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All 9 Owl Species Found in Illinois (With Pictures & Info)

Welcome to the land of the owls, Illinois! This midwestern state, known for its prairies and affectionately called the Prairie State, boasts a rich diversity of wildlife, including a remarkable assortment of owls.

Whether you’re in the flatlands of central Illinois or the rolling hills of the west, the state’s varied habitats provide refuge for these intriguing nocturnal birds.

This article will delve into the nine species of owls found in Illinois, offering details about their characteristics, habits, and where to find them in the state.

Owl Species Found in Illinois

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Size: 46-68 cm (18-27 inches)
  • Weight: 910-2500 grams (32-88 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 101-145 cm (40-57 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Great Horned Owl, known as the “tiger of the skies”, is one of the most common and widespread owl species in North America, and Illinois is no exception. This large, ear-tufted owl can be found in forests, deserts, and even in city parks. Its diverse diet includes a wide range of creatures, from small rodents to larger prey like ducks and rabbits.

Great Horned Owls are known for their distinct call, a series of deep, stuttering hoots that echo through the night. These creatures are most active during the night, but in the twilight hours of dawn and dusk, you may spot one surveying its territory from a high perch.

Did you know? The Great Horned Owl is so powerful that it can take down birds and mammals larger than itself. It’s one of the few animals that hunt skunks!

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl
  • Scientific name: Megascops asio
  • Size: 16-25 cm (6.3-9.8 inches)
  • Weight: 121-244 grams (4.3-8.6 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 46-61 cm (18-24 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Eastern Screech Owl is a master of disguise. With its compact size and dappled plumage, it blends seamlessly into the tree bark, making it a challenge to spot. You can find these owls in wooded areas across Illinois, from dense forests to suburban parks and gardens.

They have a wide range of vocalizations, the most distinctive of which is a haunting whiny. Their diet includes small creatures such as insects, rodents, small birds, and even amphibians and reptiles.

Did you know? Despite their name, Eastern Screech Owls do not screech. Their calls are more like soft trills and haunting hoots.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Size: 40-63 cm (16-25 inches)
  • Weight: 500-1050 grams (17.6-37.1 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 96-125 cm (37.8-49.2 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Barred Owl, also known as the hoot owl for its distinctive call, is another common species in Illinois. They’re primarily residents of forests, preferring areas near water bodies where they can hunt for a wide variety of prey, including small mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles.

Their haunting hoots can often be heard in the still of the night, a series of notes that sound like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” They have a rounded head with no ear tufts, dark eyes, and a yellow beak.

Did you know? Barred Owls have been known to live up to 24 years in the wild. They tend to stick to a particular territory once they’ve established it, often staying in the same area year-round.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl
  • Scientific name: Tyto alba
  • Size: 33-39 cm (13-15.5 inches)
  • Weight: 224-710 grams (7.9-25 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 80-95 cm (31.5-37.5 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

Barn Owls, characterized by their heart-shaped facial discs, are one of the most widely distributed birds globally. However, in Illinois, their populations have been decreasing due to habitat loss. These owls are named for their preference for nesting in barns and other old, wooden buildings, though they can also be found in tree cavities.

Known for their near-silent flight, Barn Owls primarily hunt small mammals, especially rodents. They have an exceptional ability to locate prey by sound, even under thick vegetation or snow.

Did you know? Barn Owls have one ear higher than the other. This unusual trait helps them locate the tiny sounds made by their prey more precisely.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Size: 18-20 cm (7.1-7.9 inches)
  • Weight: 54-151 grams (1.9-5.3 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 42-56.3 cm (16.5-22.2 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round, more common in fall and winter

Named for its call that sounds like a saw being sharpened, the Northern Saw-whet Owl is one of the smallest owls found in North America. In Illinois, they are more common in fall and winter. Dense forests, especially coniferous ones, are their preferred habitat.

Despite their diminutive size, these owls are fierce hunters, feeding primarily on small rodents. They have a distinctive white V-shaped marking on their forehead and large yellow eyes.

Did you know? Northern Saw-whet Owls can occasionally be “daytime sleepers.” During the day, they roost in thick vegetation and are often tolerant of humans approaching them, giving birdwatchers a unique opportunity to observe them.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl
  • Scientific name: Surnia ulula
  • Size: 35-43 cm (14-17 inches)
  • Weight: 300-400 grams (10.6-14.1 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 69-82 cm (27.2-32.3 inches)
  • Time of the year: Rare, mainly winter

A rare sight in Illinois, the Northern Hawk Owl is known for its hawk-like behavior. The name derives from its long, pointed wings, lengthy tail, and its habit of perching on the tops of trees and poles, much like a hawk. It can be found mainly during winter months.

The Northern Hawk Owl hunts both day and night, making it a unique species among typically nocturnal owls. It feeds mostly on small mammals and birds.

Did you know? Northern Hawk Owls have exceptional eyesight and can spot prey up to half a mile away!

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Size: 53-65 cm (20.9-25.6 inches)
  • Weight: 1.6-3 kg (3.5-6.6 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 125-150 cm (49.2-59.1 inches)
  • Time of the year: Winter

With their striking white plumage, Snowy Owls are a true spectacle in the state of Illinois. These birds are not a common sight, but during certain winters, when their food supply is scarce in the Arctic, they will venture south into Illinois.

Snowy Owls are most active during the day, especially at dawn and dusk. They can often be spotted sitting on the ground or low posts in open areas, scanning their surroundings for prey, which includes rodents and birds.

Did you know? Snowy Owls have been made famous by the Harry Potter series, in which Harry’s pet owl, Hedwig, is a Snowy Owl. Despite this portrayal, they do not make the best pets due to their specific care needs and wild nature.

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Size: 34-43 cm (13.4-16.9 inches)
  • Weight: 206-475 grams (7.3-16.8 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 85-110 cm (33.5-43.3 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

Short-Eared Owls are medium-sized birds of prey that reside in open country such as prairies, marshes, and dunes. In Illinois, they can be seen throughout the year. They have a characteristic round head with small ear tufts that are usually not visible.

These owls are mostly nocturnal but are often active at dawn and dusk. They feed primarily on rodents and small mammals. Unlike many owl species, they construct their nests on the ground.

Did you know? Despite their name, Short-Eared Owls do have long ears, but they’re often hidden by feathers, hence appearing short.

Long-Eared Owl

Long-Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Size: 31-40 cm (12.2-15.7 inches)
  • Weight: 178-435 grams (6.3-15.3 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 86-100 cm (33.9-39.4 inches)
  • Time of the year: Winter

Long-Eared Owls, named for their prominent ear tufts that resemble “horns,” are medium-sized owls that prefer dense forests near open fields. In Illinois, they are primarily winter visitors, although a small number may breed in the state.

These secretive birds are known to roost communally during winter months, sometimes in groups of a few dozen individuals. They feed mostly on small mammals, especially rodents, but will also eat birds.

Did you know? When a Long-Eared Owl feels threatened, it will elongate its body and bring its ear tufts close together to look like a branch, blending seamlessly into the tree it’s roosting in.

Where & How to Observe Owls in Illinois

Illinois, with its mix of dense forests, open farmland, wetlands, and prairies, is home to various owl species. Knowing where to find these nocturnal creatures can increase your chances of spotting one.

  • Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, and Eastern Screech Owls can be found in wooded areas across the state, with a preference for large trees and nearby water bodies.
  • Northern Hawk Owls and Snowy Owls are rare, but during certain winters, they can be spotted in open fields and along the coast of Lake Michigan.
  • Short-Eared Owls prefer open areas like grasslands and marshes. They are one of the few owl species that can be spotted during daylight hours, making areas like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, and Nachusa Grasslands great spots for sightings.
  • Northern Saw-whet Owls often migrate through Illinois during the fall. Starved Rock State Park is a popular location for sighting these tiny owls.
  • Long-Eared Owls are elusive and prefer dense forests for roosting during winter months. They can be spotted in larger forest preserves and state parks.

Keep in mind that most owls are nocturnal, so your best chance of spotting them is during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk. Owls are also quite sensitive to human disturbance, so remember to observe them from a distance and avoid disrupting their habitats.

Quick Tips For Owl Spotting

  • Equip yourself with a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope to observe owls from a safe distance.
  • Learn the calls of different owl species. Owls are more often heard than seen.
  • Join a local birdwatching group or guided owl prowl. They can provide valuable insights and share their expertise.
  • Respect nature. Avoid disturbing the birds or their habitats.
  • Be patient. Owl spotting requires a fair amount of luck and persistence.

Owls in Other States

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