9 Owls in Iowa

There are 9 owls in Iowa out of the 19 owl species in the United States, 7 of which breed in the state.

The varied habitats of Iowa make excellent homes for owls and other raptors. From deeply wooded forests to scrub, canyons, and deserts, there are owls to find everywhere you look.

Owls are part of an avian group known as Birds of Prey, which consists of hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, condors, and vultures. They are also referred to as Raptors, from the Latin “raptare” – to seize and carry off, which is how they take their prey.

While most of the raptors in the US are diurnal, meaning that they hunt during the day. owls are primarily nocturnal and hunt mostly at night. 

You may be more likely to hear these birds than see them, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find them hanging out on branches or in the nest during the daytime. 

For more birdwatching in Iowa see our articles on backyard birds, hawks, ducks, and woodpeckers.

Birding hint

Learn the calls of those owls most likely to be in your area. Sound helps you zero in on where they are, and knowing what you’re looking for is helpful too.

When identifying raptors, keep in mind that females are much larger than males. While this may make identification problematic with hawks, it’s not as much of an issue for owls.

Owls are silent fliers. Their rounded wings have fringed tips which muffle sound as they fly. Their wings are broad but their bodies are light, making them a sort of avian stealth jet while stalking prey.

Some of these owls are small and cute and some of them are large and scary. You decide.

For more birdwatching in Iowa see our articles on backyard birds, hawks, ducks, and woodpeckers.

1. American Barn Owl

Scientific Name: Tyto alba               Size: 13 to 16 inches                Wingspan: 31 to 37 inches

Slim, pale medium-sized owls whose white heart-shaped facial discs give them an eerie look, especially at night.  A strictly nocturnal hunter whose call is a blood-curdling shriek instead of the more familiar hoot. This and their spectral appearance is why they are also called “Ghost Owls”.

The ghostly Barn Owl is gray and brown on top and mostly white underneath. Males tend to be paler all over than females. 

These are owls with exceptional hearing and keen night vision. They stalk the nocturnal fields in search of mice and small rodents. Their heart-shaped face and asymmetrical ears enable them to hone in on a vole rustling through the grass. 

A Barn Owl swallows their prey whole. What they can’t digest becomes part of the owl pellets found on the ground near the roost.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Barn Owls have dark brown eyes instead of the golden yellow orbs of most other owl species.

Barns and trees are not the only places Barn Owls are found. A Barn Owl nest was located in New York City’s Yankee Stadium.  

Barn Owls are one of the owl species prone to being hit by cars. Their low flights over fields make them susceptible to vehicles. Like most owls, their eyes only look straight ahead. When honed in on their prey, unless they turn their heads, they never see cars coming until they make contact with them. 


2. Short-eared Owl

Scientific Name: Asio flammeus             Size: 14 to 17 inches                Wingspan: 34 to 40 inches

The Short-eared Owl is found everywhere except for Australia and Antarctica, making it the most widely distributed owl in the world. They are long-distance migration specialists and are undaunted by flights over water.

A rounded head and tiny ear tufts mark the medium-sized Short-eared Owl, along with dark eye patches on a white face, giving them a sort of spooky look. The streaked plumage of this owl varies in color from light brown to dark, allowing for great camouflage among the different habitats they call home. 

Short-eared Owls are ground nesters, unusual among the owl population. Their coloration makes them very well-camouflaged. While they are hard for other predators to locate, should a hawk or larger owl find them, they will play dead until the hunter flies away. They will also do a “broken-wing” display if a predator comes too close to the nest.

The time to find Short-eared Owls in Iowa is in winter. Look for them searching for prey during the day and at dusk actively hunting over open grassland areas. In flight, they present rounded wings with dark wingtips and moth-like movements. 

Interesting Facts & Notes

Short-eared Owls are only one of two owl species found on the Hawaiian Islands (the Barn Owl is the other). Both species were introduced to the islands to curb rodent populations.

Of the six species of owls that don’t live in forest habitats, only three inhabit North America – the Short-eared Owl is one of those three (the Snowy Owl and Burrowing Owl are the other two).

Like the Kildeer (a shorebird), Short-eared Owls will go into a broken-wing display to divert predators from their nest and young. 


3. Eastern Screech Owl 

Scientific Name: Megascops (Otus) asio         Size: 6.3 to 9.8 inches           Wingspan: 18.9 to 24 inches

A small, well-camouflaged owl, most likely to be heard at night rather than seen. In daylight, these raptors’ ability to blend in against a tree is uncanny (especially the gray morph). They are perfectly patterned to disappear against the tree bark and into tree cavities and recesses, becoming invisible. 

Eastern Screeches are small owls with short ear tufts and dark beaks. The gray morph has dark vertical streaking, the red morph is reddish brown with brownish streaking and some white underneath, and the brown morph is a dark grayish brown with dark brown streaking and some white underneath. All morphs have yellow eyes.

Gray and red are the most common colors, with red occurring about one-third of the time. Brown is the least found of the three-color morphs in the eastern United States. The gray morph is like playing “Where’s Waldo”, they can blend into a tree cavity so well that they can be impossible to find. 

This is another of the “No Hoot” owls. Eastern Screech-owls whinny like horses. They call starting at dusk, and you are more likely to locate a Screech Owl by its call rather than by sight.

Screech Owls are cavity nesters but do use nest boxes, so having a box on your property may convince them to set up a house in your yard.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Screech owls like south or east-facing cavities in hollow trees, using the morning sun to warm them up. 

Young Screech Owls are fierce competitors for food. They will toss the smallest owlet out of the nest to get more food from their parents.

Birders who are good at making bird calls use the Screech Owl whinny to stir up small birds like Wrens and Chickadees in s thickets. The little birds come out to see where the “dangerous owl” is.


4. Great Horned Owl

Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus                 Size: 18 to 25 inches                   Wingspan: 55 inches

Large owls with distinctive long ear tufts (horns) and large yellow eyes. Another owl with varying plumages, cinnamon-hued birds are found more in the eastern areas, so while that’s the norm in Iowa, you may find birds with gray or browner feathers.

Juvenile owls look like little ghosts in ghillie suits. They are covered in fluffy whitish down, contrasting with their dark facial disks and those noticeable yellow eyes. 

These owls hunt from a perch, looking down from high tree branches out over a field or meadow in search of rodents, small mammals, and even other birds.

Great Horned Owls take over standing structures from other large raptors, especially old Red-tailed Hawk nests, and spruce them up to their specifications. Check any nests you find closely – there may be little ear tufts sticking up from the twigs and branches. Young owls are very well-camouflaged in their nests.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Great Horned Owls tend to stay close to home; they don’t migrate.

Other names for the Great Horned are Tiger Owl, because of their striped bodies, and Hoot Owl, due to their very familiar “Hoo H’ Hoo Hoo Hoo”. A Great Horned Owl hoot can be heard up to ten miles away.

Great-horned owls are the largest of the tufted ear owls. 

When stressed, Great Horned Owls will snap their bills, hiss, and scream. If you hear American Crows cawing and screaming, they have probably located a Great Horned Owl and will continue mobbing it until it either tries to get away or the crows move out. Great Horned Owls are one of the crow’s biggest predators.


5. Northern Saw-whet Owl

Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus              Size: 7.5 to 8.3 inches          Wingspan: 16.5 to 18.9 inches

Northern Saw-whet owls are “cute owls”. Their name comes from the sound they make, similar to a saw being sharpened across a whetstone.

Northern Saw-whet Owls have large round heads, catlike faces, and pale facial discs. They have big and bright yellow eyes and lack ear tufts. They are mottled brown with white streaking and a white “V” between their eyes. Juveniles have a different look – cinnamon bodies, dark backs, and a prominent “V” between their eyes.

These owls are primarily found in heavy woods but are found in urban areas too. A nocturnal hunter, the Northern Saw-whet Owl’s primary food is mice. During migration, small songbirds can be on the menu.

The smaller Saw-whet is often prey for their Strigiform cousins, including Screech and Great Horned Owls. Other potential predators are Accipiters such as Cooper’s, Broad-winged Hawks, and Peregrine falcons.

Nocturnal birds, Saw-whet Owls spend daylight hours roosting in coniferous forests, perching around 10 feet off the ground and surrounded by camouflaging foliage. They are sometimes found by flocks of small songbirds; if you are walking a trail and notice Chickadees making a fuss, there could be a Saw-whet Owl above you in the trees. 

Interesting Facts & Notes

These tiny owls are hard to see, so learning their call will help you locate them. They are most likely to call between January and May during mating season.

Northern Saw-whet Owls can fly long distances over water – one landed on a fishing vessel 70 miles off the coast from Montauk Point, NY.

A Northern Saw-whet Owl found itself in Rockefeller Center during the holidays by accident. It was nesting in the Christmas Tree that stands in the Big Apple landmark. The tree was cut down in Oneonta and transported 170 miles to New York City with the owl snug inside its branches for the whole ride.


6. Barred Owl

Scientific Name: Strix varia Size: 19-20 inches Wingspan: 39 to 43.3 inches

A large owl with mottled brown plumage, dark eyes, and a yellow bill, Barred Owls are the most common owls in Missouri.

Sitting in the tree and watching for prey is how Barred Owls hunt. They search for small mammals, and will even sit in trees over water and swoop down to take fish. Look for them around dusk and dawn.

Like many owls, Barred Owls don’t migrate. They prefer older deciduous forests with a water source nearby.

Interesting Facts & Notes

The Barred Owl’s call is the distinctive hooting “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” They love forests near water, so if you’re sitting in the woods around a lake, cup your ears and listen for the call. 

Although it is a large bird, the Barred Owl’s fiercest predator is the Great Horned Owl, who will even poach eggs from Barred Owl nests.  Although they live in the same areas, the Barred Owl will move if it finds a Great Horned Owl nesting nearby.


7. Long-eared Owl

Scientific Name: Asio otus                 Size: 14 to 16 inches          Wingspan: 35.4 to 39.4 Inches

Medium-sized, long, and slender owl with large ear tufts that usually point straight up. A nocturnal hunter whose call is a single loud “Hoot!” They may be found roosting during the day, likely up close to the tree trunk for camouflage.

Large yellow eyes and an orange facial disc are other good field marks for this owl. Large rounded wings and streaked underparts also mark this owl, along with those prominent ear tufts.

Long-eared Owls are grassland hunting specialists, flying on silent wings over open ground to find small mammals and rodents. In daylight, they are hidden and well-camouflaged in the heavily treed woods surrounding meadows, fields, and open grasslands.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Long-eared Owls are loud! Their “Hoot!” can be heard from up to three-quarters of a mile.

Those big ear tufts make the Long-eared Owl look bigger than it is.


8. Burrowing Owl

Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia         Size: 7.5 to 9.8 inches Wingspan: 21.6 inches

A long-legged, underground-dwelling owl that is more at home in abandoned prairie dog, badger, and tortoise tunnels than trees (and in some cases, man-made tunnels like PVC pipes).

Burrowing Owls are another of those “cute owls”, with their bright yellow eyes, long legs, and little rounded heads. Adults are mottled brown with lighter spots on their heads and backs and a barred chest and belly. In addition to their yellow eyes, Burrowing Owls have white eyebrows and throats.

The main locations for Burrowing Owls are grasslands: golf courses, prairies, agricultural fields, culverts, roadside embankments, airport runways/taxiways, and vacant lots. 

These owls are more likely to hop than fly. Burrowing Owls stay close to the ground, hunting insects, small rodents, birds, amphibians, and snakes. They are active both day and night, so it is possible to see them in broad daylight.

Interesting Facts & Notes

These tiny, cute owls store food in a separate “larder room” in their burrow.

Habitat loss is the main reason for the decline in Burrowing Owls. The loss of prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and tortoises means fewer underground tunnels for Burrowing Owls to live in.

Burrowing Owls will use abandoned PVC pipes and other man-made structures to nest in.


9. Snowy Owl

Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus Size: 20.5 to 27.9 inches              Wingspan: 49.7 to 57.1 inches

Snowy Owls are large, almost all-white owls with variable dark barring found only in winter. These iconic visitors can be found anywhere they find a vista over open areas, fields, lakeshores, airports, etc.

Snowy Owls come out of the high Arctic during the winter months in search of food. They like wide open spaces that remind them of their tundra home – fields, airports, barrier beaches, meadows, parks, and preserves are other places to find them. Their white plumage makes them a little easier to find among areas with no snow cover than in areas of snow, sandy beaches, and coastline.

Snowy Owls live in 24-hour daylight, so they are active during the day. These are very patient birds. They will perch on a dune or other good lookout spot for hours, surveying the open vista for signs of prey.

How many are sighted depends on the lemming population in their breeding grounds – lots of lemmings mean only young birds will venture south in search of food. Too few furry rodents mean that a Snowy Owl irruption occurs, and they move farther south than usual in search of prey.

Interesting Facts & Notes

Snowy Owls are fast fliers – they have been clocked at speeds up to 50 mph. 

Are Snowy Owls touchy-feely? They can detect prey through the pads of their feet. Snowies can feel the vibrations of moving rodents through the snow. Their feet contain many special nerve endings that make this possible.

These owls have also been known to wait by open ice holes so they can catch fish with their feet.


Owl Fun Facts

Many owls have asymmetrical ears, meaning that their ears don’t sit directly across from each other. One ear higher and the other ear in a lower position makes them hear their prey far better than having both ears at the same level. There are exceptions: Pygmy and Burrowing owls have symmetrical ears. These species are diurnal (daylight) hunters, so they can visually locate their prey when hunting. Nocturnal owls rely more on sound than sight, so night-hunting owl species have asymmetrical ears.

Owls also have tube-shaped eyes. This provides them with better depth perception and allows them to see their prey from long distances. They can see for miles but don’t see very well up close.

Those tubular eyes are also why owls can move their necks up to 270 degrees. This movement may cut off circulation in their head, but they have a blood-pooling system that runs their brains and eyes until they move their neck and release the pressure on their arteries and veins.

Baby owls are called owlets. Before they get their full-flight feathers, they are known as branchlings. You can find them sitting on large branches, staring down at you with those big eyes. 

Not all owls Hoot! Barn Owls hiss and scream, and the Northern Saw-whet Owl sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.

A single owl eats about 80 pounds of mice a year – that’s 1,300 mice a year!

Where to Find Owls in Iowa

Just because they’re primarily nocturnal doesn’t mean you won’t find owls during the daytime. I’ve found Long-eared Owls perched on branches in daylight, Short-eared Owls flying over both grassland and sandy beaches, Screech-owls sleeping in sun-drenched tree hollows, and even a Great Horned Owl hanging out on a branch next to the trunk of my big Norway Spruce.

Seven of the nine owl species in Iowa breed in the state – Great Horned, Barred, Eastern Screech, Long-eared, Short-eared, American Barn, and Burrowing owls all nest here.

Northern Saw-whet Owls are winter visitors. Try to find them at the Hickock Nature Center in Honey Creek – and good luck!

Eastern Screech Owls are common in Iowa and are found more in urban/suburban habitats than forested areas. On the other hand, Barred Owls are the most common forest owls in the state.

Long-eared Owls breed in Iowa, in the northwestern part of the state. Short-eared Owls are also winter visitors. They like open areas, especially near water. Look for them in marshes and meadows and open fields. 

Tip – Short-eared Owls hunt in the same habitat as Northern Harriers (hawks). If you see Harriers flying over a marshy or grassy area during the day, come back at dawn or dusk and look for Short-eared Owls.

The Great Horned Owl is a year-round resident and is the most common owl in the Hawkeye State. 

The Burrowing Owl also resides in Iowa. Don’t overlook construction sites when searching for these cute little owls.

Barn Owls are considered endangered in Iowa, as are Short-eared Owls. The Long-eared Owl has a “threatened” status in Iowa. Habitat loss is the main concern for these three species.

A note on Owl Etiquette

Owls are sensitive, secretive birds so please observe these few pointers when viewing or photographing owls:

  • Don’t get too close – if the owl looks at you frequently, you’re too close.
  • Stay on “the sidelines” and don’t enter an open area where an owl is hunting.
  • Use binoculars or a scope for viewing and a telephoto lens for photography.
  • Do not intentionally “flush” an owl.
  • If you use audio recordings, minimize their impact on birds, and follow the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.
  • Use discretion when sharing the location of an owl; usually, it’s best to provide details only to people you can trust to treat the owl safely.
  • Do not feed owls anything such as mice, which may cause them to get used to people and can also result in collisions with cars and buildings.
  • Avoid the use of flash photography, especially after dark.
  • Eliminate noise to avoid interfering with a bird’s auditory hunting – if you’re viewing from a car, turn off the engine; if you’re with others, talk in a whisper only when necessary.

Iowa State Resources

Iowa Audubon is the go-to source for all things birds in the Hawkeye  State, including local information on what to see and where to see it. 

Another prime source of information is Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology (Cornell Bird Lab) and their eBird tool (there’s way too much stuff on eBird to provide detail here – I create a checklist template here for places I’m traveling to, so I know what birds I may see on my trip – just go on it and explore the site). Oh, and it has mobile apps too!

Some organizations do raptor rehabilitation and utilize birds unable to be returned to the wild as teaching ambassadors for the public. While it’s not seeing a Great Horned Owl in the forest, visiting one of these programs lets you get an up-close view of one you would never get in the woods. 


This was just a brief foray into the owls of Iowa. We hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and will check out some of our other pieces on birds in the 50 States. 

Remember, all you need to get started is a decent pair of binoculars, a good location, and a good pair of ears for these birds.

Get your flashlight and a thermos of coffee and go plan that Owl Prowl!

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