Owls seem like magical and mysterious creatures. The fact that most of us rarely encounter 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 9 species of owls found in South Dakota.
Owls in South Dakota
Including some lesser seen species, the 9 species of owls you might see in South Dakota are the barn owl, barred owl, burrowing owl, eastern screech owl, great-horned owl, long-eared owl, northern saw-whet owl, short-eared owl and the snowy owl.
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 can be found throughout South Dakota all year, although they are often hard to spot. 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 range of the beautiful brown and white striped barred owl ends in neighboring Minnesota, so they are typically only seen along the eastern border in South Dakota, making them fairly rare for the state.
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. Burrowing Owl
- Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
- Length: 7.5-9.8 in
- Wingspan: 21.6 in
- Weight: 5.3 oz
Burrowing Owls can be found during the breeding throughout South Dakota.
These owls are quite small with long legs, and they live underground in burrows. Sometimes they dig these burrows themselves, and sometimes they take over burrows left from other animals such as prairie dogs or ground squirrels. They have even been found to use man-made structures such as pipes, buckets and culverts for burrows.
You’ll find them in open habitats such as deserts and grasslands. They can be hard to spot as they are very small compared to the wide open landscape they call home, and when in their burrows barely peek above the horizon. Burrowing owls are most active at dawn and dusk.
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 half of the United States, including South Dakota.
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 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 South Dakota.
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.
6. 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 South Dakota during the spring and summer breeding season, except for the far southern border where they may remain all year. 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.
7. 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 are mainly winter residents in South Dakota.
8. 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, but you can find them year-round in South Dakota.
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.
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.
9. 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, but this owl has been coming further and further south into the United States each year. In South Dakota at least a few can be spotted each year during the winter months, especially in the eastern half of the state. The amount can vary quite a bit year to year.
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.