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Iowa owl identification guide

  • 12/5/2016 2:51:00 PM
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That tell-tale disc-shaped face tells you it’s an owl, sure – but which one? Iowa has nine different species that call our state home, whether full-time or part-time, and you can find them in a number of different habitats.

Here’s what to look for:

How to identify a barn owl | Iowa DNRBarn Owl (state endangered)

  • Medium-sized (16 inches tall)
  • Pale tawny and white plumage with long legs; male typically whiter than female
  • Flight is moth-like
  • Heart-shaped face with brown eyes
  • Doesn’t hoot; call usually a long hissing shriek
  • Cavity nester – historically in hollow trees and now often found in vacant wooden barns
  • Dependent on grassland where it finds its primary food, meadow and prairie voles



How to identify an Eastern screech owl and other Iowa owls | Iowa DNREastern Screech-owl

  • Small (8.5 inches tall) and broad-winged
  • Plumage color varies from gray to brown to red
  • Head has feathery “ear” tufts (plumicorns) and eyes are yellow
  • Main song is a descending whinny and also emits a long tremolo or monotone trill
  • Cavity nester – often found in towns with large hollow trees
  • Found year-round and especially eats small rodents and large insects



How to identify a great horned owl and other Iowa owls | Iowa DNRGreat Horned Owl

  • Large (22 inches tall)
  • Permanent Iowa resident
  • Grayish tawny-brown body with dense barring on underparts and white throat
  • Large head with pair of feather tufts and yellow eyes
  • Song a deep muffled hooting in series – hoo hoodoo hoo
  • Nests in large tree cavities and often lays eggs atop unused red-tailed hawk nests; earliest nesting raptor, often laying eggs in January
  • Woodlot and open-country species that eats rabbits, skunks, squirrels, cats, as well as other owls and hawks


How to identify a barred owl and other Iowa owls | Iowa DNRBarred Owl

  • Medium-large (21 inches tall) stocky gray owl
  • Year-round resident
  • Rounded head with large dark eyes
  • Strong resonant hoot that sounds like  “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”
  • Nests in hollow trees and prefers mature forests and wooded waterways for roosting and nesting
  • Mainly eats mice and small rodents; also birds (including smaller owls), snakes, frogs, and crayfish, and sometimes fish


How to identify a long-eared owl and other Iowa owls | Iowa DNRLong-eared Owl (state threatened)

  • Medium (15 inches tall), long-winged and slender
  • Similar color to great horned owl
  • Named for long feathered “ear” tufts on head,
  • Has yellow eyes
  • Male gives a low hoot, and other calls include nasal barks and quiet moans
  • Preferred nesting habitat is dense conifer stands adjacent to open grasslands where this owl usually takes over old crow, hawk, or squirrel nests for its own
  • Main food is small mammals, especially voles


How to identify a short-eared owl and other Iowa owls | Iowa DNRShort-eared Owl (state endangered)

  • Medium (15 inches tall), long-winged and slender
  • Tawny-brown colored plumage with males being lighter color on its underside than females
  • Rounded head with very short “ear” tufts
  • Has yellow eyes
  • Male gives muffled poo poo poo, and other sounds include nasal barks and wheezy notes
  • Nests on the ground in large open grasslands (250 acres or more)
  • Main food source is meadow and prairie voles


How to identify a northern saw-whet owl and other Iowa owls | Iowa DNRNorthern Saw-whet Owl

  • Smallest (8 inches tall) Iowa owl with buffy brown plumage and
  • Common winter visitor
  • Rounded head with yellow eyes
  • Song is repeated low, whistled toots – poo poo poo, with regular rhythm
  • Cavity nester of northern forests, and often found in cedars and other conifers during Iowa winter months
  • Main food source is mice, especially those found at the woodland edge


How to identify a snowy owl and other Iowa owls | Iowa DNRSnowy Owl

  • Large (23 inches tall)
  • Heaviest North American owl
  • Mostly snow-white plumage
  • Sporadic winter visitor from the arctic tundra
  • Rounded head with yellow eyes
  • Song of male a deep muffle hoot
  • Main food source on breeding grounds is lemmings


Burrowing Owl

  • Small (9.5 inches tall), long-legged, and short-tailed
  • Grayish-brown plumage with white throat
  • Rounded head with yellow eyes
  • Male song is a high, nasal, trumpeting coo-coo, coo-coo
  • A grassland species and very rare nester in Iowa, where it nests primarily in ground burrows made by badgers
  • Eats beetles, other insects, and small mammals


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