I get a lot of blog visitors from Google searches for “Owls of Illinois” or similar. Not wanting to disappoint all those readers who end up at my totally non-comprehensive Snowy Owl!!! post, here are the owls you can find in Illinois, with a focus on the Chicago area and suburbs, and my own experiences.
My second time handling beautiful Meepy, February 2010
Although probably not the most abundant owl found in Illinois, I had to start with my personal favorite bird species, the Barred Owl. They range throughout the entire state, where they can be found in riparian and swampy habitat. They were hard to come by up in Lake County, where we lived, but more common in other parts of the state. Barred Owls are non-migratory. I was lucky enough to see one on an “owl prowl” at Lake County’s Ryerson Woods in November, 2010. Barred Owls are distributed widely across the eastern part of North America and into northern parts of western North America. Because of their spread into the Pacific Northwest, they have been identified as a threat to the endangered Spotted Owl.
Great Horned Owl
These birds are abundant across much of North America, and can be found all over Illinois. They are highly adaptable and live successfully in a wide variety of habitats, including suburban yards and urban forests. I saw my first Illinois Great Horned Owls (an adult and two chicks) at Grant Woods Forest Preserve in Lake County in April 2011, although I had heard them many, many times before. Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nests; instead, they may use old squirrel or hawk nests, or tree cavities; they may even nest on or in deserted buildings.
Eastern Screech Owl
Kotori at the Flint Creek Wildlife open house, December 2009
Eastern Screech Owls range across the eastern part of North American and are common throughout Illinois. This species has two distinct color morphs: Eastern Screech Owls are either rufous or gray in plumage. Despite their relative abundance, I have only heard these little nocturnal predators, the first one at McHenry County’s Glacial Park at a December 2009 “owl prowl”.
Flight training with Pip, March 2010
Despite being a fairly cosmopolitan species (breeding on every continent but Antarctica), Barn Owls are an Illinois endangered species. Although I was fortunate to be able to spend time with FCWR’s Pip, so far I haven’t seen a wild Barn Owl in Illinois. Last year, Lake-Cook Audubon hosted a very well-attended talk by Steve Bailey about Illinois owls. Bailey’s presentation sparked the club to start a Barn Owl box program, which is ongoing after finally obtaining all the required permits for placing boxes in certain Lake County preserves. If the program is successful, maybe it won’t be so hard to find Barn Owls in Lake County, Illinois in the future.
Spirit at an informal program, October 2010
Long-eared Owls, a bird missing from my life list, irregularly visit parts of Illinois during the winter. They frequent open fields with nearby woodlands and if undisturbed will often hang out in the same place for weeks at a time, which makes them fairly twitchable. Unfortunately, a story I heard quite often from other area birders was of a roost of Long-eared Owls at a park in Chicago’s South Loop. Though the birds were comfortable in the urban setting in which they chose to winter, the hoards of birders who came in trying to add them to their lists was a disruption and the birds eventually left. I did get to see one special Long-eared Owl, FCWR’s Spirit, up close several times. I even got to handle her once at a program, which was a real treat.
Short-eared Owl habitat at Glacial Park, December 2010
Short-eared Owls are another species that visits parts of Illinois during the winter. They are frequently found in the same habitat as Northern Harriers, and share their low-flying butterfly-like flight pattern. I remember these birds being reported at Rollins Savanna quite frequently, but I never lucked out to see them there. I added Short-eared Owl to my life list in December 2010, during an owl program at Glacial Park in December 2010.
Lifer Snowy Owl, Ogle County Illinois, January 2011
Snowy Owls visit Illinois during some winters, depending on food supplies (lemming population, mainly) up north. Usually solitary, lone birds may be found hunting in agricultural fields. That’s where I got my lifer Snowy Owl last winter in Ogle county.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Me and a just-banded Northern Saw-whet Owl, Sand Bluff Banding Station, October 2010
Northern Saw-whet Owls are extremely cute little owls that come through northern Illinois during migration. A few birds may spend the year in forested habitat. Science has learned a lot about the migration habits of Saw-whet Owls from banding programs. Though I have never seen a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the wild, I was amazed to see them up close at a banding program in October last year. I even got to hold one of these precious cuties before it was released back into the wild.
Three Burrowing Owls
Burrowing Owls are a southern species, and only very rarely visit the state. This is another species that I have yet to add to my life list. An unfortunate story about this species, too, was brought up a lot in local birding circles. A lone Burrowing Owl was found at Montrose Beach in October 2008, and became a huge attraction to local birders. Birders trying to flush the bird may have contributed to its eventual demise by the claw of a Cooper’s Hawk.
Here in Florida I don’t expect to find several of the species mentioned above, including Snowy Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl. Burrowing Owls are relatively common so I hope to add them to my life list soon. And I am still waiting for a Barred Owl, very very common here, to show up in our back yard. 🙂
Since so many of the photos in this post are of Flint Creek owls, here’s a bit more information about them: Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation is a non-profit, federally licensed rehab organization with locations in Chicago and Barrington, Illinois. You can follow their blog here, follow them on Facebook here, and make donations online here. This post reflects my own experiences as a volunteer with FCWR. Any errors are purely my own, and opinions here do not necessarily reflect those of FCWR.
After trying for three years to get a photo of the owl in my backyard, I finally managed to get a good photo and found your site trying to identify him. So glad I did, what a great site. Thank you!
Don’t leave me in suspense — what kind of owl was it?! 🙂
So, using this list and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology page to hear sounds, I am positive I had a Great Horned Owl outside my window last night. He kept me awake for some time with his hooting (there may have been an answering female, but I can’t be positive) but now I am not too upset. Next step, try to get a picture!
Love this article! I have always been fascinated and drawn to owls. As a photographer getting owl pictures has been a dream. I even have a great horned owl tattooed on my arm 🙂
I have a custom built barred owl box
Do you know who I can donate it/ or sell it too?
I live in Chicago
Hi Ben, sorry for the late reaction. If you are still looking for a home for your owl box, maybe the folks at Lake-Cook Audubon can help you. http://www.lakecookaudubon.org/Contact_Lake_Cook_Audubon.html. Good luck.
Thanks for the pictures of owls in IL. We have one In our lake county, IL backyard that I can’t place based on the pictures on your site. It is fairly tall, at least 12″ if not 18″. It has a white face and white feet with a dark body. It is nesting in a tree overnight in a crook of the tree. Any ideas?
Hi Kristina, how interesting! They are fairly rare in Lake County to my knowledge, but could your bird be a Barn Owl? If the bird is positioned in a certain way, the body may appear dark compared to the white face and feet. This photo shows what I mean: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barn_owl#mediaviewer/File:Tyto_alba_-British_Wildlife_Centre,_Surrey,_England-8a_%281%29.jpg
I came home tonight to find a small owl sitting on my fence. He/She flew up into neighboring pines. I’m thinking it might have been a Northern Saw-whet, judging by the photos. I live in Dundee, IL. Would that be possible at this time of year? Thanks, Amy!
Hi Jan, thanks for your comment. Each year several Northern Saw-whet Owls sightings occur in February around the greater Chicagoland area and beyond. You can have a look at February Northern Saw-whet Owl sightings via eBird to give you an idea. That is certainly a great yard bird, congrats!
I found a large Barred Owl in my yard the day I moved into my house a few years ago. He was sitting in my backyard so I though he may have been injured. Left a message with the raptor center and got no response. I went out that night for a few hours and when I got back it was gone. Either it flew away and was ok or someone from the raptor center came and picked it up. I think he must have flown away because I didn’t hear back from the raptor center.
I hear they are good luck!
I get lots of owls around my house now. I hear them every night (more Barred Owls I think).
I saw a Burrowing Owl standing on the side of I-57 in Illinois. I was returning from a hike at Giant City State Park.
We have had a great horned owl serenading the neighborhood for at least a month. On Saturday, it woke me with it’s hooting. I looked out the bedroom window and followed it’s sound to my neighbors rooftop. It was there for about an hour. Too far away for me to take a picture at night. Hope it continues to come back. Arlington Heights, Il.
Thanks for putting this post together. We have had an owl (or multiple different ones) in our neighborhood in Hanover Park (just off the south west corner of Schaumburg) for the last couple of years. I catch a glimpse of them right around dusk a couple times a year perched on a branch near the top of a tree that towers over all the rest. The one or ones that I have seen have been startlingly large. Your page helped me identify it/them as Barn Owls. Majestic creatures and beautiful in flight.
I was just wondering where at in Illinois did you where you were able to hold the great horned? It’s my favorite bird and I’d love to have the opportunity!
Hi Kaylee, thanks for your message. When I was a volunteer with Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation I was able to handle some of their birds of prey, including Great Horned Owls. Later this winter they will be having their Raptor Workshop where you can learn about their birds and get an introduction to holding birds on the glove. Volunteering with a rehabber is a great way to get up close with wild animals and also help a great cause. I cannot recommend Flint Creek enough — here is information about the workshop: http://www.flintcreekwildlife.org/training/raptor_training/.
We have two long eared owls in our Austrian pine in our front yard of a busy subdivision in the suburbs. The one (we named Hootie) has been coming every other year for the past 10 years. This year we noticed that there are two of them.
A couple of weeks ago I had my small (20lbs) dog, Buddy, outside after dark for potty time. I heard a very strange nose in the distance that sounded like an animal gasping for air. It scared me so much that I took Buddy inside and tips my husband he had to help me figure this out. Well the sound traveled from in front of the house to the east side to the south side and then to the west before disappearing. A neighbor saw 2 owls perched on my other neighbor’s house and told us they appeared white in color with a large 4ft or more wingspan. We are in Kewanee, IL. Tonight we came home to the identical sound and found that they are back!!! Any ideas? I have a really crappy picture too.
Jen, it sounds like you may have heard/seen Barn Owls. They make horrific screechy noises and are fairly white.
I live in the country outside the Quad Cities with a field across from my house. A week ago I was outside at 6:00 in the morning when I heard an owl. He was huge and perched on a top branch of a dead tree. He (or she?) was then accompanied by a second huge owl, repeating the first one’s hoots in reverse. The tree is probably a quarter mile away but the birds were FAR bigger than our customary hawks. Any ideas? I’ve seen one of them a couple of times since at dusk.
Thanks for the great information! I am trying to attract a pair of screech owls to my backyard for this breeding season (unsucessful the last two years, have had trouble with squrrells taking over the box). I was wondering if you know around what month the owls start searching for and claiming boxes? Also, do you recommend any areas in/around Cook County, IL for owl spotting?
I live in Mokena and my backyard borders a wetland. Two large unmistakeable Great Horned Owls were talking in tongue to each other for over an hour. It was very early evening and were easily seen in the trees. Blows me away how big and beautiful they are.
Amy- now I want to search out and find ones you have identified native to Illinois. Be nice to see a Snowy Owl this winter!!
I know it has been a while since this article was written but do you know if that owl box program in the Lake County preserves is still ongoing and whether they had any success with it? I’d love to find out more information about it and if there are any ways I can help out.
Hi Carl, I don’t know what Lake-Cook Audubon is up to with the owl box program, but you could contact them if you’d like to find out. https://www.lakecookaudubon.org/contact/ It’s a great club with a great bunch of birders — I miss them a lot! Good luck!
oh my goodness! I saw a great horned owl on my neighbors chimney around 9:30 last night. (Geneva, IL) It was enormous, and his low hooting was eerie. (I was out with my dog when I saw/heard it) I could hear another owl replying to his hoots from the trees in the distance. I was a bit concerned about my small dog, so we stayed very close to the house! In retrospect, it was an amazing sight.
Last year walking my dog in Burbank ILL on 85st and Long I saw a big barn owl .What a beautiful site. I was walking east on 85st when I saw a large shadow over my head as I looked up this huge bird (Barn Owl) I have never seen before perches on a fence about 5 feet too my left if I reached out I could touch it . My dog just stopped in her tracks did not bark and I just took in the moment. Well I just wanted too share
Just about an hour ago at midnight I heard a owl outside of my bedroom window. I listened to it for a while and then thought I’d peek out my balcony doors to see if I could spot it. It’s obviously very dark at midnight but I thought I say something rather large in a leafless tree across from me. I stayed to see if I heard the sound again. I didn’t, but a couple seconds later it flew off from the tree! The wingspan was huge! I’m always on high alert for hawks considering I have a very small dog. We have had a lot around here lately, but this thing was huge in comparison! It has to be a great horned or long horned owl. It was the second time I’ve heard it outside in the last 2 weeks. Addison, IL.
Hi, Amy, thanks for the informative post. I came on line to try to identify an animal call that I heard late last night, and from vocalization samples on youtube, it sounded very much like a Barn Owl. I live in the heart of Chicago, in a pretty built-up neighborhood (St. Ben’s), although we still have some trees, sigh. I couldn’t see what was making the sound. It was definitely coming from above street-level, possibly from one of the few tall trees left, or a high rooftop (lots of new ginormous McMansions crammed in around here, eating up all the green space and trees). From what I read in your post, it seems unlikely though. What do you think, possible? I’ll keep listening to see if it’s still around and see if I can catch sight of it.
Hi, me again, back after checking out more calls on line to say that it also might have been a Great Horned Owl, which seems more likely based on your post. I hope he comes back and I can catch sight of him.
Based on the call, we had an eastern screech owl in a tree in front of the house early this AM. I got eyes on it for a second, but with a flashlight which I quickly turned off so as not to spook it. Looked like the greyish variation. Vicinity of Legion Park. I’ve heard Great Horned Owls around here in the past as well. Thanks insomnia!
I hear them here in Arlington Heights IL in late winter. Normal? Seems like 1-4am they’re very “talkative”?
Last night we went to lock up our chickens and ducks, around 8, and a Great Horned Owl was in the run. Scary trying to convince it to leave. I’m probably very lucky it didn’t attack me. We had a heck of a staring contest.