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Amidst South Dakota’s varied landscapes, from its sweeping prairies to its rugged Badlands and dense Black Hills forests, a diverse array of owls thrives. The owl species in South Dakota range from the diminutive Northern Saw-whet Owls to the imposing Great Horned Owls, each demonstrating unique behaviors and adaptations suitable to their specific habitats.
Custer State Park, Custer; Wind Cave National Park, Hot Springs
Eastern Screech Owl
Newton Hills State Park, Canton; Good Earth State Park, Sioux Falls
Sica Hollow State Park, Sisseton; Newton Hills State Park, Canton
Bear Butte State Park, Sturgis; Custer State Park, Custer
Badlands National Park, Interior; Buffalo Gap National Grassland, Wall
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Black Hills National Forest, Hill City; Custer State Park, Custer
Very Low (Seasonal)
Badlands National Park, Interior; Buffalo Gap National Grassland, Wall
Fort Pierre National Grassland, Fort Pierre; Buffalo Gap National Grassland, Wall
Great Gray Owl
Rarely seen, locations vary
Badlands National Park
Owl Species Found in South Dakota
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
Great Horned Owl Sound
Scientific Name:Bubo virginianus
Length: 18.1-24.8 in
Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 in
Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
The Great Horned Owl is a large owl with long wings and a large head. It’s one of the most common owls in North America.
Great Horned Owls are large, stocky birds with soft feathers that are gray to brown on their backs and white on their chests. Their faces are characterized by two black “ear” tufts, which can be raised or flattened depending on the owl’s mood. The eyes are yellow, orange, or red in color.
The habitat of the Great Horned Owl is a variety of different environments such as forests and deserts. They also live near water sources such as lakes, streams and rivers where they can hunt for fish.
The diet of the Great Horned Owl consists primarily of small mammals such as mice and rats; however they will also eat other rodents such as squirrels, rabbits and porcupines. They have been known to eat skunks too.
Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio)
Eastern Screech-Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Megascops asio
Length: 6 to 10 in
Wingspan: 8 to 24 in
Weight: 4 – 8.5 oz
The Eastern Screech-Owl is a small owl species native to most wooded environments of the eastern half of North America, from the Canadian provinces to Florida and Texas.
Eastern Screech-Owls are relatively small and exhibit a complex pattern of gray or reddish-brown coloration, which provides excellent camouflage against tree bark.
These owls are known for their distinctive call, which is often described as a haunting trill or a whinny-like sound. Despite their name, they do not actually produce a “screech.”
Eastern Screech-Owls feed on a variety of prey, ranging from small mammals and birds to insects and even earthworms. It is primarily nocturnal, hunting at night from a low perch and swooping down onto prey.
Eastern Screech-Owls nest in tree cavities or abandoned woodpecker nests, but they readily adapt to nesting boxes where natural cavities are not available. They typically lay between 2 to 6 eggs, which are incubated primarily by the female.
Barred Owl (Strix varia)
Barred Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Strix varia
Length: 40 to 63 cm (16 to 25 in)
Wingspan: 96 to 125 cm (38 to 49 in)
Weight: 468 to 1,150 g
The Barred Owl is a medium-sized owl with a barred pattern on its chest and belly. They have large yellow eyes that allow them to see well in low light conditions. Their ears are not very large which means they do not hear very well but they have excellent hearing abilities which allow them to detect sounds up to 1 mile away. Their feathers are brown and streaked with white, and they have black bars on their chests and wings.
Their habitats include forests, woodlands, orchards, parks, farmland and suburban backyards.
Barred Owls (also known as hoot owl) eat small mammals such as mice, rats and squirrels. They also eat insects such as beetles or grasshoppers. These owls hunt during the day when it is light out so that they can see their prey better than at night when they would be using senses other than sight like sound or smell to find their food source.
Barred owls are monogamous birds which means they mate for life. They build nests in trees or cavities on the ground and lay 2-4 eggs per year. The incubation period for these eggs lasts about 28 days before hatching takes place.
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Barn Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Tyto alba
Length: 13 to 15 in
Wingspan: 31 to 37 in
Weight: 9.2 oz
The Barn Owl is a widespread species of owl known for its distinctive heart-shaped facial disc.
Barn Owls are medium-sized owls, they are pale overall with golden-brown wings and back, contrasted by a white face, chest, and belly. Their most notable feature is their heart-shaped facial disc, which helps channel sound to their ears.
Barn Owls are typically found in open habitats, including farmland, woodland, and marshes. They are named for their habit of nesting in human structures such as barns, church towers, and in the hollows of large trees. These owls are nocturnal, hunting at night and roosting during the day.
The diet of Barn Owls primarily consists of small mammals, particularly rodents such as mice and rats. They are known for their silent flight, which allows them to sneak up on their prey without detection.
Barn Owls have a unique nesting behavior. They do not build nests, but instead, lay their eggs directly on the bare surface of a secluded ledge or cavity. A female typically lays 4-7 eggs, and both parents help incubate the eggs and care for the chicks.
The long-eared owl (Asio otus)
Long-eared Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Asio otus
Length: 12 and 16 in
Wingspan: 2 ft 10 in to 3 ft 4 in
Weight: 5.6 to 15.3 oz
The Long-eared Owl is a medium-sized owl species known for its distinctively long ear tufts, which can be raised or lowered depending on the bird’s mood or intention.
Long-eared Owls have mottled brown and cream plumage, which provides excellent camouflage among the trees. Their most distinctive features are their long, black-tipped ear tufts, which are set closer to the center of the head than in most other owl species.
These owls inhabit a wide variety of habitats, including deciduous and coniferous forests, woodlands, and even semi-deserts.
The Long-eared Owl’s diet primarily consists of small mammals, especially voles, but they will also take small birds and insects. They are skillful hunters, often capturing prey from a perch or in flight.
In terms of nesting behavior, Long-eared Owls do not construct their own nests, instead they take over old nests built by other bird species, usually those of corvids or other large birds. They lay an average of 4 to 5 eggs, which are incubated by the female while the male provides food.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Short-eared Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
Length: 13–17 in
Wingspan: 33 to 43 in
Weight: 7.3–16.8 oz
The Short-eared Owl is a medium-sized owl species with a wide distribution, found across North and South America, Europe, Asia, and many Pacific islands. Despite its name, the “ears” of the Short-eared Owl are not often visible, as they are small and tend to blend with the bird’s feathers.
The owls are predominantly brown with buff and white accents throughout their body and wings, and dark patches around their yellow eyes.
Short-eared Owls diet consists largely of small mammals, especially voles. However, they are opportunistic hunters and will also prey on a variety of other animals, including other birds, when available.
Their habitat is characterized by open areas like grasslands, marshes, and tundra. They nest on the ground, which is unusual for owls, and this makes them vulnerable to ground predators. As such, they often live in areas with tall grasses or other ground cover for protection.
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
Northern Saw-whet Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
Length: 17–22 cm (6.7–8.7 in)
Wingspan: 42–56.3 cm (16.5–22.2 in)
Weight: 54 to 151 g (1.9 to 5.3 oz)
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a tiny, speckled gray owl and it’s one of the smallest owls in North America. It’s also known as the Little Owl or Wood Owl in some areas.
Northern Saw-whet Owls have dark brown eyes, white eyebrows, and yellow beak. It has brownish-grey feathers that are spotted with white. The owl’s legs are covered in feathers and appear nearly invisible when the bird is perched on a branch or tree.
In the winter they migrate south to warmer climates. They prefer to live in dense coniferous forest with large trees but will occasionally nest in shrubs or other vegetation that can protect them from predators.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl eats mice and voles (small rodents), small birds, frogs, salamanders, moles and shrews, but unlike most owls they chop their prey up and spread over a few meals. They will also eat insects like beetles and grasshoppers if they are available. It hunts from a perch at night using its excellent hearing to locate prey items within about 30 feet (9 meters) of its nest.
These owls nest in tree cavities usually located close to water sources such as lakes or rivers where they can find their food source (insects). They lay 2-4 eggs at one time which incubate for about 30 days before hatching.
Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Snowy owl Sound
Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
Length: 20.7 to 28 in
Wingspan: 3 ft 10 in to 6 ft 0 in
Weight: 3.2lb to 5.3lb
The Snowy Owl, is of the most well-known species of owls, the Snowy Owl is renowned for its striking appearance and adaptations to its extreme environment.
Snowy Owls are medium sized birds that possess a rounded head, yellow eyes, and a black beak. The most distinctive feature of the Snowy Owl is its white plumage, which provides effective camouflage in its snowy habitat. Male Snowy Owls are often almost completely white, while females and younger owls have more extensive dark barring on their plumage.
Unlike many owl species, Snowy Owls are primarily diurnal, which means they are active during the day. This is an adaptation to life in the Arctic, where there can be 24 hours of daylight in the summer. Their diet mainly consists of small mammals, particularly lemmings, but they are known to eat a variety of animals including birds, fish, and even carrion when necessary.
Snowy Owls nest on the ground, usually on a mound or boulder. Their breeding success is closely tied to the availability of food, and in good years a single pair of owls can raise a large brood of chicks.
Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
Burrowing Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia
Length: 7–11 in
Wingspan: 20–24 in
The Burrowing Owl is a small, long-legged species of owl found in North and South America. Known for its unusual habit of living in burrows in the ground.
Burrowing Owls have a rounded head with no ear tufts and bright yellow eyes. Their overall coloration is mottled brown and white with a distinct white “eyebrow” above each eye.
Their primary habitat includes open landscapes such as grasslands, deserts, agricultural areas, golf courses, and even airports. As their name suggests, these owls often reside in burrows, many of which are abandoned by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, or other burrowing animals. In some cases, they may also dig their own burrows.
Burrowing Owls diet consists mainly of small mammals and insects, but they also eat birds and reptiles.
Burrowing Owls have a unique nesting behavior. They lay their eggs in an underground burrow to protect them from predators and extreme weather. Clutch sizes range from 6 to 11 eggs, which are incubated for about a month before hatching.
Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)
Great Gray Owl Sound
Scientific Name: Strix nebulosa
Length: 26 in to 28 in
Wingspan: 56 to 60 in
Weight:2.2 lb to 2.85lb
The Great Gray Owl, or Strix nebulosa, is a very large owl, native to the boreal forests across North America and Eurasia. Despite its great size, it’s more so known for its impressive appearance rather than its weight, as it is outweighed by several other large owl species.
The Great Gray Owl has a large, rounded head with a grey face and yellow eyes, surrounded by concentric circles of dark and light feathering. It is known for its bow-tie-shaped white moustache stripe and black chin spot.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of this owl is its elongated tail, which makes it appear much larger than it actually is. The plumage is mostly grey with a unique pattern of fine white, gray, and brown streaks and bars. Despite its large size, its diet primarily consists of small rodents, like voles and pocket gophers.
Great Gray Owls prefer dense coniferous forests, often near open meadows or bogs. Rather than building their own nests, they typically use nests previously built by other large birds, such as hawks or crows. They also occasionally nest in broken-top trees or on man-made structures.
Where to Spot South Dakota’s Owls
Custer State Park, Custer: In this expansive park, Great Horned Owls, Eastern Screech-Owls, and Northern Saw-whet Owls are often sighted. Pine forests and open grasslands in the park provide excellent habitats for these species.
Badlands National Park, Interior: The mixed grass prairie and rugged cliffs of the Badlands are perfect for Burrowing Owls, Great Horned Owls, and occasionally, the elusive Short-eared Owl.
Bear Butte State Park, Sturgis: This park offers a mix of prairie and mountain habitats. Great Horned Owls and Eastern Screech-Owls are commonly sighted here.
Big Sioux Recreation Area, Brandon: This area along the Big Sioux River is known to host Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls, thanks to its mix of mature forest and riverine habitats.
Black Hills National Forest, Custer: The dense forests of Black Hills are a haven for a variety of owls, including Great Horned, Barred, and Northern Saw-whet Owls. Other owls found in South Dakota include the northern hawk owl and boreal owls.
Locations: Prime locations include Custer State Park, Bear Butte State Park, Black Hills National Forest, and Badlands National Park. These areas offer excellent habitat diversity that supports a variety of owl species.
Timing: Like most owl species, owls in South Dakota are mainly nocturnal, which means you will have more luck spotting them during the twilight hours or at night. The owls’ breeding season in late winter to early spring is also a good time to spot them, as they become more vocal.
Recognizing Owl Calls: Learn the different owl calls specific to the species in South Dakota. Playing the calls before heading out can help you identify them in the wild.
Search for Signs: Look for signs of owl activity such as owl pellets at the base of trees or whitewash (droppings) on the tree bark. Look also for nesting sites in tree cavities, abandoned buildings, or on tree tops.
Patience and Quiet: Maintain a quiet and low-key presence. This increases your chances of seeing owls, as they can be easily scared off by human noise.
Proper Equipment: Always bring a good set of binoculars, a red-filtered flashlight for nighttime viewing, and a field guide to help identify different owl species.
Local Birdwatching Groups: Join local birdwatching tours or societies. Their knowledge and expertise can be invaluable in locating owls.