Everything You Need to Know About Owls in Illinois

Snowy owl

The largest Owls in Illinois are the Great Horned Owls and the smallest owls in Illinois are the Northern Saw-whet Owls.

Owls are birds of prey and hunt and eat small mammals as well as snakes, frogs, and insects.  Owls eat their prey whole, often after removing the head, and then regurgitate the bones and fur.

To find owls in Illinois head to woodland at dawn or dusk for the best chance of seeing them. Try looking at high perches on the edge of the forest overlooking open grassland or pastures.

There are 9 species of Owl of Illinois according to the World Bird Database and Illinois Ornithological Society.

Eight of these species of owl in Illinois are regular species and one is a casual species, meaning it does not regularly visit. There are a further two species of owl considered accidental visitors which are Boreal Owls and Northern Hawk Owls, but I have not included these as the number of sightings is so low.

Baby Owls are so cute you should also check out more about them.

So read on to find out more about the Owls of Illinois.

There are 9 species of Owl in Illinois:

  1. Barn Owl
  2. Eastern-screech Owl
  3.  Great Horned Owl
  4.  Snowy Owl
  5.  Barred Owl
  6.  Long-eared Owl
  7.  Short-eared Owl
  8. Northern Saw-whet Owl
  9. Burrowing Owl

The 8 Species of Owl in Illinois

1. Barn Owl

The Barn Owl can be seen all year in Illinois but it is not very common.  This white-faced silent nocturnal bird is about the size of a crow.

  • Length: 12.6-15.8 in (32-40 cm)
  • Weight: 14.1-24.7 oz (400-700 g)
  • Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 in (100-125 cm)

Barn Owls have white faces, chest, and belly, and underwings and are buff colored on the back. They have long rounded wings and short tails, with round faces.  Females have spots on their chests which reduce parasites and the more spots the female has the more the male helps build the nest!

They hunt for small rodents at night over open ground such as fields and meadows and are so named as they often roost in quiet barns during the day. Barn owls swallow their prey whole and cough up pellets twice a day. 

The Barn Owl predominantly finds prey by sound as they have the best hearing of any animal tested.  This helps them to catch prey in complete darkness or those hidden under vegetation or show.

They nest in tree cavities, caves, and often in barns or other abandoned or quiet buildings.  The nest is made of regurgitated pellets, arranged into a cup with their feet.  They lay 2-18 white eggs over 1- 3 broods.

There are about 46 species of Barn Owl worldwide and they are found on six continents. They don’t hoot like other owls and instead make a raspy screech call.

2. Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern screech owl

The Eastern Screech-Owl can be seen all year in Illinois and is commonly found east of the Rockies.

  • Length: 6.3-9.8 in (16-25 cm)
  • Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz (121-244 g)
  • Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 in (48-61 cm)

This short stocky bird comes in gray and red colorings.  They have a large head and almost no neck and are about the size of a robin but much bulkier.  Their patterned and spotted camouflage makes them hard to spot against tree bark.

The Eastern Screech-Owl can be found in woods and parks and you may found one sunning itself in a tree cavity on cold sunny days or by the excited mobbing of songbirds when they find them. A pile of pellets is also a giveaway.

They make a shrill, descending whinny call and a vibrating trill.

Hunting mostly at night but also at dawn and dusk, Eastern Screech-Owls eat most small animals, including birds, mammals, insects, or reptiles, and amphibians.  They often sit and wait for prey to pass and pounce from perches.

Abandoned woodpecker nests are often used by the Eastern Screech-Owl or other holes or cavities as they never dig one themselves. They don’t add any nesting material, instead they lay their eggs on whatever debris is on the bottom of the cavity. They lay 2-6 white eggs.

3. Great Horned Owl

Great horned owl

The Great Horned Owl can be found all year in Illinois and across all of North America.  They are large owls with thick bodies and large ear-like tufts on their heads.

  • Length: 18.1-24.8 in (46-63 cm)
  • Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz (910-2500 g)
  • Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 in (101-145 cm)

Great Horned Owls are gray-brown with a mottled pattern and a white patch at the throat. They have broad rounded wings and a deep hooting call.  It is one of the most common owls in North America and lives in most habitats from forests to deserts, cities, or grasslands.

Birds and mammals, even bigger than themselves, are prey for these powerful hunters. They will also hunt other raptors such as Ospreys, Peregrine falcons, or other owls. Their varied diet includes small rodents such as mice or, skunks, geese and hares or insects, fish, and carrion.  They are not fussy and will eat almost anything!

Great Horned Owls nest in trees and often use an old nest from another species.  They line the nest with bark, leaves, downy feathers or pellets, but sometimes leave it unlined. They lay 1-4 white eggs.

4. Snowy Owl

Snowy owl

Snowy Owls can be found in Illinois in winter but rarely as this is the southern edge of their winter range. They are distinctive white birds with small amounts of black or brown markings, yellow eyes and are about the size of a crow.

  • Length: 20.5-27.9 in (52-71 cm)
  • Weight: 56.4-104.1 oz (1600-2950 g)
  • Wingspan: 49.6-57.1 in (126-145 cm)

They can be hard to spot against a snowy background but they do like to sit on high points, which can make them easier to spot. They are usually silent but may make a hoarse croak or shrill whistle at breeding time.

Snowy Owls are diurnal, unlike other owls, and spend the 24-hour summer daylight hunting in the arctic. They hunt small mammals, especially lemmings, and can eat 1600 in a year.  They also catch birds in flight, such as ptarmigan or waterfowl.  In winter they will eat rodents, rabbits, squirrels, and birds such as ducks and geese.

The Snowy Owl nest is just a scraped shallow hollow in the ground on the tundra.  They pick a windswept rise that will be blown free of snow and reuse the nest for many years.  They lay 3-11 white eggs.

5. Barred Owl

Barred owl

The Barred Owl can be found all year in Illinois. These large stocky birds are between the size of a crow and a goose.

  • Length: 16.9-19.7 in (43-50 cm)
  • Weight: 16.6-37.0 oz (470-1050 g)
  • Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 in (99-110 cm)

Barred Owls are brown and white with a mottled pattern of vertical stripes on their belly and horizontal stripes on their backs and upper chest.  They have black eyes, the classic round head, no ear tufts, and a rounded tail.

A loud barking hoo hoo call is made by the Barred Owl.

They hunt for small animals, including squirrels, rabbits, birds, and voles, by sitting and watching from an elevated perch.  They live in large mature forests, often near water, and nest in tree cavities, laying 1-5 white eggs.

6. Long-eared Owl

long eared owl

The Long-eared Owl can be found in Illinois in the winter after breeding and migrating from more northern states and Canada.  They are slender medium-sized owls, about the size of a crow and with a surprised expression.

  • Length: 13.8-15.8 in (35-40 cm)
  • Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz (220-435 g)
  • Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 in (90-100 cm)

Long-eared Owls have patterned black and brown feathers with buff faces and large black or buff ear tufts and yellow eyes.  They are nocturnal and roost in dense forests, where they are camouflaged, but close to grassland to hunt. 

Small mammals such as voles, mice, young rats, and rabbits are the prey of Long-eared Owls. They hunt over open grassland or pastures by flying just a few feet off the ground looking or listening for movement. They use stick nests abandoned by other species, laying 2-10 white eggs. 

Long-eared Owls are rarely heard except during breeding time.  They make soft low hoots and whistles, whines, shrieks, and cat-like meows.

7. Short-eared Owl

short eared owl

The Short-eared Owl can be found in winter in Illinois after migrating from more northern states and Canada after breeding.  They are medium-sized, about the same as a crow, and with very small ear tufts.

  • Length: 13.4-16.9 in (34-43 cm)
  • Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz (206-475 g)
  • Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 in (85-103 cm)

Short-eared Owls have black, brown, and white mottled coloring with a pale face and black-rimmed yellow eyes.  They have broad wings with a rounded end and a short tail.

Unlike most owls, the Short-eared Owl hunts during the day, mostly at dawn and dusk.  They fly low over the ground looking and listening for movement from their prey of small mammals such as voles and mice.  

Short-eared Owls are also unusual in that they build their own nest by scraping the ground into a bowl and lining it with grass and soft feathers.  They lay 1-11 cream or white eggs.

These owls are not very vocal but during courtship, the males will make about a dozen hoots and they may bark, whine or scream when defending the nest.

8. Northern saw-whet Owl

northern saw-whet owl

The Northern Saw-whet Owl is in Illinois all year. This tiny owl is only about the size of a robin.

  • Length: 7.1-8.3 in (18-21 cm)
  • Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz (65-151 g)
  • Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 in (42-48 cm)

Northern-Saw-whet Owls have small bodies with large round heads.  They are mottled brown with a white face, spotted head, and yellow eyes.

They are nocturnal and live in dense forests hunting small mammals, especially mice. They nest in tree cavities that have been left from other species, such as Pileated Woodpeckers.  They do not add any other nesting material and instead lay their eggs directly on the debris. They lay 4-7 white eggs.

9. Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owls are casual visitors to Illinois but they have been spotted near Chicago in the past.

Burrowing Owls are unusual in that they hunt on the ground during the day, run around on their long legs and live underground in burrows.

Burrowing Owls seem to have flatter heads and lack the face disc and ear tufts of some owls, giving them an unusual expression.

Adults are mottled brown and white and with yellow bills and eyes. Their undersides are paler than the back. Juveniles are less mottled.

  • Length: 7.5-9.8 in (19-25 cm)
  • Weight: 5.3 oz (150 g)
  • Wingspan: 21.6 in (55 cm)

Breeding in western US states and into southern Canada before migrating south to Mexico and Central America. Those in the southwest, Florida and northern Mexico remain all year.

They can be found in open areas with low vegetation and grassland, usually where prairie dogs or other burrowing animals live as they use old burrows to live.

Burrowing Owls are quite small and well camouflaged so they are much harder to spot than you would expect in the open.

Lizards, birds, mammals and insects make up the Burrowing Owls’ diet. Females tend to hunt more insects during the day and males will hunt more lizards, mice and voles at night.

They cleverly bring animal manure to their burrows to attract beetles and insects which they then prey on.

They will store any extra kills in their burrows and this can be quite a large amount (and rather smelly I suspect!).

They nest in old burrows and will often sleep on a dirt mound at the entrance.

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