Many people view owls with mystery and wonder. The fact that most of us never see them due to their camouflage and nocturnal habits makes them all the more fascinating. It can also lead you to wonder just how many different kinds of owls can be found where I live? In this article we will look at the 11 species of owls found in Minnesota.
Owls in Minnesota
The 11 species of owls commonly found in Minnesota are the barn owl, barred owl, boreal owl, eastern screech owl, great gray owl, great-horned owl, long-eared owl, northern hawk owl, northern saw-whet owl, short-eared owl and the snowy owl.
Minnesota is in a great position to be visited by many of the owls that spend all or part of the year in Canada. While each owls prefers slightly different habitat, here are a couple great places in Minnesota to spot some of the more reclusive species.
1. Barn Owl
- Scientific name: Tyto alba
- Length: 12.6 – 15.8 in
- Wingspan: 39.4 – 49.2 in
- Weight: 14.1 – 24.7 oz
Barn owls are found year round in Minnesota, and although they have been spotted in the north and south, technically their range is only the southern part of the state. Either way, they aren’t extremely common and can be difficult to find. They prefer mainly open habitats such as grasslands, fields, ranches, agricultural land and strips of forest.
Barn owls like to nest in man-made structures that have lots of eaves and beams such as barns, attics and church steeples. This is probably one way they got their name. They also nest in tree cavities, caves and cliff-sides. Barn Owls are very nocturnal and are unlikely to be found out during the daylight.
At dusk and through the night, they fly low over fields using their amazing hearing to locate mice and other rodents. Their large, ghostly white face and belly can be quite a spooky sight if you catch a glimpse of them in low light!
2. Barred Owl
- Scientific name: Strix varia
- Length: 16.9 – 19.7 in
- Wingspan: 39.0 – 43.3 in
- Weight: 16.6 – 37.0 oz
The beautiful brown and white striped barred owl is found throughout Minnesota all year, especially in the eastern half of the state, and is fairly common. These birds really like to stay close to home, often not even leaving a 10 mile radius throughout their life.
Although their range often overlaps with the great horned owl, they do not like to be in the same area as them. Great horned owls will actually go after barred owl eggs, young birds, and sometimes even adults.
Barred owls prefer mixed and mature trees near water, especially if there are large tracks of unbroken forest. You may spot them on a hike roosting in trees during the day. However, they are most active at night when hunting.
Their loud and unique hooting call is described as sounding like “who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”. During courtship a mated pair will perform a duet of all sorts of hoots, honks, caws and gurgles.
3. Boreal Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius funereus
- Length: 8.3-11.0 in
- Weight: 3.3-7.6 oz
- Wingspan: 21.6-24.4 in
Boreal owls, as their name suggests, reside in the boreal forest of spruce, birch and fir trees that spans northern North American and Eurasia. The United States is a bit too far south for them, so there are only a few states where you can spot them, Minnesota being one. You’re more likely to find them in the northern half of the state, especially in the state forests of the northeast corner and along Lake Superior.
They’re mysterious birds and are often hard to spot, especially during the day. They roost in a different tree each day, so don’t expect to find them in the same spot you saw them yesterday. However they will use a nestbox if you happen to live in their range.
At about the size of a robin, they’re small owls with large, square heads, stocky bodies and short tails. At night they perch and wait for prey such as small mammals and birds before swooping down and grasping their meal with their talons.
Boreal owls are usually quiet and don’t call very frequently. However, in the late winter through the spring this behavior changes as males call more often for mates. Listen for these quick hoots at night for a better chance at finding them.
4. Eastern Screech-Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops asio
- Length: 6.3 – 9.8 in
- Wingspan: 18.9 – 24.0 in
- Weight: 4.3 – 8.6 oz
This tiny owl is common year-round across most of the eastern United States, including southern and western Minnesota.
Eastern screech owls can come in three plumage shades, gray, brown or “red” (which is really a reddish brown). No matter what color, the patterns on their feathers provide excellent camouflage for blending in with tree bark.
Their name might suggest they make a screeching or screaming sound, but this is not true. They don’t hoot, but rather make trilling sounds or “whinnies” that sound like a high pitched horse.
If you put up an appropriately sized nest box, you can attract eastern screech owls to your yard. These little owls are at home in farmland, city parks and suburban neighborhoods. Pretty much anywhere with some tree cover.
5. Great Gray Owl
- Scientific name: Strix nebulosa
- Length: 24.0-33.1 in
- Weight: 24.7-60.0 oz
- Wingspan: 53.9-60.2 in
Great gray owls are found year-round across Alaska and Canada, but aren’t found in too many places in the continental U.S. Northern Minnesota falls into their range, especially the forested northeast.
These large owls have round heads with yellow eyes and a “bow tie” at the neck, a strip of white feathers with black in the middle. Great gray owls live in dense evergreen forests of the north, and hunt voles, gophers, chipmunks and other small mammals in meadows and clearings. In the U.S. they like pine and fir forests close to montane meadows.
Great gray owls don’t build their own nests. They will reuse an old raven or raptor nest, the top of a broken tree, or even human made platforms or clumps of mistletoe. Their hearing is so good they can hunt just by sound, and their powerful talons can break through hard packed snow to grab animals beneath.
6. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
- Length: 18.1 – 24.8 in
- Wingspan: 39.8 – 57.1 in
- Weight: 32.1 – 88.2 oz
Great horned owls are one of the most common and recognizable owls in North America due to their large size, yellow eyes and “horns” which are tufts of feathers that stick up on either side of their head. You’ll find them year round throughout Minnesota.
These owls can be found in many habitats, including forests, swamps, deserts and urban areas such as city parks. Their plumage can vary in color but most are either a cool or warm brown.
Great horned owls have a diverse diet, consisting of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and fish. Their hoot is what most people think of when they think of the sound owls make, and is often used in TV and movies.
7. Long-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio otus
- Length: 13.8 – 15.8 in (height)
- Wingspan: 35.4 – 39.4 in
- Weight: 7.8 – 15.3 oz
Long-eared owls can be found in northern and central Minnesota during the breeding season, and then the southern portion of Minnesota during the winter. Their preferred habitat is pine stands or woods near grassland and pastures.
Their bright yellow eyes, white V shaped facial pattern, round facial disc, and long feather tufts that point straight up can give them a constantly surprised expression. The very rounded face with white V is a great way to tell them apart from great horned owls.
Their excellent camouflage and secretive nature of roosting in dense woodlands tends to make them hard to find. Listen for their long, low hoots on spring and summer nights.
8. Northern Hawk Owl
- Scientific name: Surnia ulula
- Length: 14.2-17.7 in
- Weight: 8.5-16.0 oz
- Wingspan: 27.9 in
Northern Hawk Owls are generally found in Canada and Alaska, but their winter range can sometimes extend down into the northern United States, including most of Minnesota.
These owls don’t typically migrate, so when they turn up in the U.S. it is usually after a good breeding season when the population is up, but the number of their prey animals is down. This means some owls will travel much further than normal to find food. Lucky for the bird watchers!
Like many owls, they have large, round heads with yellow eyes and white faces. However, like hawks, they tend to hunt during the day around dawn and dusk, perching atop trees before gliding after prey. Also like hawks, their eyesight is tremendous and they are able to spot prey from up to half a mile away.
When they make it down into the U.S., they tend to look for lakeshores, pastures and wooded farmlands.
9. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
- Length: 7.1-8.3 inches
- Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz
- Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 inches
Northern saw-whet owls are tiny with a round head and yellow eyes. In addition to their tiny size, there are a few other reasons why these owls are notoriously difficult to locate.
Their mottled brown plumage blends in easily to the trees around them, especially when they’re perched motionlessly on a branch. These owls are also naturally secretive, and are only active at night so you won’t run into them while it’s light out.
The best bet for find a northern saw-whet owl is to learn its call and listen for it at night, especially between January and May when they call most frequently. They have a distinct call that sounds like a blade being sharpened with a whetstone, earning the name “saw-whet” owl. Their too-too-too call is a series of whistled notes of the same pitch.
These owls prefer dense and mature forests, and their diet mainly consists of small mammals such as mice and voles. They remain all year throughout most of Minnesota, but may only be winter residents in the southwestern part of the state.
10. Short-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio flammeus
- Length: 15 in
- Wingspan: 38 in
- Weight: 12 oz
Short-eared owls spend the summer almost exclusively in Canada and the northern United States. They remain year-round in southern Minnesota, and spend the breeding season in central and northern Minnesota.
As their name implies, they do have “ear tuft” feathers but they are so short as to almost never be visible. They have yellow eyes like many owls, but the black surrounding their eyes really makes the color pop. During the winter look for them in marshes, gravel and rock quarries, fields, woodlots and thickets. Their populations in a certain area can vary year to year in close relation to the population of their prey such as moles, rats, rabbits and weasels.
It is thought that their populations overall are in decline, as they are particularly sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation from the large open grasslands they require being turned into farm land, grazing land, recreational areas and housing development.
They are actually found in many places globally, and are able to travel long distances over open ocean.
11. Snowy Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
- Length: 20.5-27.9 inches
- Weight: 56.4-104.1 oz
- Wingspan: 49.6-57.1 inches
Snowy owls have a wintering range throughout most of Canada and the far northern U.S. states, including Minnesota. Population will vary quite a bit year to year, depending on how many owls were born that summer or how the supply of food is further north.
These beautiful owls migrate far north to arctic regions of Canada and Greenland to breed during the summer. They will hunt their favorite summer food, lemmings, all hours of the day.
If there are snowy owls near you, they are not as difficult to spot as other owls due to their bright white plumage. Unlike most other owls, they are diurnal and thus active during the day. They prefer wide-open spaces for hunting, like fields, airports, and beaches. Look for them on snowy ground on or perched out in the open.
Snowy owls are travelers and often don’t stay close to home once they reach adulthood. Owls from the same nest that were tracked have been found hundreds of miles away from each other in opposite directions.
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