Northern Hawk Owl

Owls of Minnesota (11 Species to Know)

Owls are extremely charismatic species beloved by both birders and non-birders alike. Nocturnal, mysterious, and secretive, these birds play important roles in our culture.

There are 11 species of owls that can be found in Minnesota on any given year with some being found quite frequently and others being rare visitors. Here are the owl species to be on the lookout for if you are in Minnesota.

Barn Owl (Rare)

Barn Owl – Photo by Many Wonderful Artists
Identification

Barn Owls have are a thin looking owl species with an orangey tan and gray back, head, and wings. They have a light underside and pale heart shaped face.

The call of the Barn Owl is a violent sounding scream. It’s possible that legends of creatures like banshees and screaming ghosts derived from people hearing the haunting calls of Barn Owls at night.

Range

Barn Owls reside in most of Mexico and the United States year round with the exception of some of the states in the Northern part of the country. Even in the Northern states where their range either does not extend or does not extend very far into, a few individuals of this species can still be found.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Barn Owls hunt almost exclusively at night. Due to this, they eat mostly other nocturnal animals, especially rodents. Voles, mice, shrews, and rats are all creatures that are common prey items for Barn Owls. In addition to small mammals, Barn Owls will also eat small to medium sized birds.

Where to Find This Bird

Barn Owls live in open areas with plenty of space to hunt. Some common places to find them are agricultural fields, grasslands, deserts, and even more urban environments such as cities. As their name suggests, they can be found roosting in barns as well as tree cavities and other structures.

Barn Owls are extremely rare in Minnesota and are not annual visitors but from time to time they get reported.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl
Identification

Barred Owls are bulky with round heads, white undersides with brown stripes, and brown backs. They also have white striping on their backs, and dark eyes typically looking uniform in color. Like many owl species, Barred Owls have a flat face known as a facial disk.

Barred Owls have a very distinctive call as they make a “who cooks for you” call. They are known to call even when it’s light out.

Range

Barred Owls are non-migratory and can be found year round in the Eastern United States, Southern Canada, and the Pacific Northwestern states of the US. Many of the Western states do not have resident Barred Owls in the wild.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Barred Owls eat many different types of small and medium sized creatures including mammals, other birds, amphibians, and reptiles. They have even been cited going into the water to catch fish and crustaceans. Barred Owls typically find a good vantage point and watch for potential prey items, they will then swoop down from above to catch their meal.

Where to Find This Bird
Badgerland Birding searches for a Barred Owl in an old growth forest

Look for Barred Owls in forests (conifer or deciduous) where there are plenty of tall trees to perch in and cavities to roost in. Older forests with taller trees are typically preferable. Swamps are also good places to find this species, especially in the Southeastern states.

Barred Owls are a species that will call during the daytime so listen for their classic “who cooks for you” call even when it’s light out.

Boreal Owl (Rare)

Boreal Owl – Photo by Lorri Howski
Identification

Boreal Owls are small and compact with a light underside with brown vertical striping, a brown back and wings with white spots, and a brown to black head with white speckling. They have a gray face with black outlining the top of the facial disk and black “teardrop” markings below the eyes. Unlike some other owl species that have solid black looking eyes, Boreal Owls have bright yellow eyes.

Range

Boreal Owls are non-migratory and are a species of the northern half of North America. They can be found as for north as Alaska and as far east as Canada’s Atlantic Coast. In the United Staes, Boreal Owls live in some of the mountains states of the Western US including Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, and Washington among others. They also turn up as rare visitors in some of the Midwestern and Northeastern states bordering Canada, but not on an annual basis.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Boreal Owls eat small rodents, birds, and insects with mammals being the primary staple of their diet. They will stake out places with mice, shrews, and voles around places like bird feeders and wait for the opportune time to attack. It is not uncommon for this species to return to the same hunting site regularly.

Where to Find This Bird

Boreal Owls can be found most frequently in Boreal Forests of conifers and birches. They can be incredibly difficult to find during the day as they roost in different places each day. However, they can sometimes be seen staking out bird feeders. Often times, the best way to locate this species is by listening for their calls during the late winter and early spring.

Minnesota is one of the best states in the Midwest to find Boreal Owls but they are still by no means easy to find. The Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota is one of the premier places to see this species in the state and in years when Boreal Owls move into the lower 48 states in greater numbers, Sax-Zim Bog usually gets at least one or two of these rare birds.

Eastern Screech Owl

Red morph Eastern Screech Owl
Identification

Eastern Screech Owls are small, round looking birds with pointed ear tufts. They come in two different colors or “morphs,” with one being gray and the other being orange. Gray morph birds are very well camouflaged as they look almost exactly like bark with a light gray base color and darker patterns on the back, head, and underside. The orange version of the Eastern Screech Owl is known as a “red morph” bird and have a deep reddish orange base color with darker grayish black patterning on their back, head, and chest. Red morph birds have white coloration on their underside going from the throat down toward their legs.

Range

The aptly named Eastern Screech Owl can be found year-round throughout the Eastern half of the United States and Northeastern Mexico. They also make it into some parts of Southeastern Canada as well. The range of this species expands as far west as Montana, Texas, and Eastern Colorado.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Eastern Screech Owls eat a wide variety of small prey items including mammals, insects, crustaceans, amphibians, and reptiles.

Where to Find This Bird

Eastern Screech Owls are not at all picky about where they live. They can be found in all different types of forests including deciduous and coniferous, residential areas such as city parks, areas near rivers and streams, and edge habitat. They live almost anywhere with adequate tree cover. Often times, Eastern Screech Owls use the same roosting sites repeatedly, meaning that they are easy to find if you know where they are roosting. Look for them peaking out of tree cavities or nest boxes sunning themselves, or watch these same places and wait for them to pop out just before dusk when they usually stick their faces out of their roosting site and wait for the right time to take flight for a night of hunting.

Great Gray Owl (Rare)

Great Gray Owl
Identification

The Great Gray Owl is among the tallest owl species in the world, but it is actually surprisingly lightweight. They have a light gray base color with darker gray mottling, making them look very similar to a lichen covered tree. They are darker on their back and wings than they are on their underside. Great Gray Owls have a very large facial disk outlined with darker gray and black and white markings just below their bill.

Range

Great Gray Owls are year-round residents of Alaska and most of Canada with the most Northeastern parts of the country being outside of their range. In the United States, Great Gray Owls can be found in some of the states in the Northwest such as Washington, California, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. In winter, they have a light migration, moving south into Utah and Wyoming as well as some of the Great Lakes states and Northeastern states. The movement of this species depends on the availability of food in their normal range.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Great Gray Owls hunt at night as well as during the day. Their preferred food source is small mammals such as lemmings, voles, and mice among others. Great Gray Owls will typically hunt by perching high off the ground and scanning the landscape for food. When they spot a prey item they will fly above it and then dive down (often into snow drifts) to catch the animal.

Where to Find This Bird

Great Gray Owls can be found in conifer forests typically in places where there are openings such as bogs. Look for them along forest edges with perches that they can use to survey the surrounding area.

In moat states in the Midwest, Great Gray Owls are extremely rare, but Minnesota gets them annually. To have the best chance of finding one, head the the Sax-sim Bog or cruise northern forest roads and keep an eye out for thee tall birds.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
Identification

Out of all of the Owl species in North America, the Great Horned Owl is probably the one that people encounter the most. They are quite large with very noticeable ear tufts and have varying shades of brown covering their back, head, and wings. the Underside of the Great Horned Owl is lighter with a brown wash and darker brown to black horizontal barring.

Great Horned Owls of the arctic population are much more pale and even sometimes look white in color with the same barring and patterns as their southern counterparts.

Range

The Great Horned Owl is extremely widespread across North America as their range encompasses most of Alaska and Canada, the entire continental United States, and the majority of Mexico. They also live in various parts of South America too. This species is non-migratory.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Great Horned Owls eat an extremely wide variety of different animals ranging from small rodents to significantly larger mammals such as skunks and porcupines. They will also eat fairly large bird species such as ducks and even other raptor species. One interesting and gruesome habit of Great Horned Owls is to decapitate their larger prey.

Where to Find This Bird

Great Horned Owls can be found in a variety of different habitats including coniferous forests, deciduous forests, swamps, and residential neighborhoods. The easiest way to find this species is to listen for them making their call: a low “hoo hoo.” During breeding season owls can often be heard calling to one another, a practice known as “dueting.”

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl
Identification

Long-eared Owls are medium sized owl species with very large ear tufts. They are brown on the back, wings, and head with orange, tan, and darker brown colors mixed in. Their underside is brown, white, and orange, giving them the appearance of the bark of a pine tree. Long-eared owls have orange facial disks outlined by dark brown.

Range

Long-eared Owls winter in Mexico and the Southern United States. In spring they move into the Northern United States and Southern Canada. There are many states in which Long-eared Owls are year-round residents such as Utah, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, and many more.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Long-eared owls eat a variety of small rodents. They have also been known to consume birds as well. This species hunts for food in open areas where they typically capture prey on the ground.

Where to Find This Bird

Long-eared Owls are secretive birds that roost in thick tangles of brush and vegetation. They often roost in groups so if you happen to find one of these well camouflaged owls, others are most likely around. Some of their favorite trees to nest in are willows, cottonwoods, and tamaracks. Long-eared Owls can also be found by listening for their deep “hoo” calls often repeated in quick succession.

In the birding community, there is a lot of debate over whether or not the location of Long-eared Owls should be listed anywhere. There have been well documented issues with birders and photographers (mostly photographers) getting too close to roosting Long-eared Owls and scaring them away. As a result, the locations of this sensitive species is not listed on eBird and reports of them are almost never shared.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl
Identification

The Northern Hawk Owl has a brown back, wings, and tail with white spots. They have a light colored chest and underside with brown horizontal barring and a dark brown to black head with white speckling. Northern Hawk Owls have a light gray colored face outlined in black. One interesting physical trait of this species is fake eye spots on the back of the head.

Range

Northern Hawk Owls inhabit most of Alaska and Canada (in particular the Southern half). Some individuals come south in the winter and end up in the US states bordering Canada.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Northern Hawk Owls primarily feed on small rodents but also eat small to medium sized birds as well. This species hunts during the day as well as during the night.

Where to Find This Bird

Northern Hawk Owls typically reside in mixed conifer forests and can be seen hunting during the day. They will typically sit up on a high perch, scanning for prey and can be quite active. Some of the best places to see this species is edge habitat near open spaces such as bogs and meadows.

In Minnesota, the Sax-Zim Bog is is one of the best places to see this species where they typically show up on a yearly basis.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl – Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region
Identification

Northern Saw-whet Owls are a very small species with a large, round head. They have a brown back and head with white spots, a white underside, and light brown vertical stripes. They have a white facial disk and piercing yellow eyes.

Range

Northern Saw-whet Owls live year round throughout different parts of North America including Southern Canada, the Northeastern, Northwestern, and Midwestern United States in addition to select areas of Mexico. During winter, they end up filling in the other parts of the United States that they don’t inhabit the rest of the year, moving as far south as Texas and Louisiana some years.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Northern Saw-whet Owls eat small prey items such as mice. They also eat other small mammals and small birds.

Where to Find This Bird

Northern Saw-whet Owls can be found in forests ranging from deciduous to coniferous. They are notoriously difficult to find as they don’t usually use the same roost. To try and locate one, search pine stands (this bird seems to prefer roosting in conifers) and look for white washed branches. Another way to find Saw-whet Owls is to listen for their call between late winter and spring which sounds like a drawn out “toot toot” repeated in succession.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl
Identification

Snowy Owls are iconic and recognizable birds. Adult males range from pure white to white with a few dark brown markings. Female and immature birds are white with much more dark barring. These birds always have a white face regardless of the age of the bird.

Range

Snowy Owls breed on the tundra of the high arctic. During fall and winter they descend into Southern Canada, Alaska, and much of the continental United States. Just how far these majestic birds will go is dependent on food sources in the north. While this can be somewhat complicated, it generally boils down to the more food availability during breeding season, the more owls are successfully raised in a given year. The more owls that are raised in the north, the more they spread out, thus leading to what’s known as an irruption in which many owls spread out farther south into the United States than usual. The typical southern range for these birds encompases the states bordering Canada.

Learn about the patterns of Snowy Owl migration and irruptions
Diet and Foraging Habits

Snowy Owls feed primarily on small rodents. In particular, they are fond of the lemmings that live in their breeding areas. This species will also eat birds as well with waterfowl being a usual menu item.

Snowy Owls hunt on open landscapes and often times sit for hours surveying their surroundings and watching for small rodents.

Where to Find This Bird
Badgerland Birding searches for Snowy Owls along the Lake Michigan coast

Snowy Owls vary in numbers depending on how good the prior year’s nesting season was. In their normal range they can be found in open areas such as farm fields, tundras, and grasslands. The best time to look for Snowy Owls is during an irruption year when many more birds are coming down from the north and flooding into the United States. During these times, Snowy Owls can actually be quite easy to find and end up in slightly more eclectic places such as lake shores and airports.

In Minnesota, there are some places that typically get Snowy Owls each year. Some of the best spots include the Lake Superior coastline (especially near Duluth) and the Sax-Zim Bog. Start looking for Snowy Owls in November and keep an eye out for a small, white, snowman shape out on a break wall, at the airport, or in a farm field.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl
Identification

Short-eared Owls are colored the same as the prairies and grasslands in which they reside. They have a light sandy colored back, wings, and tail with dark brown mottling. They have a cream colored underside with vertical stripes. This species has a white facial disk with both dark and sandy coloration just below their bright yellow eyes.

Short-eared Owls are highly maneuverable and acrobatic in flight, flying with rapid wingbeats that make them look moth-like. When flying, their flat faces are quite evident and help in separating them from other species such as Northern Harriers.

Range

Short-eared Owls are a species found across the globe in almost every continent. In North America, they winter in Northern Mexico and the Southern United States then move into the Northern Great Lakes states, Canada, and Alaska to breed in the summer.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Short-eared Owls eat small mammals such a slice, lemmings, shrews, and voles. They will also eat small to medium sized birds. Short-eared Owls are specialized hunters that acrobatically fly over open prairies keeping an eye out for ground dwelling mammals. They spend much more time in the air hunting compared to most other owl species.

Where to Find This Bird
Badgerland Birding scours a frozen marsh to find Short-eared owls

Short-eared Owls can be found in open prairies and grasslands flying low over the landscape. The timing can be important when looking for Short-eared owls as they are crepuscular, meaning they are out most at dawn and dusk. However, there are times when they have been documented flying during the day as well.

Summary

Owls are enigmatic and beautiful birds that are always a treat to see when out in the field. Knowing the species that are expected in your state can be instrumental in identifying which one you’re looking at and understanding their behaviors. Hopefully, this article has helped to answer some questions about the owls of Minnesota.

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