13 Mysterious Owls in Wisconsin

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Owls in Wisconsin

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In the multifaceted habitats of Wisconsin, from its extensive forests and wetlands to its prairies and lakes, a diverse array of owls flourishes. The owl species found in Wisconsin range from the compact Eastern Screech-Owls to the commanding Great Horned Owls, each showcasing unique behaviors and adaptations suitable for their specific environments.

Wisconsin’s Owls

Owl SpeciesFrequency in WisconsinWhere to Find in Wisconsin
Great Horned OwlHighDevil’s Lake State Park, Baraboo; Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek
Barred OwlHighKettle Moraine State Forest, Campbellsport; Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest
Eastern Screech OwlHighLakeshore State Park, Milwaukee; Governor Nelson State Park, Waunakee
Northern Saw-whet OwlModerateApostle Islands National Lakeshore, Bayfield; Flambeau River State Forest, Winter
Snowy OwlLow (Seasonal)Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, Mayville; Richard Bong State Recreation Area, Kansasville
Long-eared OwlLowCrex Meadows Wildlife Area, Grantsburg; Navarino Wildlife Area, Shiocton
Short-eared OwlLowLower Wisconsin State Riverway, Muscoda; Barkhausen Waterfowl Preserve, Suamico
Northern Hawk OwlVery LowSuperior Municipal Forest, Superior; Pattison State Park, Superior
Boreal OwlVery RareBoreal forests near Superior
Great Gray OwlVery RareBoreal forests near Superior during harsh winters
Barn OwlVery RareOld barns and open fields in rural areas
Northern Pygmy OwlUncommonConiferous forests and woodland
Burrowing OwlVery RareOpen grasslands

Owl Species Found in Wisconsin

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

Great Horned Owl Scientific Name Bubo virginianus
Great Horned Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Great Horned Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/7728

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 Scientific Name: Megascops asio
Eastern Screech-Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Eastern Screech-Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/490460

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 Scientific Name Strix varia
Barred Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Barred Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/690957

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 Scientific Name: Tyto alba
Barn Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Barn Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/696742

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 Scientific Name Asio otus
Long-eared Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Long-eared Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/737216

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 Scientific Name Asio flammeus
Short-eared Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Short-eared Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/669192

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 Scientific Name Aegolius acadicus
Northern Saw-whet Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Northern Saw-whet Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/702864

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 Scientific Name Bubo scandiacus
Snowy owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Snowy owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/343145

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.

Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus)

Boreal Owl Scientific Name Aegolius funereus
Boreal Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Boreal Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/680239

Scientific Name: Aegolius funereus

Length: 8.7–10.6 in

Wingspan: 20–24 in

Weight: 3.8 oz–6.3 oz

The Boreal Owl, also known as Tengmalm’s Owl, is a small yet captivating nocturnal bird found predominantly in the northern hemisphere’s boreal forests, hence its name.

The Boreal Owl is petite in size, its plumage is predominantly grayish-brown, with white spots sprinkled on the upper parts and pale streaks on the underside, which lends a mottled effect. The bird’s rounded head, lack of ear tufts, and large yellow eyes are characteristic traits of this species.

Boreal Owls have a distinctive call, described as a series of soft, low hoots, which can often be heard during the cold winter months. As strictly nocturnal birds, they rest during the day, usually in tree cavities or similar concealed spots, and become active at night.

These owls are remarkable hunters, feeding mainly on small mammals such as voles and shrews, although they have been known to consume small birds when available. Their exceptional hearing allows them to locate prey under the snow in the darkest of nights.

Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)

Great Gray Owl Scientific Name Strix nebulosa
Great Gray Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Great Gray Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/715843

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.

Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula)

Northern Hawk Owl scientific name Surnia ulula
Northern Hawk Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Northern Hawk Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/745725

Scientific Name:Surnia ulula

Length: 14.2–17.6 in

Wingspan: 18 in

Weight: 11 oz-12 oz

The Northern Hawk Owl, is a medium-sized owl known for its daytime hunting habits and hawk-like behavior, hence its name.

Northern Hawk Owls are recognized by their elongated body, long tail, and lack of ear tufts – traits reminiscent of a hawk. Its plumage is generally dark brown, with white spots on the upper parts and streaks on the underparts. The owl’s face is marked by a white facial disc and distinctive black borders that make it appear somewhat masked.

Diet: consists of small mammals, such as voles, lemmings, and squirrels, but it has also been known to feed on smaller birds. The bird has an extraordinary vision that allows it to spot prey from up to 800 meters away, and it often hunts from a high perch, swooping down on its prey similar to a hawk.

Nesting typically occurs in tree cavities or abandoned nests of other birds. The female Northern Hawk Owl lays between 3 to 11 eggs and is responsible for incubation, while the male provides food and protection.

Northern Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium gnoma)

Northern Pygmy-Owl Scientific Name: Glaucidium gnoma range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Northern Pygmy-Owl Sound

credit https://xeno-canto.org/215477

Scientific Name: Glaucidium gnoma

Length: 7 – 7 1/2 in)

Wingspan: 14.5 – 16 in

Weight: 62-73g

The Northern Pygmy-Owl is a small owl species native to North and Central America. Despite its small size, this owl is a fierce predator, known for its distinctive call and daytime hunting habits.

They have a rounded head without ear tufts and large yellow eyes. Their overall coloration is gray or brown with a pattern of white spots on the back and streaks on the front.

Northern Pygmy-Owls inhabit a range of habitats, including coniferous forests, deciduous woodlands, and mixed forests. They can be found at a range of elevations from lowlands to mountains. Unlike many other owl species, they are often active during the day, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon.

Their diet primarily consists of small mammals and birds, but they are also known to eat insects and reptiles. Despite their small size, they have been known to take prey up to three times their own size.

Northern Pygmy-Owls nest in tree cavities, often those created by woodpeckers. They do not build nests of their own but will add a few feathers to the cavity. Clutch size is usually around 2 to 7 eggs, which are incubated by the female while the male brings food.

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)

Burrowing Owl Scientific Name Athene cunicularia
Burrowing Owl range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Burrowing Owl Sound

content https://xeno-canto.org/730164

Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia

Length: 7–11 in

Wingspan: 20–24 in 

Weight:5–8 oz

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.

Where to Spot Wisconsin’s Owls

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge: This wildlife refuge hosts a variety of owls such as Great Horned Owls, Eastern Screech Owls, and Barred Owls.

Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest: Stretching across northern Wisconsin, this forest is home to several owl species including Great Gray Owls, Northern Saw-whet Owls, and Boreal Owls.

Crex Meadows Wildlife Area: Located in the northwest of Wisconsin, Crex Meadows is known to host many owl species including Short-eared Owls, Northern Saw-whet Owls, and Barred Owls.

Devil’s Lake State Park: Located in the Baraboo Range, this park offers bird watchers the chance to see Great Horned Owls, Eastern Screech Owls, and Northern Saw-whet Owls.

Necedah National Wildlife Refuge: In the central part of the state, this refuge is known for a variety of owl species, including Great Horned Owls, Eastern Screech Owls, and Barred Owls.

StateMain Owl Watching Sites
Minnesota OwlsSax-Zim Bog, Superior National Forest
Iowa OwlsNeal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Yellow River State Forest
Illinois OwlsStarved Rock State Park, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge
Michigan OwlsSeney National Wildlife Refuge, Hiawatha National Forest

Tips on How to Spot Owls in Wisconsin

  1. Locations: Search in habitats like mixed woodlands, open country areas, wetlands, and along water bodies. Visit places like Horicon Marsh, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, and Crex Meadows for the best chance of spotting a variety of species.

  2. Time: Most owls are most active from dusk till dawn. Some owls, like the Barred Owl, might be active during daylight hours, especially in the early morning or late afternoon.

  3. Listen for Calls: Each species of owl has a unique call. The deep hoots of the Great Horned Owl, the trills of the Eastern Screech Owl, or the rhythmic too-too-too of the Northern Saw-whet Owl can lead you to them.

  4. Look for Signs: Check for owl pellets at the base of large trees, splatters of white bird droppings, or molted feathers, which may indicate an owl’s roosting spot.

  5. Equipment: Bring along a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. If you are looking for owls at night, a flashlight with a red filter is less likely to disturb them.

  6. Respect the Owls: Keep your distance and try not to disturb them, especially during nesting season. Also, refrain from using recorded owl calls as this can stress the birds.

  7. Join Local Birdwatching Groups: Groups such as the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology organize birding trips and could offer the chance to learn from experienced bird watchers.

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