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Owls in Wisconsin: Species, Habits, and How to Spot Them in Your Yard (2024)

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owls in wisconsinImagine stepping out into your Wisconsin backyard at dusk and seeing a Great Horned Owl perched silently in a tree. This article catapults you into the mysterious realm of owls found right here in Wisconsin, detailing various species, their habits, and how to identify them in your yard.

You will learn about Northern Saw-whet, Eastern Screech, Barred, and Great Horned Owls, among others. With this guide, you will be better equipped to know how to attract these magnificent birds and what to look for in both behaviors and habitats.

Key Takeaways

  • Get ready to embark on an owl-spotting adventure in the heart of Wisconsin!
  • From the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl to the majestic Great Horned Owl, Wisconsin’s owl population is as diverse as it is captivating.
  • Create an owl-friendly haven in your own backyard by providing nesting boxes, limiting light pollution, and offering a pest-free environment.
  • Lend a helping hand to owl conservation efforts by advocating for habitat preservation and reducing pesticide use.

Northern Saw-whet Owls

Northern Saw-whet Owls
Northern Saw-whet Owls, the smallest owl species in Wisconsin, are fascinating to observe. They stand about 7 inches tall with a 17-inch wingspan. Their mottled brown bodies and striking white facial disks offer a charming contrast. With oversized yellow eyes, these owls hunt primarily at night, preying on deer mice, small rodents, and insects. Their distinctive call, a rhythmic too-too-too song, can guide you to their location.

Preferred habitats include dense forests, but they’re also spotted in more open areas during migration. Breeding cycles start in early spring, and they often use old woodpecker cavities for nests. Population trends fluctuate, but dedicated conservation efforts and monitoring through eBird data aid in their protection and understanding.

Eastern Screech Owls

Eastern Screech Owls
The Eastern Screech Owl is found throughout Wisconsin. It is about 8 inches tall with a 20-inch wingspan. The owl has gray or reddish-brown bark-like plumage, feather tufts on its head, and V-shaped pale eyebrows, making it very well camouflaged. An Eastern Screech Owl may inhabit any mixed woodland. You might hear their descending whinny call followed by trills. While hunting, they swoop silently, catching insects, worms, and small mammals. These owls are strongly territorial and often monogamous, pairing for life. With habitat destruction, human interference, and other perils, ensuring their survival is a prime concern. If one is patient enough and pays proper attention while going around wooded areas, identifying these owls could be very fulfilling.

Barred Owls

Barred Owls
Moving on from the Eastern Screech Owl, let’s talk about the Barred Owl. This is a medium-sized owl with an "who cooks for you?" 18-inch-tall call, with a 3-4-foot wingspan. Heavily barred gray and white, it dons plumage that gives it a characteristic of wetland and river owl habitat. They’re a bit flexible, majorly nocturnal, Ngh fish, amphibians, and invertebrates hunters.

Think of these Barred Owl tidbits:

  • Diet: Omnivorous, forages primarily at night.
  • Mating: Monogamous, sometimes for life.
  • Conservation: Threatened by habitat destruction and disturbances.
  • Nesting: Picks tree cavities but also occupies abandoned nests.

Understanding their habits enriches one’s owl watching, creating a bond with these mesmerizing night hunters.

Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls
As you make your way through the forest, be sure to watch for the grand Great Horned Owl. Its mottled brown feathers help this all-purpose bird blend well into the trees. Of course, its most striking characteristic is its "horns," better known as plumicorns—no one knows what they’re for, but they add to its charm.

For their breed, owls of that type are good at adapting—especially when it comes to nesting. They’ll often take up residence in the abandoned nest of some other large bird. They do, however, suffer threats from human interference, habitat loss, and poisoning. These owls are otherwise quite common, occurring in most of Wisconsin’s habitats.

Haunting hoots resound across the night—perhaps the greatest reminder of wonders that await discovery out in the natural world. Keep your eyes peeled and you may just spot this impressive raptor soaring overhead.

Owls You Can See in Wisconsin

Owls You Can See in Wisconsin
In Wisconsin, you can spot various owls including the elusive Barn Owl and the distinctively adapted Burrowing Owl. These species add to the diversity of the state’s owl population, each with unique characteristics that make them fascinating subjects for observation.

Barn Owl

The American Barn Owl, with its distinctive pale facial disk and asymmetrical ears, is a nocturnal hunter that thrives on precision hearing. Found nesting in barns and abandoned buildings, this medium to large owl preys on small mammals. Its eerie, rasping screeches pierce the night. While nocturnal, keep an ear out as it hunts silently under cover of darkness.

Burrowing Owl

While the Barn Owl is a rare sight in Wisconsin, the Burrowing Owl is even more elusive. This small, ground-dwelling owl prefers open habitats like prairies and grasslands, where it nests in abandoned burrows. Though its range doesn’t quite reach Wisconsin, conservation efforts aim to protect this unique owl species across the Midwest.

Owl Conservation in Wisconsin

Owl Conservation in Wisconsin
The preservation of owls is an important part of the conservation process for these interesting birds in Wisconsin. Stresses on owl populations will include habitat loss, pesticides, and human disturbance.

Habitat preservation for the population of the species can’t be handled without your help in the form of advocating for forest and meadow preservation. Nest box installation gives the owls secure places to breed. Monitoring of the population can identify potential issues at a very early stage. Reduction of lighting supports their nocturnal lifestyle.

Characteristics and Behavior of Common Wisconsin Owls

Characteristics and Behavior of Common Wisconsin Owls
In Wisconsin, owls vary in size, plumage, and diet, adapting to different habitats with ease. Listen for distinctive calls like the Barred Owl’s "who cooks for you" to identify these fascinating birds in your yard.

Size, Plumage, and Diet

The physical description of owls in Wisconsin is definitely interesting. Their size ranges from that of the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl to the large Great Horned Owl. Feathers range just as much, with mottled browns, grays, and whites that provide excellent camouflage. Such skilled predators prey upon everything from small rodents and insects to small birds.

Habitat Preferences

Wisconsin owls thrive in varied habitats, from dense forests to open fields. Barred Owls prefer damp woodlands near rivers, while Eastern Screech Owls like mixed woodlands. Great Horned Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owls adapt easily to suburban areas. Unique owl adaptations help them nest and hunt efficiently, ensuring healthy owl populations and diverse ecosystems.

Distinctive Calls

Recognizing owl calls helps you identify these nocturnal birds. The Barred Owl’s “who cooks for you?” hoot is deep and resonant, perfect for the calm of wetland areas. The Eastern Screech Owl’s descending whinny followed by trills stands out in mixed woodlands. Northern Saw-whet Owls emit a repetitive “too-too-too” song, small but persistent in its charm.

Owl Nesting Habits

Owl Nesting Habits
Owls in Wisconsin build their nests in a variety of locations, from tree cavities and abandoned hawk or crow nests to ground burrows. Understanding the specific nesting habits of different owl species can help you spot them more easily in your local area.

Nesting Locations

When it comes to nesting, owls in Wisconsin have rather unique preferences. They mostly occupy already existing structures rather than building their own. You might find them in:

  1. Abandoned nests: Especially of big birds.
  2. Tree hollows: The ones ideal for cavity-nesting species.
  3. Man-made structures: Barns, sheds.
  4. Natural clefts: Cliff edges, rocky outcrops.

Nesting Behavior

Unique to owls is laying eggs in hollow tree trunks, generally followed by 30 days of incubation.

When they hatch, the fledglings immediately start the nestling period, characterized by very intensive parental care.

Both parents hunt and bring food to the young until they can fly, thereby ensuring the survival and growth of the fledglings to maturity. This phase of care is quite important.

Owl Identification in Wisconsin

Owl Identification in Wisconsin
Identifying owls in Wisconsin requires close attention to their distinctive physical features, such as size, plumage, and facial characteristics. Additionally, recognizing their unique calls and observing their characteristic behaviors can help you spot these elusive nocturnal birds in your local area.

Physical Features

When identifying owls in Wisconsin, focus on these physical features:

  1. Feather Variation: Look for mottled brown (Great Horned Owl) or creamy white (Barn Owl).
  2. Eye Color: Yellow eyes (Northern Saw-whet) versus dark eyes (Barred Owl).
  3. Size Differences: From tiny Northern Saw-whet to large Great Horned.
  4. Unique Features: Ear tufts in Eastern Screech and Long-eared Owls.

Understanding these traits can help you spot these fascinating birds.

Call Recognition

Recognizing owl calls in Wisconsin helps you identify species like the Barred Owl with its "who cooks for you?" hoot. Eastern Screech Owls use a descending whinny, while Northern Saw-whet Owls emit a repetitive too-too-too.

Owls use mimicry and vocal learning for communication, enhanced by their ultrasonic hearing. Listening for these calls can reveal their feather coloration and help with pellet analysis.

Behavior Cues

Note any unique behaviors of the owl, for these can be very telling in giving identification clues. Observe nocturnal hunting patterns, camouflage behaviors to remain hidden during the day, distinctive calls that differ by species, and even courtship rituals or parental behaviors that give away the identity of the owl. Ensure protection for owl habitats for their conservation.

Interactions With Owls in Your Yard

Interactions With Owls in Your Yard
To attract owls to your yard, provide a variety of natural habitats like trees, shrubs, and open spaces that cater to their hunting and nesting needs. Make sure the environment is safe by avoiding pesticides, reducing light pollution, and installing predator-proof nest boxes.

Attracting Owls

Attracting owls to your yard requires creating an inviting environment. Install owl boxes to provide nesting spaces. Provide owl feeders with natural prey like mice, which you can attract using bird seed. Preserve natural owl habitats by leaving some areas of your yard untamed. Discovering owl pellets and those mesmerizing owl eyes at night makes the effort worthwhile.

  • Owl boxes
  • Owl feeders
  • Owl habitats

Ensuring a Safe Environment

Make your yard safe for owls by leaving nest sites undisturbed, not creating light pollution that might easily disorient them, and preserving natural habitats and their food sources by using native vegetation. Follow responsible birdwatching behavior: give them space and avoid flash photography. The simplest of such efforts can ensure the continuance of owls within your local system.

Threat Impacts Mitigation
Habitat Destruction Loss of nesting sites and hunting grounds Preservation of natural areas, planting of native plants
Light Pollution Disorientation; disruption of natural behaviors Use motion-sensor lighting and limit outdoor lighting

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What owls are most common in Wisconsin?

The barred owl, great horned owl, and eastern screech-owl are the most common owl species found throughout Wisconsin. These birds of adaptability do well in rather varied habitats, from forests to urban areas, and are important to the balance of the ecosystem.

Is it good to have an owl in your yard?

Having an owl in your yard can reduce rodent populations by up to 70%. Owls benefit your local ecosystem by controlling pests, offering natural pest control, and adding biodiversity to your environment.

Why are owls hanging around my house?

Owls might be around your house due to abundant food sources like rodents, suitable nesting sites, or favorable habitat conditions. They’re also attracted to quiet areas with minimal human disturbance, ensuring a safe environment.

Do owls come out during the day?

While owls are primarily nocturnal, some species like the Barred Owl and Short-eared Owl may occasionally hunt or be active during the day. However, daytime owl sightings are generally less common than nighttime encounters.

What are the rarest owls in Wisconsin?

You’ll also find Northern Saw-whet Owls and Long-eared Owls in Wisconsin, but they’re pretty scarce. The Northern Saw-whet Owls are outlandishly small, only growing to 7 inches; the Long-ears are partial to remote forest areas.

How do owls impact local ecosystems?

Owls control pest populations by preying on rodents and insects. This predation maintains ecological balance, reduces crop damage, and limits the spread of disease, ultimately supporting biodiversity and healthy environments.

Which owls migrate out of Wisconsin?

Most owls in Wisconsin are non-migratory, but the Long-eared Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl may migrate south for the winter to find better hunting grounds and avoid harsh Wisconsin winters.

Are there urban owls in Milwaukee?

In Milwaukee, you might spot the Great Horned Owl, which thrives in urban areas. They’re adaptable and use city parks and wooded neighborhoods, benefiting from abundant rodent populations and tall trees for nesting and hunting.

What threats do owls face in Wisconsin?

Some of those threats include habitat loss from development, pesticide and rodenticide poisoning, human disturbance, and vehicle strikes. Minimizing the various serious threats that exist to their habitats will be critical for the survival of owls within Wisconsin.


Wisconsin, without a doubt, is the land of a wide variety of owls with their fantastic features.

Knowing the different characteristics and behaviors of these wonderful birds could make you very likely to attract them to your backyard.

Maybe it’s the haunting hoot of the Barred Owl or the striking presence of the Great Horned Owl; in whatever form it takes, knowing the Wisconsin owls will definitely be an unforgettable feeling when connected to nature.

Avatar for Mutasim Sweileh

Mutasim Sweileh

Mutasim Sweileh is a passionate bird enthusiast and author with a deep love for avian creatures. With years of experience studying and observing birds in their natural habitats, Mutasim has developed a profound understanding of their behavior, habitats, and conservation. Through his writings, Mutasim aims to inspire others to appreciate and protect the beautiful world of birds.