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

The American Midwest is home to a diverse array of bird species, and Iowa, known for its rolling plains and cornfields, is no exception. In this state, nine unique owl species have established themselves, each adapted to the particular landscape and environmental conditions of Iowa.

This article will give you a complete guide to these owls, where and when to spot them, and provide some fascinating facts about each species.

Owl Species Found in Iowa

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Size: 46-63 cm (18-24.8 inches)
  • Weight: 1,000-2,500 grams (2.2-5.5 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 101-145 cm (40-57.1 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Great Horned Owl is a year-round resident of Iowa and is arguably the most imposing owl species found in the state. Characterized by its size and large ear tufts or “horns,” this owl is a master predator that can take down prey larger than itself, including rabbits and skunks.

Adapted to a wide range of habitats, Great Horned Owls are found in forests, deserts, wetlands, and even in city parks and suburban areas. They are also excellent parents, often taking over the nests of other large birds to raise their own broods.

Did you know? The Great Horned Owl has the most extensive range of any owl species in the Americas, spanning from the Arctic regions of North America to the tropical forests of South America.

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 (18.1-24 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Eastern Screech Owl is a small, yet fierce, year-round inhabitant of Iowa. Despite its name, this owl doesn’t actually screech, but instead makes a horse-like whinny and a long trill sound. They are masters of disguise, with grey or red-brown plumage that provides excellent camouflage against tree bark.

They prefer wooded habitats, including deciduous forests and mixed woodlands, but they can also be found in parks and suburbs. These owls are mostly nocturnal, hunting for insects, small rodents, and birds from dusk until early dawn.

Did you know? Eastern Screech Owls have a remarkable adaptive feature called asymmetrical ears, which helps them locate prey more accurately in the darkness by picking up sounds at slightly different times.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Size: 40-63 cm (15.8-24.8 inches)
  • Weight: 470-1050 grams (1.03-2.31 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 96-125 cm (37.8-49.2 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Barred Owl is a year-round resident of Iowa, known for its soulful, dark eyes and distinctive hoot, often phrased as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” These owls have a mottled brown and white plumage that provides them perfect camouflage against the bark of trees.

Barred Owls love old forests with mature trees where they nest, but they are also seen in mixed woodlands and deciduous forests. They hunt at night, swooping down from perches to catch a variety of prey, including small mammals, birds, and amphibians.

Did you know? Unlike many owl species, Barred Owls are known to be quite vocal in the daytime, especially during their courtship period in early spring.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl
  • Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
  • Size: 19-28 cm (7.5-11 inches)
  • Weight: 140-240 grams (5-8.5 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 50.8-61 cm (20-24 inches)
  • Time of the year: March to October (breeding season)

The Burrowing Owl is an endearing, ground-dwelling bird that can be spotted in Iowa mainly during its breeding season from March to October. Distinguished by their long legs and bright yellow eyes, they prefer open landscapes where they can create burrows or take over those abandoned by other animals, like prairie dogs.

They are one of the few owl species active during both day and night, feeding on insects, rodents, and small reptiles. Human activity has disrupted their habitats, leading to their decline in many parts of North America.

Did you know? Unlike most owls, Burrowing Owls are not totally nocturnal. They are often active during the day, though they prefer to hunt when the light levels are low, such as at dawn and dusk.

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Size: 34-42 cm (13.4-16.5 inches)
  • Weight: 206-475 grams (7.3-16.8 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 85-110 cm (33.5-43.3 inches)
  • Time of the year: October to April (winter)

The Short-Eared Owl is a winter visitor in Iowa, usually arriving in October and staying until April. Named for their short feather tufts that resemble ears, these owls are well-adapted to open-country hunting and can often be seen flying low over fields in broad daylight.

They mainly feed on small mammals like voles and mice, and their presence in a particular area often indicates a high rodent population. Their spectacular communal roosts during winter are a delight for birdwatchers.

Did you know? The Short-Eared Owl is one of the most widely distributed owls, found on all continents except Antarctica. They are also highly nomadic, with their movements largely dictated by the availability of prey.

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 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 125-150 cm (49.2-59.1 inches)
  • Time of the year: November to March (winter)

The Snowy Owl, a magnificent, large bird with pure white feathers and glowing yellow eyes, is an irregular winter visitor in Iowa from November to March. These owls are associated with the Arctic regions but migrate south during harsh winters in search of food.

Their diet is predominantly lemmings in their Arctic habitat, but while in Iowa, they feed on rodents, rabbits, and birds. Open fields, airports, and large parks mimic their tundra-like breeding grounds and are their preferred habitats.

Did you know? The Snowy Owl, made famous in the Harry Potter series as Harry’s pet owl, Hedwig, is one of the heaviest owls in North America.

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: Year-round

The Long-Eared Owl is a medium-sized owl with notably long ear tufts and deep orange eyes. They can be found year-round in Iowa. Although their distribution is widespread, they are not frequently seen due to their cryptic plumage and secretive behavior.

These owls prefer mixed landscapes with open fields for hunting and dense woods for roosting and nesting. They feed mainly on small mammals, but will also take birds, particularly during the winter.

Did you know? Unlike many owl species, Long-Eared Owls are social birds. In winter, they can form communal roosts of a dozen or more owls, often in dense conifers or other types of thickets.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl
  • Scientific name: Tyto alba
  • Size: 32-40 cm (12.6-15.7 inches)
  • Weight: 430-620 grams (0.95-1.37 pounds)
  • Wingspan: 107-110 cm (42.1-43.3 inches)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Barn Owl, a pale, long-winged, long-legged owl with a short squarish tail, is a year-round resident in Iowa. Known for their heart-shaped face and dark, beady eyes, Barn Owls are truly cosmopolitan, found in various parts of the world.

They prefer open landscapes — meadows, marshes, and farmlands — with plenty of rodents for them to feed on. They are known for their eerie, shrill screams that are unlike the hoots of most other owls.

Did you know? Barn Owls swallow their prey whole—skin, bones, and all, and they eat up to 1,000 mice each year, often making them popular amongst farmers for natural rodent control.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Size: 17-22 cm (6.7-8.7 inches)
  • Weight: 54-151 grams (1.9-5.3 ounces)
  • Wingspan: 42-56.3 cm (16.5-22.2 inches)
  • Time of the year: October to March (winter)

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl, a small, compact owl with a large round head, yellow eyes, and no ear tufts, can be spotted in Iowa during the winter months from October to March. Despite its small size, it is a fearless hunter and is often more common than people think.

These owls prefer dense thickets and coniferous forests where they are well camouflaged. They feed primarily on small mammals, particularly deer mice, and store surplus food in the colder months.

Did you know? The Northern Saw-Whet Owl gets its name from the sound of its call, which was thought to resemble a saw being sharpened with a whetting stone.

Where & How to Observe Owls in Iowa

  1. Hitchcock Nature Center: This park is a great spot to see a variety of birds, including the Great Horned Owl and the Eastern Screech Owl. The raptor migration in the fall is also an excellent time to spot owls.
  2. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge: This refuge, located east of Des Moines, is an excellent place to find Barn Owls, as it provides a perfect environment for them to hunt for rodents.
  3. Boone Wildlife Research Station: This is another fantastic spot, especially for Northern Saw-whet Owl during the winter months.
  4. Loess Hills State Forest: Home to many Eastern Screech Owls, a hike through the forest’s trails may reward you with a sighting.

Iowa’s owls can be found in a variety of habitats. Great Horned Owls and Eastern Screech Owls prefer mixed woodlands, while Barred Owls inhabit deciduous forests near water. Northern Saw-whet Owls favor dense thickets and coniferous forests, and Short-Eared Owls, Snowy Owls, and Barn Owls are often found in open fields and farmlands.

Quick Tips For Owl Spotting

  • Timing is crucial: Owls are nocturnal creatures, so the best time to spot them is usually around dusk and dawn. Some species, like the Short-Eared Owl, are more active during these times.
  • Look up: Owls tend to perch high in trees during the day. Look for owl pellets or white droppings at the base of trees to identify roosting spots.
  • Listen for calls: Owls are vocal birds, especially during mating season. Learning their distinct calls can help identify them even when they can’t be seen.
  • Use binoculars: A good pair of binoculars is crucial to spotting these elusive creatures.
  • Stay quiet and patient: Owls are cautious and can be scared off by sudden movements or loud noises. Being quiet and patient will increase your chances of spotting one.
  • Join a local birding group: Experienced birders can offer advice and help you spot owls.
  • Respect wildlife: Remember not to disturb the owls or their habitats. Keep a respectful distance and avoid using flash photography, which can startle owls.

Owls in Other States

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