owls in Illinois

Owls in Illinois: Top 8 Species of Owls with Pictures for You to Identify

Bold, beautiful, and buff; these are three words to describe the owls in Illinois despite their various physical features, habitats, and everyday habits. If you live in this lovely state, you might be lucky enough to see those powerful creatures as they hunt, fly, or watch their surroundings from a high perch.

This article will give you some insight into the secret lives of the eight types of owls in Illinois until it’s second nature to recognize one. Has your interest been piqued yet?

Let’s meet our mighty beasts!

1.  Short-eared Owl

short eared owl in illinois
  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Length: 13.4-16.9 in
  • Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz
  • Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 in

The Short-eared Owl is a piece of cake to identify thanks to its brown-and-white feather patterns, sharp yellow eyes, and, yes, adorably short ears! Better yet, it’s widely distributed in the entire U.S., and seeing it in Illinois shouldn’t be so hard.

The reason why Short-eared Owls are a common sight is that they hunt during the day when their prey is most active. Just keep your eyes out for one in open fields, meadows, grasslands, or, surprisingly, airports.

These buddies have an appetite for rodents like voles and mice, and they don’t mind feeding on a songbird, gull, or shorebird from time to time.

Author Note: One of the most interesting facts we learned about Short-eared Owls is that they don’t nest in trees, which is usually the case for raptors.

On the contrary, these owls build their homes in the midst of low-lying plants or grasses. This way, they can use the greenery to effectively hide the incubating females and, later, the younglings.

2.  Long-eared Owl

Long Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Length: 13.8-15.8 in
  • Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz
  • Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 in

As the name suggests, the Long-eared Owl has characteristically long tufts of feather on its head that set it apart from other owl species in Illinois. But that’s not the only thing that’s special about this fellow.

To identify the Long-eared Owl, look for a lanky body, piercing yellow eyes, and mostly-brown plumage. Other key features that make Long-eared Owls remarkable include their strange bark-like night calls and somewhat breathy hoots!

In Illinois, Long-eared Owls can be found anywhere with dense foliage where the vegetation is just perfect to create their nests. However, these fierce creatures are hard to see because they’re experts at hiding. It’s all thanks to their natural stealth and camouflaged bodies.

Wondering what Long-eared Owls feed on? They’ll eat anything from voles, rats, and mice, to snakes and lizards. They also like to munch on chipmunks whenever these poor guys are unfortunate enough to get in an owl’s path!

3.  Northern Saw-whet Owl

northern saw-whet owl in illinois
  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Length: 7.1-8.3 in
  • Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz
  • Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 in

Did you know that the Northern Saw-whet Owl has this cool name because one of its calls is similar to the sound that comes out if you sharpen a saw on a whetting stone? Pretty cool, right?

This owl doesn’t only have a unique name, but it also comes with its own set of interesting features. For example, it’s one of the smallest owls you can find in Illinois, and it has a catlike face and a head that’s slightly bigger than its body.

Unfortunately, searching for the Northern Saw-whet Owl can be quite the challenge, even for a hardcore bird watcher. See, this raptor is one of the stealthiest of its kind, and its small body boosts its hiding skills even further.

Still, you might have a good chance of witnessing the Northern Saw-whet owl if you look for it in its natural habitat. Mature forests, swamps, and riverside woods are some of this owl’s favorite locations to live.

The diet of a Northern Saw-whet owl consists of small mammals and rodents, other birds, and sometimes insects.

4.  Great Horned Owl

Portrait of Great horned owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Length: 18.1-24.8 in
  • Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
  • Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 in

As you’re probably already aware, the Great Horned Owl is the most widespread in North America. Plus, once you look at its pictures, you’ll most definitely recognize its features at once because the media loves it so much!

Top Tip: This mighty beast is best known for its sharp, yellow eyes, large body, and beautiful ear tufts.

The best thing about the Great Horned Owl is that it lives in plenty of locations throughout Illinois, so finding it shouldn’t be so tough. Just look for it in agricultural areas, woodlands, forests, swamps, and open fields.

The owl also doesn’t mind paying suburban areas a visit, which, again, can increase your chances of seeing one near your backyard. Extra points if you have a bird feeder that attracts smaller birds.

What’s even more fascinating about the Great Horned Owl is that it has probably the most diverse diet of all North American owls. It’ll eat rodents, reptiles, insects, fish, birds, and even other raptors including owls and hawks.

The Great Horned Owl is surely a force to be reckoned with!

5.  American Barn Owl

american barn owl
  • Scientific name: Tyto furcata
  • Length: 11-17 in
  • Weight: 1 lb 4 oz
  • Wingspan: 39-49 in

Barn Owls are also widespread in North America, and they’re available in 40 varieties. The one that calls Illinois home is the American Barn Owl, and it’s the one with the largest size, too.

Of course, the American Barn Owl has her sisters’ physical features; the heart-shaped light-colored face, the big, black eyes, and the mostly-white body.

If you’re in Illinois, you’re in luck because the American Barn Owl lives there on a permanent basis. All you have to do is search for it near grasslands or abandoned man-made structures, including barns.

In fact, farmers love having this owl around their properties because it helps them get rid of mice and other nosy rodents!

Author Note: Besides mice and rats, the American Barn Owl likes to feed on a huge variety of small mammals and birds. Its diet consists of, but isn’t limited to, voles, bats, shrews, rabbits, blackbirds, and starlings.

Chipmunks and squirrels are mostly safe from being preyed on by this nocturnal owl as they tend to be active during the day.

Unlike most owls, the American Barn owl doesn’t release a hooting call. On the contrary, it lets out a somewhat strange screechy sound that a lot of people compare to the sound that a red-tailed hawk makes.

6.  Eastern Screech-Owl

eastern screech owl
  • Scientific name: Megascops asio
  • Length: 6.3-9.8 in
  • Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz
  • Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 in

The Eastern Screech-Owl is another owl species you might see in Illinois, and it’s a breeze to recognize if you see through its camouflage first!

What makes this buddy unique is its stocky body and the fact that it doesn’t seem to have a neck. Its coloring is also fascinating to gaze upon, whether you’re looking at the gray or the reddish-brown variety.

Another cool thing about the Eastern Screech-Owl is that you can find it in any wooded area in this state. That’s as long as there isn’t a huge population of larger owls in that forest.

Better still, this owl doesn’t mind being around humans, so your chances of witnessing a nest on a lamppost or in an abandoned building should be great.

In these scenarios, its naturally camouflaged body won’t be as effective as it will be against the bark of a tree. So, you might just see this owl without putting a lot of effort into it!

The Eastern Screech-Owl likes to eat several things including mice, rabbits, moles, and rats. It’ll also hunt smaller birds such as finches and swallows. More surprisingly, the owl can take on birds larger than its size; such as jays and woodpeckers. Clearly, this owl is a fighter!

Eastern Screech-Owls have a wealth of calls, songs, and hoots to broadcast to your ears. Yet, their most popular sound is called a tremolo, which translates to a trill that isn’t too high or too low.

Tremolos are mostly used by pairs of Eastern Screech-Owls for communication, and they normally last from three to six seconds.

7.  Barred Owl

barred owl in a tree
  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Length: 16-25 in
  • Weight: 1-2.75 lbs
  • Wingspan: 38-49 in

You might stumble upon Barred Owls more often than you would other owl species in Illinois. The reason behind this is that these owls don’t hide from humans, but will look you in the eye as you walk by them!

Barred Owls are known for the horizontal stripes of alternating dark-brown and light-brown feathers, hence the name. This pattern stretches all over their bodies, from the top of their heads to wings, back, and tails. If you see one, you’ll likely recognize it at once thanks to its unique appearance.

Luckily for Barred Owls, they’re pretty on the large end, making them top-notch predators. However, they’re not completely invincible since they might fall prey to Great Horned Owls, who are bigger and stronger.

Still, Barred Owls have a diverse diet that’s quite impressive, to be frank! They’ll eat mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels, weasels, and the like. They’re also ready to feast on a delicious snake, turtle, frog, or songbird. Insects and bugs are great snacks, too.

Author Note: One cool fact you may not already know about Barred Owls is that their hoots are the ones filmmakers often use in horror movies. Therefore, you might be familiar with this sound, and it’ll usually come to the forefront of your mind once you think about an owl’s hoot.

Of course, that should make finding Barred Owls even easier for an amateur bird watcher. To start your search for one, pack your hiker’s backpack and camera and head over to a forest with large, mature trees.

8.  Snowy Owl

snowy owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Length: 20.5-27.9 in
  • Weight: 56.4-104.1 oz
  • Wingspan: 49.6-57.1 in

Last but not least, the Snowy Owl is one of the most beautiful owls you might come across in Illinois. It’s famous for its white plumage that can sometimes be peppered with black, brown, or gray, yellow eyes, and a fairly large body.

These breathtaking birds of prey aren’t year-round residents of Illinois, or anywhere in the United States, for that matter. They’ll mate and breed on the tundra in Canada during the summer, then migrate south as the weather gets colder. So, you’d better look for them when it’s winter in Illinois.

Top Tip: Their favorite spots to hang out in Illinois are usually open spaces because Snowy Owls aren’t big fans of trees. These buddies like to be able to see the area around them with no obstacles, so they’ll perch on a lamppost, the roof of a building, and the like.

Another reason why Snowy Owls prefer open areas is that they normally hunt on the ground. They’ll prey on lemmings, mostly when they’re up in Canada, and rodents, smaller birds, hares, and geese when they come to the U.S. during the winter.

Final Thoughts

Illinois can be a safe haven for anyone who enjoys watching and taking fascinating photos of wild birds. And, when it comes to owls, the state has eight species of those fierce birds of prey that you might get a chance to see in action.

Because they vary in size, coloring, behavior, and hunting techniques, they’re all special in their own way. So, witnessing any of these owls should be an unforgettable experience!

All you’d have to do to see one is make yourself familiar with its appearance, memorize its hoots or calls, and start searching for it in its natural habitat. Hopefully, you might just be able to find all those beautiful owls on our list.


Where is a good place to see owls in Illinois?

According to Audubon, a range of owls can be found in these places: Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, Cache River State Natural Area.

What is the most common owl in Illinois?

The Short-eared Owl is probably one of the most common owls in Illinois.

Where can I found out more about local owls in Illinois?

To find out where recent sightings of owls have been, try eBird. You can search for the latest sightings or particular species or what has been seen in a certain area.

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