Wisconsin is home to many species of North American owls, from those passing by for the winter to those who make the state their home all year. Some owl species are more common than others in this state. If you’re lucky, you might spot some rare species during the winter months when migratory populations make their way south from Canada or even the Arctic! Below you’ll find a list of the owls you can see in Wisconsin, from the rarest to most common species present in the state.
1. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
The snowy owl is a visitor from tundra regions like the Arctic. It comes to northern American states like Wisconsin for winters but is very infrequently spotted. Their astoundingly white color makes them camouflage easily in the snowy setting of Wisconsin during the winter and year-round in the Arctic where they breed.
Keep a close eye out for this bird during the wintertime in eastern and southern Wisconsin. They tend to hunt in open fields or near shorelines for their meals, which consist mostly of small mammals. Snowy owls are accustomed to looking for food during all hours of the day. Though still rare, you might have a better chance of stumbling across one of these owls during the daytime if it’s the right time and place. This is likely because of the long hours of daylight in the arctic regions where it lives most of the year.
2. Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus)
This tiny owl species is common in the northern half of the continent. It infrequently makes an appearance in midwestern states like Wisconsin. If you’re trying to spot the boreal owl, you’ll have to look high and grab a pair of binoculars. They spend much of their time in coniferous trees in forested areas during the late winter months. Since they are so tiny, you might consider relying on your ears to locate them.
Boreal owls are also cavity-nesting birds, so if you set up a nest box in your yard you might attract a breeding pair. However, you’d still need to be in a range that they’d already be traveling to, and with the infrequent sightings of these birds, it might not happen at all.
3. Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula)
As the name implies, this owl behaves much like a hawk and even has hawk-like attributes like a long tail. They are mostly found in Canada and Alaska but will occasionally go as far as southern Wisconsin during the winter. This isn’t necessarily their typical range, making them very rare to encounter.
As with many birds that are used to more northern climates, the northern hawk owl hunts during the day as well as at night. You might easily mistake this rare encounter for a hawk if you see it out in the wild.
4. Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)
This owl isn’t called “great” for nothing. Its wingspan can reach up to 5 feet wide when fully extended and it stands at just under 3 feet tall. It is also a dusty-gray color with some darker mottling across its body and face. Great gray owls can be found in Wisconsin during their winter migration when they move from Alaska and Canada to the “warmer” areas of northern Midwest states.
They are commonly found in pine forests perched atop trees to look out for their prey. Like the snowy owl, this owl is active during the day, so your chances of seeing it during the winter months in Wisconsin are higher than if it were a strictly nocturnal hunter. Even in snow-covered land, they can easily break through the snow to capture a meal.
5. Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
This species of barn owl has been confirmed to be in only a few Wisconsin counties, like Langlade and Grant. Despite their widespread distribution throughout the U.S., populations are declining from habitat loss. As cavity nesters, people can set up nest boxes to give refuge to local populations of barn owls.
They are nocturnal predators, so if you are out looking for them it would have to be at night. Barn owls are aerial hunters, patrolling the skies to swoop down on unsuspecting prey like mice and other small mammals. Though they’re present year-round in much of the country, you might have the best chance of spotting them in March and October during their breeding and nesting periods.
6. Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
Though this is one of the more common owl species in terms of population in Wisconsin, you’ll need a bit more than luck to find it. Requiring a keen eye to spot, this tiny owl is skillful in evading attentive birders. Part of this is due to their nocturnal hunting behavior, and the other part is that they’re just 8 inches tall when they’re full-grown.
Watch for a small, brown owl with golden eyes and a light-colored, flat face. Looking out for them at night year-round in Wisconsin’s northern forests will give you the best opportunity to see them. They’re not too picky about what types of trees they hang out in, but scoping out pine trees might increase the chances of successfully finding one.
7. Long-Eared Owl (Asio otus)
Similar in appearance to the great horned owl, long-eared owls also have lustrous tufts above their ears. These ear tufts are more upward pointing, however, which can make differentiating the two a bit easier.
Long-eared owls are present all year in Wisconsin. You might spot this owl with others of their species, though their coloration can make them difficult to sneak a peek. They also tend to hang out in dense foliage growth and high in trees, which makes them doubly difficult to locate. Check in tree cavities of willows and cottonwoods to find them.
8. Eastern Screech Owl ((Megascops asio)
Eastern screech owls are known for their high-pitched, trilling hoot. Other birds might begin to furiously chirp when this owl is around to fend off potential attacks from it, as the eastern screech owl might prey upon smaller bird species.
This owl lives all year in Wisconsin, so you can attempt to find it during any season. Your best chances of seeing it will be in southern Wisconsin in open fields or woodland edges at night. During the day, look in tree cavities or nest boxes where they might be snoozing for the upcoming nighttime hunt.
9. Short-Eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Short-eared owls hunt along open plains across Wisconsin where they remain for the whole year. They’re active during the day, so you have a pretty good chance of finding this bird if you’re looking for it in the right place. Areas around Lake Michigan and southern parts of Wisconsin are popular locations for spotting the short-eared owl. Even though they’re active during daytime hours, you’re more likely to catch it hunting around dawn or dusk.
Unlike many other owl species, this is a ground-nesting bird. Females usually tend to the nest to ward off predators.
10. Barred Owl (Strix varia)
Barred owls are easy-to-spot owls in Wisconsin all year, though the densest populations seem to be on the west side of the Wisconsin River. They reside primarily in old-growth forests where they can perch upon tall branches to scan the ground for their favorite prey of mice, rabbits, and other small mammals. They have wide, flat faces and brown and white mottled feathers, making them easily blend into their forested surroundings.
Barred owls do most of their hunting at night, though if you’re looking often enough for them, you might spot them looking for (or even catching) a midday meal. Since they are non-migratory, you can find them at any time of the year.
11. Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
This is one of the most common species of owls in North America, and the same goes for the state of Wisconsin. The great horned owl is easily recognizable by its long, swooping ear tufts and bright, intelligent eyes. It is one of the more commonly depicted owls in literature since it is so ubiquitous in North America. You are likely to be able to find it across the whole state of Wisconsin throughout the year, but their most natural habitat is somewhere under the cover of trees in a forest.
You might have luck spotting these nocturnal birds in the winter when they shift the time of their hunting to mornings. Otherwise, spotting them is easiest from dusk into the night. They’re very adaptable birds and can feast on insects, small mammals, or even amphibians like frogs. If you’re looking in the trees, aim your search to junipers, pines, and beeches where they most frequently make their nests.
Summary of Types of Owls in Wisconsin
|Owl Species in Wisconsin (From Rarest to Most Common)
|1. Snowy Owl
|2. Boreal Owl
|3. Northern Hawk Owl
|4. Great Gray Owl
|5. Barn Owl
|6. Northern Saw-whet Owl
|7. Long-eared Owl
|8. Eastern Screech Owl
|9. Short-eared Owl
|10. Barred Owl
|11. Great Horned Owl
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/kojihirano
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