11 Owls in Wisconsin

Among owls that can be found throughout the United States, there are 11 species of owls in Wisconsin. Most of them are year-round residents, and a few are winter visitors, but they are all there for you to find.

The varied habitats of Wisconsin make excellent homes for owls and other raptors. From deeply wooded forests to sandy or rocky beaches, 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 than see them, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t find them hanging out on branches or in the nest during the daytime. 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.

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

Owls in Wisconsin

We’re going to start with the smaller owls found in Wisconsin and work our way up to the largest ones.

1. 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”. The smallest owls in Wisconsin, 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.

A deep woods owl, they can be found in urban areas too. A nocturnal hunter, this 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 and Broad-winged Hawks, and Peregrine falcons.

Nocturnal birds, Saw-whets 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 squawking Chickadees, there could be a Saw-whet Owl above you in the trees.

Interesting Facts & Notes

These 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, New York.

A Northern Saw-whet Owl found itself in Rockefeller Center during the holidays. It was nesting in the Christmas Tree that adorns the Big Apple landmark, which was cut down in Oneonta and transported 168 miles to New York City with the owl snug inside its branches for the whole ride.


2. 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.


3. Boreal Owl

  • Scientific Name: Aegolius funereus        
  • Size: 8.3 to 11 inches                     
  • Wingspan: 21.6 to 24.4 inches

Large bright eyes and a squared head mark the Boreal Owl. This owl has a whitish-gray facial disk outlined with black or dark gray, and a streaked brown body with white spots (small spots on the top of the head and larger ones on the back). Juveniles have none of the streaking and spots.

A nocturnal hunter, the small Boreal Owl comes alive with the darkness, making them difficult to observe and keep track of.

The Boreal Owl is a rare winter visitor to West Virginia.  They prefer the mature forests of the Northeastern and Northwestern corners of the state. Elusive and mysterious, they are another of the so-called “cute owls”.

Boreal Owls are ambush predators, waiting patiently on a branch until prey comes by and then swoops down to grab it with their strong talons.

Interesting Facts & Notes

The average life span of a Boreal Owl is about 7 to 8 years.

Boreal Owls have been known to store prey away in cold weather and then sit on it to thaw it before consuming it.


4. 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 prowl 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.


5. Northern Hawk Owl

  • Scientific Name: Surnia ulula                        
  • Size: 14.2 to 17.7 inches            
  • Wingspan: 19 to 28 inches

The Northern Hawk Owl is a boreal bird, meaning that it lives in the northern coniferous forests where the only trees are pines, spruces, and larches (it’s called Boreal Forest here in North America and Taiga in other places).

These are medium-sized owls with very long, tapered tails. Their facial disk is white and outlined in black, and their chests and bellies have horizontal brown and white barring. Their wings are short and pointed, unlike most other owls. Both their legs and feet are feathered.

The name says it all – it’s an owl that behaves like a hawk. The face and eyes say owl; the long tail and a penchant for perching atop solitary trees and hunting in daylight say hawk. Another un-owlish fact is that Northern Hawk Owl ears are symmetrical, so they hunt more by sight than hearing.

When the rodent and small mammal population in the boreal forest declines, Northern Hawk Owls will hunt farther south than their normal range. The northern US border reports more Northern Hawk Owl sightings in these irruption years.

Interesting Facts & Notes

When rodents and small mammals are abundant, Northern Hawk Owls will store their prey in tree crevices to eat later, ensuring that they always have food on hand.


6. 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.


7. 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 Wisconsin 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.


8. 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 Wisconsin, 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.


9. 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 one of the most common owls in Wisconsin (Northern Saw-whet, Eastern Screech, and Great Horned Owls are the others).

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.


10. Great Gray Owl

  • Scientific Name: Strix nebulosa                        
  • Size: 24 to 33 inches             
  • Wingspan: 54 to 60 inches

Denizens of the Boreal Forests, Great Gray Owls are the largest owls by size in North America. They are big, tall owls with large rounded heads; silver-gray overall with streaks of white, gray, and brown, and lightly barred on the chest. These owls are winter visitors to Wisconsin, found mostly in the northern and western parts of the Badger State.

This dapper owl sports a white “Bow Tie” with a black center on his neck. The tail is long (bow tie and tails?) and the plumage is very fluffy. Their wings are broad, rounded, and fringed for silent flight.

Great Gray Owls inhabit the Taigas and Boreal forests of North America. In the United States, they can be found in pine and fir forests near montane meadows. Their diet consists mostly of small animals and rodents, especially voles. The owl and vole populations are tied closely together – the more voles there are, the more owlets will be around to prey on them.

When the vole population crashes, Great Gray Owls will venture south to find food. These birds are not only nocturnal, but they are also crepuscular, seeking prey in twilight and before dawn, and will also hunt in broad daylight when they have nestlings or during the winter.

Like many tree-nesting owls, they prefer something with a move-in condition rather than new construction and prefer dead trees to live ones. Great Gray Owls like old nests of other raptors or Common Ravens to upscale. Broken tree tops and clumps of mistletoe are also high on their list.

Interesting Facts & Notes

While the Great Gray looks big, it’s all feathers – both the Great Horned and Snowy owls are heavier and have larger feet and talons. It’s one of the larger owls in North America (the Great Gray is taller than the Great Horned and Snowy).

The Great Grey Owl is also called the Phantom of the North, the Spectral Owl, and the Spruce Owl.


11. Snowy Owl

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

Large, almost all-white owl with variable dark barring found wintering in  Wisconsin starting in October and continuing until January or February.

Snowy Owls come out of the high Arctic during the winter months in search of food, and coastal shorelines are a prime location for their visits. They also like wide open spaces that remind them of their tundra home, so airports, large parks, and preserves are other places to find them.

Snowy Owls live in 24-hour daylight, so they are active more 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 means only young birds will venture south in search of a winter food source. Too few furry rodents mean that a Snowy Owl irruption occurs. The owls come further south, out of their usual winter ranges, in search of food sources.

The winter of 2022/2023 was not an irruption year – there were few Snowies seen in the northern states and along the East Coast.

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.


Some Cool 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.

Owls 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! Screech Owls whinny like a horse, Barn Owls hiss and scream, and Northern Saw-whet Owls sound like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.

Where to Find Owls

There are owls all over the state.

Just because they’re mostly nocturnal doesn’t mean you won’t find them on your daytime walk in the woods. I’ve found Long-eared Owls perched on branches in broad 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 sitting on a branch right next to the trunk of my big Norway Spruce.

Look in the northern half of the state for Northern Hawk Owls.

Long-eared Owls are winter visitors to the state of Wisconsin who prefer wooded areas but tend to roost close together. Unfortunately, they are not vocal out of breeding season so listening for them is not an option.

Short-eared Owls are migratory. The spring migrants (local breeding population) move south in the winter months while breeding populations from the north migrate into Wisconsin as the spring birds are moving out.  They prefer a different habitat than their long-eared cousins – they like open areas, especially near water. Look for them in marshes, 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.

Winter is the time to see both the Great Gray and Snowy Owls.

Snowy Owls can be found during winter, but only in an irruption year.

The Great Horned Owl is a year-round resident in the Badger State. So are Eastern Screech, Barn, Long-eared, and Barred Owls. You can find these all over (check out the Great Lakes for Barred Owls and southern Wisconsin for Short-eared Owls).

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.

To learn about owls, raptors, and other birds, the Wisconsin Audubon website is where to go. They offer many locations across to state to find birds.

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, joining 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 Wisconsin. 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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