How many species of owl can be found in Iowa? The answer may shock you – nine. I think many of us know the barred owl that can be hear using it “who cooks for you” call in nearly any wooded area. You may also know the barn, great horned and screech owls. But let’s discuss some of the lesser known species as we get ready for the live raptor presentation next Saturday.
The short-eared owl is a state endangered species. They stand a whopping 15 inches tall and are a tawny-brown color. Their heads are rounded, but very short “ear” tufts can be seen near the top of their heads. Their yellow eyes will be easily visible if they look your way. You have to be in the right area to see this species though. They nest on the ground in open grasslands, but they need areas that are 250 acres or more in size. Iowa’s landscape has been greatly changed over the years, and finding 250 acres of consecutive prairie is not an easy task. Southern Iowa does have some big grassland areas and could be a good place to find them. I have heard calm evenings at sunset November through March is the best time to find them.
Long-eared owls are a state threatened species that also stand about 15 inches tall. It has long wings, and prefers to nest in dense conifer (red cedar) stands near open grasslands. They often take over old crow, haw or squirrel nests. The name comes from the long feather “ear” tufts on its head. This is a secretive little bird, and you would likely have to trek through lots of thick brush and red cedar to catch even a glimpse of one. Both the short and long-eared owls are more often winter visitors and rarely – if ever – nest in Iowa.
The snowy owl has gotten much attention this year as many have made their way into our state and beyond. This is an owl that only occasionally visits Iowa during what they call irruption years. They typically are found in the arctic tundra and eat lemmings. Here they would eat small mammals. It is easily distinguished from other owl species by the mostly white feathers and large size (23 inches tall). If you happen to see one, you are very lucky, and you should keep your distance so as not to stress the creature out more than it already is from its journey.
The smallest owl found in Iowa is the northern saw-whet owl. It stands only 8 inches tall and is buffy brown in color. This too is a fairly common winter visitor. In its nesting grounds in northern forests it is a cavity nester. During Iowa’s winter months it will be found in cedars and other conifers.
That brings us to the burrowing owl. It is slightly bigger than the saw-whet at 9 ½ inches tall. It has long legs and a short tail. Its feathers are grayish-brown with a white throat patch. It rarely nests in Iowa, but – as the name suggests – it nests in the ground. It does not dig its own nest burrow though. It will usually use burrows made by badgers. Being a small owl, it east beetles, other insects and some small mammals.