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All 12 Owl Species Found in North Dakota (With Pictures & Info)

North Dakota, with its wide expanse of prairies, fields, and forested areas, provides an ideal habitat for a variety of owl species. This state’s diversity of ecosystems makes it a great place for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts who want to observe these remarkable birds in their natural environment.

In this article, we will explore the different species of owls that call North Dakota home and provide insights on where and when you might be able to spot them.

Owl Species Found in North Dakota

Barred Owl

Barred Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Size: 40-63 cm (16-25 in)
  • Weight: 500-1050 g (1.1-2.3 lb)
  • Wingspan: 96-125 cm (38-49 in)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Barred Owl is a large owl species that can be found in North Dakota throughout the year. They prefer mature forests, often near water bodies. Their deep, soulful eyes and striking facial markings make them easy to recognize. Barred Owls have a distinctive hoot that sounds like “who cooks for you?”

These owls are adept hunters, and their diet consists of small mammals, birds, amphibians, and even invertebrates. They have a unique hunting technique that involves sitting and waiting for their prey, then swooping down swiftly to catch it unawares.

Did you know? The Barred Owl has been known to live up to 24 years in the wild. These owls form long-term pair bonds and often return to the same nesting site year after year.

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl
  • Scientific Name: Aegolius funereus
  • Size: 22-27 cm (8.7-10.6 in)
  • Weight: 93-170 g (3.3-6.0 oz)
  • Wingspan: 50-62 cm (20-24 in)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

Boreal Owls are relatively small and elusive, making them quite a challenge to spot. Known for their preference for coniferous forests, these owls reside in North Dakota year-round. They are most active during the night, hunting for voles and other small rodents in the dim light.

Boreal Owls have a distinctive “toot-toot-toot” call that can be heard in the deep, silent woods during the breeding season. These solitary birds are primarily cavity nesters, often taking over abandoned woodpecker holes in mature aspen trees.

Did you know? Boreal Owls do not build nests. Instead, they lay their eggs directly on the debris at the bottom of the tree cavity, adding a layer of plucked belly feathers for insulation.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl
  • Scientific Name: Surnia ulula
  • Size: 36-42.5 cm (14.2-16.7 in)
  • Weight: 300-400 g (10.6-14.1 oz)
  • Wingspan: 69-80 cm (27-31 in)
  • Time of the Year: Primarily in Winter

The Northern Hawk Owl is an interesting bird species that is known to reside in North Dakota, mainly during the winter. Its name derives from the hawk-like shape and behavior, which makes it a unique member of the owl family. These owls prefer open lands and coniferous forests, often found perched high on tree tops, power lines, or poles, looking out for prey.

Despite their relatively small size, Northern Hawk Owls are fierce predators, feeding primarily on small mammals and birds. They have exceptional vision that allows them to spot prey from great distances, even in heavy snow.

Did you know? Unlike most owls, Northern Hawk Owls are diurnal, meaning they’re active during the day. They are also known for their lack of fear of humans, often allowing people to approach them quite closely.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
  • Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
  • Size: 46-68 cm (18.1-26.8 in)
  • Weight: 910-2500 g (2.0-5.5 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 101-145 cm (40-57 in)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

The Great Horned Owl is one of the most familiar owl species in North America and a permanent resident of North Dakota. It is often referred to as the “tiger of the air” because of its aggressive nature and strength.

This robust bird inhabits mixed forests, grasslands, deserts, backyards, city parks, and wetlands, showcasing its adaptability to varied environments.

Great Horned Owls feed on a diverse array of prey, including rodents, rabbits, skunks, and other birds, which they catch with their powerful, talon-equipped feet. During the night, you might hear their distinctive hooting, consisting of four to five “hoo’s”.

Did you know? Great Horned Owls have no actual horns! Instead, they have tufts of feathers on their heads that merely look like horns.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
  • Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Size: 18-21 cm (7.1-8.3 in)
  • Weight: 54-151 g (1.9-5.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 42-56.3 cm (16.5-22.2 in)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a small and elusive owl species that lives year-round in North Dakota. These owls inhabit dense coniferous or mixed forests, often near bodies of water. Despite their small size, they are fierce predators that primarily feed on small rodents.

With a round, light grey face, white eyebrows, and yellow eyes, Northern Saw-Whet Owls are endearingly cute. They prefer nesting in tree cavities and are known for their rhythmic tooting song that can carry long distances on calm, starry nights.

Did you know? The name “saw-whet” comes from the sound of the owl’s call, which is said to resemble the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl
  • Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Size: 52-71 cm (20.5-28 in)
  • Weight: 1210-2950 g (2.7-6.5 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 125-150 cm (49.2-59.1 in)
  • Time of the Year: Primarily winter months

The Snowy Owl, a large, white bird of the true north, makes North Dakota its temporary home during the winter months.

They’re typically found in open, treeless areas, resembling their tundra habitat. In North Dakota, they can be spotted in large fields and airport landscapes.

The Snowy Owl’s most distinctive feature is its white plumage, which provides excellent camouflage against the snow. Males can be almost entirely white, while females have more scattered dark spotting. These owls are diurnal, so you might get a chance to spot them during daylight hours, which is a rarity among owls.

Did you know? Unlike most owls, Snowy Owls are not entirely nocturnal and can often be seen hunting during daylight hours, especially in the wintertime when the daylight hours are short in their Arctic home.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl
  • Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia
  • Size: 19-28 cm (7.5-11 in)
  • Weight: 140-240 g (4.9-8.5 oz)
  • Wingspan: 50.8-61 cm (20-24 in)
  • Time of the Year: Primarily spring through fall

The Burrowing Owl is an atypical owl in several ways. Most notably, it nests and roosts in burrows on the ground, a characteristic that gives the bird its name. You can find them in grasslands, rangelands, agricultural areas, deserts, or any other open dry area with low vegetation.

The bird has a rounded head, lacks ear tufts, and has a distinctive white eyebrow that gives it a surprised look. It is one of the smallest owls found in North Dakota and it feeds on a diet of insects, small mammals, and occasionally small birds.

Did you know? Burrowing Owls have bright yellow eyes, and when threatened, they make a hissing noise similar to a rattlesnake to scare off predators.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl
  • Scientific Name: Tyto alba
  • Size: 32-40 cm (12.6-15.7 in)
  • Weight: 224-710 g (7.9-25 oz)
  • Wingspan: 107-110 cm (42.1-43.3 in)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

The Barn Owl, with its distinctive heart-shaped face, is a familiar figure in North Dakota. As the name suggests, this owl often chooses to reside in barns or other human structures, as well as in tree hollows.

These owls are found in a variety of habitats but favor open fields and meadows where they can easily hunt their preferred prey, small mammals like mice and voles.

Barn Owls are silent fliers, their feathers specially adapted for quiet flight. This aids them in stealthily approaching their prey, which they locate by sound with their keen hearing.

Did you know? Barn Owls are among the most widespread of all birds, found on every continent except Antarctica!

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl
  • Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
  • Size: 34-43 cm (13.4-16.9 in)
  • Weight: 206-475 g (7.3-16.8 oz)
  • Wingspan: 85-110 cm (33.5-43.3 in)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

Short-Eared Owls, named for their small, often hard-to-see ear tufts, are open-country hunters. They can be seen in prairies, marshes, and agricultural fields in North Dakota, often active during the day, especially in winter.

Their diet mainly consists of voles and mice, and their flight pattern while hunting is often characterized by a series of rapid wingbeats followed by short glides.

These owls have a buffy body with dark streaks and a round head with large yellow eyes. They are one of the most cosmopolitan owl species and can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

Did you know? Short-Eared Owls are ground nesters, they lay their eggs in a slight depression on the ground in an open habitat, lined with grass and feathers.

Long-Eared Owl

Long-Eared Owl
  • Scientific Name: Asio otus
  • Size: 31-40 cm (12-16 in) in length
  • Weight: 178-435 g (6.3-15.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 90-100 cm (35-39 in)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

The Long-Eared Owl is a medium-sized owl that can be found in North Dakota all year round. With their long, rounded wings and lengthy ear tufts, they can be easily mistaken for Great Horned Owls, but they’re much smaller in comparison. As with other owl species, they are most active at night.

They prefer woodland areas mixed with open fields, where they can hunt a variety of small mammals, but will also take birds and insects.

Their narrow body and cryptic feather coloration make them incredibly hard to spot when roosting in dense foliage during the day. However, during winter, they tend to form communal roosts, where large groups gather together, increasing your chances of spotting one.

Did you know? Long-Eared Owls have asymmetrically set ear openings. This slight offset helps them to pinpoint the location of sounds in multiple dimensions, guiding them to unseen prey hidden in the darkness or under thick vegetation.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl
  • Scientific Name: Megascops asio
  • Size: 16-25 cm (6.3-9.8 in)
  • Weight: 121-244 g (4.3-8.6 oz)
  • Wingspan: 46-61 cm (18.1-24 in)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

Eastern Screech Owls are small, nocturnal woodland owls common in forests and wooded areas of North Dakota. Despite their name, they do not screech but have a soft, mournful trill and a descending whinny. These owls are well-camouflaged with their gray or reddish-brown plumage helping them blend in with tree bark.

These owls are opportunistic hunters and their diet can range from small rodents to birds, insects, and even earthworms. Despite their small size, they are fierce hunters and are known to take prey as large as themselves.

Did you know? Eastern Screech Owls are masters of disguise. When threatened, they stretch their bodies and tighten their feathers to resemble a tree branch or a broken tree limb.

Great Gray Owl

Great Grey Owl
  • Scientific Name: Strix nebulosa
  • Size: 61-84 cm (24-33 in)
  • Weight: 790-1450 g (27.9-51.2 oz)
  • Wingspan: 142 cm (55.9 in)
  • Time of the Year: Year-round

Great Gray Owls, the largest owls in North Dakota by length, are majestic birds known for their large, round heads, no ear tufts, and a yellow-eyed stare. These owls are mainly found in dense coniferous forests but can venture into open fields and meadows in search of prey.

While hunting, they rely on their keen hearing to locate small mammals under the snow or in dense vegetation. Despite their imposing size, Great Gray Owls are not as heavy as they appear because of their fluffy feathers.

Did you know? The Great Gray Owl’s large size is somewhat an illusion. Beneath the thick plumage, the actual body of the owl is smaller than it appears, and they are not much heavier than their smaller relatives, the Great Horned Owls.

Where & How to Observe Owls in North Dakota

North Dakota’s diverse landscapes ranging from forests, prairies, to wetlands provide ample habitats for a wide variety of owl species. Here are some places and habitats you may want to explore:

  • Turtle Mountain State Forest: This is a great location to spot Great Horned Owls and Eastern Screech Owls. The dense forests provide a perfect habitat for these species.
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park: This park is another great location to spot owls, including the Short-Eared Owl. Keep your eyes peeled at dawn and dusk, when these owls are most active.
  • J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge: This refuge in north-central North Dakota is ideal for spotting Northern Hawk Owls and Great Gray Owls, especially in winter.
  • Prairie Pothole Region: This region is scattered with wetlands which makes it an ideal habitat for the Barred Owl.
  • Open Fields and Farmlands: Snowy Owls prefer open spaces, such as fields and farmlands. These owls migrate south to North Dakota during the harsh Arctic winters.

Quick Tips For Owl Spotting

  • Time of Day: Owls are mainly nocturnal creatures, so your best chance of spotting them is during dusk or dawn. However, some species like the Snowy Owl can be active during the day.
  • Quiet is Key: Owls have keen hearing and are easily spooked by loud noises. Stay as quiet as possible while on your owl-spotting adventure.
  • Look for Signs: Look out for pellets (regurgitated bones and fur) or whitewash (owl droppings) at the base of trees. These are clear signs of owl activity.
  • Use a Guide: Consider hiring a local guide who knows the area and the habits of the local owl population. They will increase your chances of successfully spotting these magnificent creatures.
  • Respect Their Space: Always remember to watch owls from a distance to avoid causing them any stress. Using a good pair of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens can help.

Remember, patience is key when it comes to spotting owls. Happy bird watching in North Dakota!

Owls in Other States

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