Wisconsin's 5 Resident Owls
Owls in Wisconsin have little need to venture far from home, because the state’s climate and prey are
perfect for its 5 most common owl species! The 5 main species of owls that inhabit Wisconsin
include the Barn Owls, Barred Owls, Eastern-screech
Owls, Great Horned Owls and the Long-eared Owls.
Wisconsin also gets some migrating visitors and less common owls, which are typically more
rare species that move south from Canada.
Like all predators, owls play an important role in nature by removing from prey populations individuals
that can be considered surplus. Most wildlife populations produce more offspring than their habitats
can support. These surplus individuals eventually die of starvation, disease, or predation.
For example, one owl can eat a large number of rodents and small mammals, with few animals preying
on the owl in return. Because of this owls can be a great benefit to places where rodent populations are
high. Dense urban areas often suffer from an abundance of rats and mice spreading disease, and rural
agricultural communities have their crops consumed and soil eroded from burrowing voles and field
mice. Without owls, and other top predators, rodent populations could explode and exacerbate the effects
Owls can be a great benefit to places where rodent populations are high. Dense urban areas often suffer
from an abundance of rats and mice spreading disease and burrowing into the soil.
Close-up images of an owl's wing. On the left, you can see the leading-edge comb.
On the right, the trailing-edge fringe.
Owls have special tools that give them an edge over their prey. They have incredibly sensitive vision
and hearing, silenced feathers, piercing talons, and super sharp beaks. Additionally, their heads can
rotate up to 270 degrees. This allows them to place their eyes and ears in specific positions to better
locate other animals.
Some owls have tufts of feathers that stand atop their head were one might expect
ears to be, but they are not ears at all. Unlike external protruding human ears, the hearing structures
of a bird are internal.
The earholes of owls that primarily hunt in the dark are asymmetrical, meaning
they are offset from one another, one being higher or lower than the other. This ear positioning, and
the satellite shaped feather configuration of an owl’s face, allows them to triangulate the sounds of prey
in darkness or cover.
Owls glide so quietly through thick wooded swamps, without the slightest whisper of wind, or ruffle of
leaf. A suite of unique wing and feather features that enable them to reduce locomotion-induced sound,
They have large wings relative to their body mass, which let them fly unusually slowly — as slowly as
2 mph for a large species like the Barn Owl — by gliding noiselessly with little flapping.
The structure of their feathers serves as a silencer. Comb-like serrations on the leading edge of wing
feathers break up the turbulent air that typically creates a swooshing sound.
Smaller streams of air are further dampened by a velvety texture unique to owl feathers and by a soft
fringe on a wing's trailing edge.
Barn Owls live in open habitats that include grasslands, marshes, agricultural fields, strips of forest,
woodlots, ranchlands, brushy fields, and suburbs and cities. They nest in tree cavities, caves, and
Barn Owls eat mostly small mammals, particularly rats, mice, voles, lemmings, and other rodents;
also shrews, bats, and rabbits. Most of the prey that they eat are active at night, so squirrels and
chipmunks are relatively safe from Barn Owls. They occasionally eat birds such as starlings,
blackbirds, and meadowlarks. Nesting Barn Owls sometimes store dozens of prey items at the nest
site while they are incubating to feed the young once they hatch.
Barn Owls put their nests in holes in trees, cliff ledges and crevices, caves, burrows in river banks,
and in many kinds of human structures, including barn lofts, church steeples, houses, nest boxes,
haystacks, and even drive-in movie screens.
Barn Owls fly slowly over open fields at night or dusk with slow wingbeats and a looping, buoyant
flight. They use their impressive hearing, aided by their satellite-dish-shaped faces, to locate mice
and other rodents in the grass, often in complete darkness. Barn Owls are usually monogamous
and mate for life, although there are some reports of males with more than one mate. Males attract
their mates with several kinds of display flights, including a “moth flight” where he hovers in front
of a female for several seconds, his feet dangling. He also displays potential nest sites by calling
and flying in and out of the nest. After the pair forms, the male brings prey to the female (often more
than she can consume), beginning about a month before she starts laying eggs. Barn Owls defend
the area around their nests, but don’t defend their hunting sites; more than one pair may hunt on
the same fields
Barred Owls live year-round in mixed forests of large trees, often near water. They tend to occur
in large, unfragmented blocks of mature forest, possibly because old woodlands support a higher
diversity of prey and are more likely to have large cavities suitable for nesting. Their preferred
habitats range from swamps to stream sides to uplands, and may contain hemlock, maple, oak,
hickory, beech, aspen, white spruce, quaking aspen, balsam poplar, Douglas-fir, lodge pole pine,
or western larch.
Barred Owls eat many kinds of small animals, including squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles, rabbits,
birds (up to the size of grouse), amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. They hunt by sitting and
waiting on an elevated perch, while scanning all around for prey with their sharp eyes and ears.
They may perch over water and drop down to catch fish, or even wade in shallow water in pursuit
of fish and crayfish. Though they do most of their hunting right after sunset and during the night,
sometimes they feed during the day. Barred Owls may temporarily store their prey in a nest, in the
crook of a branch, or at the top of a snag. They swallow small prey whole and large prey in pieces,
eating the head first and then the body.
Barred Owls usually nest in a natural cavity, 20–40 feet high in a large tree. They may also use
stick platform nests built by other animals (including hawks, crows, ravens, and squirrels), as
well as human-made nest boxes. Barred Owls may prospect a nest site as early as a year before
using it. No one knows whether the male or the female chooses the site.
Barred Owls roost on branches and in tree cavities during the day and hunt by night. Territorial
all year round, they chase away intruders while hooting loudly. They are even more aggressive
during nesting season (particularly the females), sometimes striking intruders with their feet.
Pairs probably mate for life, raising one brood each year. Their nests are preyed upon by other
large owls and hawks, as well as by weasels and raccoons. When humans interfere with a nest,
the parent may flee, perform a noisy distraction display with quivering wings, or even attack. Other
birds recognize Barred Owls as predators; small songbirds, crows, and woodpeckers may band
together to mob them. Their most dangerous predator is the Great Horned Owl, which eats eggs,
young birds, and occasionally adults.
Almost any habitat with sufficient tree cover will do for this cosmopolitan owl. Tree cavities or nest
boxes are essential, and fairly open understories are preferred, but Eastern Screech-Owls live and
breed successfully in farmland, suburban landscapes, and city parks. Screech-owls cannot survive
if all trees are removed, but the species readily recolonizes once trees are replanted, especially if
nest boxes are also provided.
Eastern Screech-Owls eat most kinds of small animals, including birds and mammals as well as
surprisingly large numbers of earthworms, insects, crayfish, tadpoles, frogs, and lizards. They
eat many kinds of mammals, including rats, mice, squirrels, moles, and rabbits. Small birds taken
as prey include flycatchers, swallows, thrushes, waxwings, and finches, as well as larger species
such as jays, grouse, doves, shorebirds, and woodpeckers. This owl is agile enough to occasionally
prey on bats, and can rarely even be cannibalistic. When prey is plentiful, Eastern Screech-Owls
cache extra food in tree holes for as long as four days.
Eastern Screech-Owls nest in holes and cavities, but never dig a cavity themselves. Thus, they
depend on tree holes opened or enlarged by woodpeckers, fungus, rot, or squirrels. They often
occupy abandoned woodpecker nest holes. Eastern Screech-Owls readily accept nest boxes,
including those built for Wood Ducks or Purple Martins, and sometimes nest in wood piles,
mailboxes, or crates left on the ground.
Eastern Screech-Owls are chiefly active at night, though they often hunt at dawn or dusk, and
occasionally in daylight. These versatile hunters sit and wait in the trees for prey to pass below.
They tend to pounce from perches six to ten feet off the ground, occasionally snatching an insect
or bat on the wing or hitting shallow water talons-first to snag fish or tadpoles. Most flights are
short (less than 75 feet or so). When traveling between perches, these owls often drop, fly straight,
and then rise again, in a characteristic U-shaped pattern. Eastern Screech-Owls form stable matches,
usually one male with one female but occasionally one male with two females. Males defend small
territories containing several cavity roost spots. When nesting, the female stays in the nest hole
except for brief dawn and dusk excursions. She and the nestlings are fed by her mate, though it is
the female who tears the prey into small bits for the babies. At fledging, the young first hop to the
ground or nearby branches using feet and fluttering wings to climb laboriously back to safety.
Young gain flight and hunting skills slowly; they depend on their parents for food for 8–10 weeks
after fledging. Both parents feed the youngsters at this stage, and adults, especially the females,
shelter together with the young in communal tree roosts. Gradually, as the young gain skill, they
begin to roost and hunt apart from their parents and siblings.
Great Horned Owls usually gravitate toward secondary-growth woodlands, swamps, orchards,
and agricultural areas, but they are found in a wide variety of deciduous, coniferous or mixed
forests. Their home range usually includes some open habitat — such as fields, wetlands,
pastures, or croplands — as well as forest. In deserts, they may use cliffs or juniper for
nesting. Great Horned Owls are also fairly common in wooded parks, suburban area, and even
Great Horned Owls' prey range in size from tiny rodents and scorpions to hares, skunks, geese,
and raptors. They eat mostly mammals and birds — especially rabbits, hares, mice, and
American Coots, but also many other species including voles, moles, shrews, rats, gophers,
chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, marmots, prairie dogs, bats, skunks, house cats, porcupines,
ducks, loons, mergansers, grebes, rails, owls, hawks, crows, ravens, doves, and starlings. They
supplement their diet with reptiles, insects, fish, invertebrates, and sometimes carrion. Although
they are usually nocturnal hunters, Great Horned Owls sometimes hunt in broad daylight. After
spotting their prey from a perch, they pursue it on the wing over woodland edges, meadows,
wetlands, open water, or other habitats. They may walk along the ground to stalk small prey
around bushes or other obstacles.
Great Horned Owls typically nest in trees such as cottonwood, juniper, beech, pine, and others.
They usually adopt a nest that was built by another species, but they also use cavities in live
trees, dead snags, deserted buildings, cliff ledges, and human-made platforms. They
occasionally nest on the ground. Pairs may roost together near the future nest site for several
months before laying eggs.
Great Horned Owls roost in trees, snags, thick brush, cavities, ledges, and human-made structures.
They are active mostly during the night — especially at dusk and before dawn. When food
supplies are low they may begin hunting in the evening and continue into the early morning. In winter
they may hunt during daylight hours. Mated pairs are monogamous and defend their territories
with vigorous hooting, especially in the winter before egg-laying and in the fall when their young
leave the area. Great Horned Owls respond to intruders and other threats with bill-clapping, hisses,
screams, and guttural noises, eventually spreading their wings and striking with their feet if the
threat escalates. They may kill other members of their own species. Crows, ravens, songbirds,
and raptors often harass Great Horned Owls with loud, incessant calls and by dive-bombing,
chasing, and even pecking them. Unattended eggs and nestlings may fall prey to foxes, coyotes,
raccoons, lynx, raptors, crows, and ravens. Both members of a pair may stay within the territory
outside of the breeding season, but they roost separately.
Long-eared Owls roost in dense vegetation and forage in open grasslands or shrub lands; also
open coniferous or deciduous woodlands. In Wisconsin Long-eared owl nests are found in coniferous
or deciduous forests near open meadows.
Long-eared Owls eat mostly small mammals, including voles, many kinds of mice, shrews, pocket
gophers, and young rats or rabbits. They hunt over open ground or below the canopy in sparsely
forested areas. Prey items usually weigh up to about 3.5 ounces, often less than 2 ounces. They
also sometimes eat small birds, capturing them on the ground or (in the case of roosting birds)
from low vegetation. Rarely, Long-eared Owls eat moles, bats, weasels, chipmunks, ground and
tree squirrels, snakes, and lizards.
Long-eared Owls typically use stick nests abandoned by other bird species. Less often, they raise
their young in cavities in trees or cliffs, in abandoned squirrel nests, or on the ground. Long-eared
Owls in Oregon nest have made nests of dwarf mistletoe “brooms”—dense branch profusions
that form in response to the mistletoe infection.
Long-eared Owls hunt on the wing, coursing back and forth low above open ground. They may
also hover over prey, or hunt from perches in strong winds. They kill small mammals with a bite
to the back of the skull, and often swallow their prey whole. Nesting Long-eared Owls sometimes
form loose colonies, occupying nests as close as 50 feet apart. They may also share nesting areas
with American Crows. Outside of breeding season, the owls roost in groups of up to 100 birds.
Older nestlings are called branchers because they leave the nest to take up residence in
surrounding trees. They move around by jumping, hopping, and pulling themselves up with
wings and bill. Long-eared owls usually form monogamous pairs. Bonding probably begins in
winter, before communal roosts disband. Courting males make a complex series of calls and
perform an aerial, zig-zagging display over suitable nesting habitat, with glides and wingbeats
interspersed with wing-claps.
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