Owls are fairly common in Iowa, but most folks never see or hear one. Several kinds are permanent residents, several more are regular winter visitors and a couple of more have been seen a time or two. Most owls become active at dusk and hunt until dawn. Most of their calling is at night, as well, when people are indoors. Their large, forward-facing eyes allow them to see well with very little light. The large disk patterns of feathers that seem to frame owl faces are associated with their extremely acute hearing. They’re like the dish antennas for our TVs, and allow some owls to catch prey animals in total darkness using only sound.
Two larger owls are present year-round across Iowa. The great horned owl is one of our most powerful predators and uses a wide variety of habitats. They readily attack prey as large as skunks and house cats, but prefer easier targets like mice and rabbits. They can be rough on early- and late-feeding pheasants. Great horns presented a major challenge to the IDNR’s efforts to reintroduce peregrine falcons and barn owls, since they killed many of the newly released birds. The arctic race of great horns occasionally ventures this far south in winter and can be almost as white and large as the famous snowy owls that visit us occasionally, but the local race is primarily mottled brown, with some brighter rusty patches on the face. The “horns” that are usually visible are actually tufts of feathers on top of their heads that they can raise or lower depending on their mood. Their hooting is monotone, with the male pitched slightly lower than the female. They mate for life, and become quite vocal early in the year when their breeding season begins.
The other common larger owl is the barred owl. They have no ear tufts. These dark-eyed, dark-brown streaked residents of wooded areas, especially river valleys, are the most vocal of the owl clan. “Who cooks for you” calls sometimes ring out even in daytime, but are most frequent after dark. Those calls are sometimes accompanied by raucous laughter when neighboring barred owls join in an evening hooting chorus. Less fierce than their great horn neighbors, they hunt mostly small mammals.
The other common resident nesting owl is the little eastern screech owl. They have ear tufts and come in both a rusty red or gray color phase. They nest in hollows and can often be found roosting in wood duck boxes. Their melancholy trilling call can be heard even in towns, but they must be careful in revealing their presence because they can easily become prey for their large owl neighbors. They specialize in hunting small mammals and birds that feed early and late in the day. I have often found cardinal and junco feathers left by screech owls when cleaning out wood duck boxes.
Short-eared owls were probably much more common before so much of the state was converted to agriculture, but a few scattered nesting reports still occur. This medium-sized brown owl is usually seen perched low or even on the ground around larger wetlands and prairies. They sometimes hunt well before sundown. Their flight is floppy, moth-like and low. They might be considered the “night shift” in areas where marsh hawks are the “day shift.” Long-eared owls are slim-built, crow sized, timber dwellers. They still have occasional nesting reports, but are more commonly seen in winter. Their flight is also floppy and moth-like.
The nearly white, medium-sized barn owl nests occasionally in old barns, especially in southern Iowa. Their primary hunting areas are grasslands and old pastures, where their favorite prey is meadow mice. Some think that warming winters associated with climate change is allowing barn owls to push farther north, and there have been reports in recent years of barn owls even in Minnesota.
A few other species of owls visit Iowa. Little northern saw-whet owls are about the size of a robin. A few visit Iowa each winter and often return to the same conifer groves to roost. This little round-headed, rusty-streaked owl is very tame, but usually remains well hidden in conifer thickets. The little brown burrowing owl, though primarily associated with western short-grass prairies, occasionally nests in western Iowa. They usually remodel a prairie dog den, but will use other old burrows or even culverts. At least one has been seen in Story County. The country’s largest owl, the great gray, seldom gets this far south, but there have been a few winter sightings in Iowa.
Lastly, there’s the northern hawk owl. There’s been only one Iowa winter sighting of this kestrel-sized, daytime open-country hunting little owl.
Who likes long winter nights? Whooo, indeed! It’s our Iowa owls.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.