How to tell which owl is hooting — or hiding — in your neighborhood

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Big owls, little owls, white owls, black owls, owls with “ears”, cute owls – there’s a lot to see in the trees.

If you’re a fan of owls (and who isn’t?), you’ll be happy to know that it’s possible to see eight species of owls in our area, at least part of the year. Some are quite easy to spot, while some are a real challenge.

The three most common are the Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, and Eastern Screech-Owl, a “Goldilocks” trio: Great Horned Owls are very large, Barred Owls are medium-sized, and Creepers are very small.

Owls work hard to avoid getting our attention – you might have walked under an owl perched in the woods without even realizing it. When we notice owls, it’s usually during nesting season, when owls call and attach themselves to a nesting site. Or when crows or other birds screech loudly and swoop down on an owl to chase it away.

Some owls are already raising their broods, and a fascinating feature of the owl world is that with few exceptions, owls do not build their own nests. They usually let other creatures do the building work or find good sized holes in the trees.

Humans are crazy about owls, it seems, and people gather everywhere and whenever they hear of owl sightings. This bothers owls, especially during breeding season, which is why there is a strict rule in the birding community: do not report owl sightings.

It’s a wonderful thing that some owls nest near us, and we need to reciprocate by giving them space to go about their business without being harassed. This doesn’t mean you should avoid an area where owls are nesting, just be inconspicuous.

Here’s an introduction to the owl species you might see in Minnesota. In some cases you will have to drive, some may only appear during spring or fall migration and snowy owls only occasionally come down from the arctic.

If you’re looking for owls, keep your eyes peeled, visit owl favorite habitats, and be patient. If you spot an owl, keep it to yourself, enjoy the sighting, and then move on.

  • Great horned owl
    Large, up to 2 feet tall, weighs 3 to 5 pounds.
  • Wide range of habitats – forests, woodlands, open country, even townsites. Hunts its prey from perches.
  • Adopt an old nest built by a hawk or squirrel, or use a tree cavity or snag.
  • Early breeders: eggs are laid in late January or February, young hatch in late February or March; nests produce an average of two to three owls.
  • The male’s resonant calls carry for miles, both sexes emit deep “hoo, hoo, hoo” sounds; also make confusing squeals and young may squeal.
  • Feeds on just about anything that moves – rabbits, skunks, voles, squirrels, cats, ducks, geese, little owls.
  • The tufts of feathers on the top of the head look like ears; so fierce that they are called “flying tigers”, night hunters. The big horn is what usually comes to mind when people think of owls. Usually friends for life.
  • Non-migratory.

Long-eared owl

  • About the size of a crow, 12 to 15 inches high, 1/2 to 1 pound.
  • Lives in forests with nearby countryside for hunting, flight hunting by running over open areas.
  • Adopt an old crow’s or hawk’s nest.
  • The nesting season begins in March or April, the young hatch about four weeks later; usually raises four to five owls.
  • A fairly calm owl, makes soft hoots, cries and whistles.
  • The diet is almost entirely made up of rodents.
  • The least seen owl, these inconspicuous raptors can form communal roosts for up to 24 owls in winter; hunt at night. Can stretch into a very thin and tall, branch-like bird if threatened; has ear-like tufts of feathers on its head.
  • Some migrate, others stay all year round.

barred owl

  • Stocky owl, 17 to 20 inches tall, weighs about 1 ½ pounds.
  • Lives in forests with tall trees, often near water, sits on a branch to watch for prey.
  • Usually nests in natural cavities in tall trees.
  • The nesting season begins in March, the eggs hatch a month later; raises one to five owls.
  • The call sounds like “Who cooks for you?” It can also sound like “a murdered woman,” says Karla Bloem of the International Owl Center, or maniacal monkeys.
  • Varied diet — rodents, rabbits, birds, large insects, frogs, fish.
  • Has distinctive brown eyes, unusual in the yellow-eyed owl world; night hunter, but during nesting season may hunt during daytime, calls during daytime more than most other owls. Very round head, no ear tufts; friends for life.
  • Non-migratory.

Eastern Screech-Owl

  • Small, about the size of a robin, 7 to 10 inches tall, weighs 7 to 8 ounces,
  • Lives in forests, parks, suburbs, even urban backyards with tall trees.
  • Nests in natural tree cavities, woodpecker holes, even wood duck nest boxes.
  • Eggs laid from mid to late March typically raise three to four owls.
  • They don’t screech, but trill or neigh “like a little horse in a tree,” says Karla Bloem of the International Owl Center; their calls are often featured in horror films.
  • Eats small rodents, songbirds, reptiles, insects, earthworms; they hunt from perches after dark.
  • The plumage resembles tree bark and can be gray or red – grays survive the cold better; in southeastern Minnesota grays were more common, now red cries are. Unusual in the world of owls, the males sometimes help incubate the eggs; has ear tufts.
  • Non-migratory.

great gray owl

  • Tall, 27-28 inches, but light, 2 ½ lbs.
  • Lives in coniferous forests near grasslands or bogs in northeastern Minnesota.
  • Uses old crow or raptor nests, or broken tree tops.
  • Eggs laid in April or May usually raise three owls.
  • The call is a series of resonant howls.
  • Hunts voles, mice, lemmings day and night, watches for prey from a perch.
  • An uncommon owl, known for its deep snow dives to catch its prey, pairs separate after the breeding season. The huge facial disc makes the eyes look small.
  • Non-migratory but may travel to find food.

short-eared owl

  • Medium sized, 13-17 inches tall, weighs ½ lb to just over 1 pound.
  • A short-eared owl, lives in areas such as swamps, grasslands, agricultural fields.
  • Builds its nest on the ground.
  • Usually lays five to seven eggs in May or June.
  • Hunts voles and other small mammals, flying low above the ground, often hovering.
  • The call is a series of hoots, may also bark, screech or whine.
  • Small ear tufts are usually not visible, dark feathering around the eyes looks like smudged eye makeup, distinctive moth-like flight, female scratches a nest bowl and lines it with grasses and feathers.
  • One of the few owl species to build its own nest.
  • Migratory, sometimes nomadic.

Little horned owl

  • Tiny owl, about 8 inches long, weighs 2 ½ to 5 ounces.
  • Lives in dense forests, wooded swamps and bogs, observed in our region during migrations, sometimes in winter.
  • Nests in tree cavities and woodpecker holes.
  • Usually lays five to six eggs in April or May.
  • The song is a series of whistled notes (“It sounds like a truck backing up,” says Karla Bloem of the International Owl Center), along with whines, barks and squeals.
  • Mainly hunts at dusk and dawn from low perches.
  • Known to shuffle feet when perching, very nocturnal, rarely seen, but said to be common and widespread; the “awww” owl – they are just plain cute.
  • Migration.

snowy owl

  • Large owl, 20 to 28 inches tall, weighs 3 ½ to 6 ½ pounds.
  • Lives and breeds in the arctic tundra.
  • Nests on the ground in a bowl dug by the female, three to five eggs if food is scarce, up to 14 if food is abundant.
  • Eggs laid from mid-May to early June.
  • Deep, raspy hoots during the breeding season.
  • Hunts lemmings and voles in breeding season; in winter, add rats, rabbits, grouse, waterfowl; hunting in the dark.
  • Some descend from the Arctic in winter, sometimes seen in Minnesota in tundra-like environments like airports; can roost on the ground during the day in the open; most snowy owls are not pure white – females and young birds have dark bars.
  • Not migratory, but nomadic.

Owls, owls and more owls

Get your owl fix at the International Owl Festival, a celebration of all things owl in Houston, Minnesota, April 30-May 1. The festival is a great family event, featuring lots of fun activities for kids, including an owl hoot contest.

The annual event has been rearranged to accommodate COVID precautions, with most events scheduled outdoors this year. Discover the winners of the children’s art contest, with entries from around the world, choose from owl-themed foods, dissect an owl pellet, catch live owl programs and more.

Check the website, www.festivalofowls.com, for a current list of events.

Listen to the owls

Recordings of the sounds of each owl species are available on a Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. Search for “All About Birds”, then when the page opens, type in the name of the owl you want to listen to and select the “Sounds” icon.

Two more owls

Two other owl species can be seen in Minnesota, the Northern Hawk Owl and the Boreal Owl, both of which spend their lives far north of here.

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