gray owls is habitat destruction due to timber harvesting, which impacts their nesting, roosting, fledging, and hunting activities. They are also affected by rodenticides, collisions with vehicles, and the West Nile Virus.
10. Northern Hawk-Owl
- Scientific name – Surnia ulula
- Lifespan – 5 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 14 – 18 in
- Weight – 8.5 -16 oz
- Wingspan – 27 – 28 in
The northern hawk-owl is named for its appearance and behavior which is similar to that of a hawk due to its diurnal habits and hawk-like resemblance. It is the only living species of the Surnia genus. The hawk-owl has a dark brown plumage with cream-white spots on the upperparts. It is cream-white below with brown barring. It has a large head with a v-shaped forehead and a gray face with a dark border. Its eyes and bill are yellow.
They produce a number of vocalizations, from the rolling ulululululul song of the male to the high-pitched raspy kip alarm call. Northern hawk-owls are inhabitants of the boreal forest. They especially favor areas disturbed by fire. They mainly nest in tree holes but may also use the old stick nests of other birds.
They are non-migratory but erupt south during some winters, taking to forest clearings, valleys, prairies, meadows, wooded farmlands, lakeshores, and pasturelands. This is a very rare sighting in Michigan, but hawk-owls have been spotted up north.
The northern hawk-owl is one of the few owls that are active during the day. It preys on birds, rodents, and other small mammals. It hunts in open areas usually from a perch as it scans for prey. Like the great gray owl, hawk-owls can also snow-plunge to catch prey below the surface, detected by sound. Population numbers of hawk-owls tend to fluctuate depending on rodent densities. They may be impacted by fire suppression practices and deforestation but the conservation status of this species is unclear.
11. Boreal Owl
- Scientific name – Aegolius funereus
- Lifespan – 8 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 8.7 – 10.6 in
- Weight – 3.3 – 7.6 oz
- Wingspan – 20 – 24 in
The boreal owl is a small, shy owl with a stunned expression. Its plumage is brown above with white flecks and white below with brown streaks. It has a large head, a grayish-white facial disk, and large, yellow eyes.
Boreal owls inhabit the dense coniferous forests of the taiga, and most populations are resident, although some do migrate south during harsh winters, although not usually too far outside their breeding range. These owls are rarely encountered, but they do occur in the forested areas further north.
Boreal owls are mainly nocturnal but do hunt diurnally in parts of their range, depending on the season. They mainly prey on rodents, small birds, and invertebrates. It is very difficult to estimate the population size for this species due to the elusive nature. They are classified as least concern.
Owls are invaluable to humans as they consume more rodent pests than any other animal giving them high economic and ecological value. They are especially useful in agricultural areas as they are arguably more efficient in controlling pests than pesticides. Ironically, the use of pesticides is one of the main threats that owls face as they are indirectly poisoned by the toxic ingredients accumulated in their prey.
Most North American owls have stable populations, but some are in decline. In addition to pesticide use, habitat loss is another major threat. Owl boxes are a great way to invite owls into your backyard to help control rodents and provide much-needed nesting sites for these invaluable birds.