The great horned owl is one of the area’s easiest-to-spot owls. (David C. Olson photo)

The Wisdom of Night’s Silent Flyers

There’s no better time to look and listen for our region’s many types of owls. Check out the tips and insight of local raptor experts on where to see them in the Northwest Territory.

The great horned owl is one of the area’s easiest-to-spot owls. (David C. Olson photo)
The great horned owl is one of the area’s easiest-to-spot owls. (David C. Olson photo)

Whether it’s by their distinctive hoots, the depth of their wide-eyed gaze or their swift, silent movements in the dead of night, owls seem to inspire endless fascination. The many species within our region, while diverse in size, habitat and diet, can be some of the most recognizable birds to spot. But many of the characteristics that make these birds so captivating also keep them hidden from casual sightings.

“Owls are amazing, silent hunters,” says David C. Olson of Rockford, a photographer who specializes in wildlife. “I’ve had owls literally fly right by me without hearing a sound from their wings.”

Olson has searched Illinois for these distinguished birds of prey over the past few years. As an experienced bird-watcher, he knows these wild beauties can be challenging to find and very difficult to capture with his camera.

“Many owls are nocturnal, and I don’t like to use the flash on them at night because their eyes are so sensitive,” he says. “Most of the opportunities I get to photograph these owls are in the very early morning, right when the sun is coming up. That’s the sweet time, when they’re still out feeding, or it’s right at dusk when they start to move. It’s wonderful we’re able to have so many species around here.”

Our region supports many kinds of owls, both migratory and year-round residents. Like many raptors today, these species are adapting to the changing conditions of the natural landscape, finding homes within neighborhoods, farms and even cities. Human use of DDT and other insecticides once threatened the survival of these creatures. Many species have slowly recovered, but some remain endangered due to loss of habitat and prey.

Winter offers exciting opportunities for owl-searchers, thanks to the barren vegetation. It’s the start of many owls’ nesting seasons and some kinds especially love the cold. With the help of some raptor center experts, anyone can better their chances of spotting an owl this time of year.

Sometimes, all it takes is one glimpse to be captivated by this mysterious, graceful creature.

Top of the Pecking Order

In prevailing images of these birds, great horned owls reign supreme. They’re the easiest to spot in northern Illinois.

As the largest owl species in our area, the great horned owl, with its thick red-and-brown body and piercing yellow eyes, can be seen easily from afar, perched on tree branches or swooping across roads or fields. It typically weighs 2 to 5 pounds, but rare finds have grown to 7 pounds. With talons second in size only to the golden eagle’s, the great horned owl can carry nearly three times its weight. Its grip is so strong that it can take up to 28 pounds of force to open.

“With females being bigger than males, the female great horned is the queen; she’s alpha,” says Nabeel Rasheed, bird handler at the Northern Illinois Raptor Center, in Hoffman Estates, Ill. “She’s the top predator at night around here.”

Rasheed and other volunteers at the nonprofit organization care for rehabilitated birds of prey while educating the public on their value and importance. Another reason the great horned owl is easier to see is because of its large population, a result of its incredible adaptability. It prefers to live in woodland areas but can be found anywhere in North America surviving off a varied, flexible diet.

“They’re not picky about what they eat,” says Candy Ridlbauer, executive director of Northern Illinois Raptor Rehab and Education in Loves Park, Ill. “They will eat anything, from earthworms to large animals, even skunks.”

Northern Illinois Raptor Rehab and Education cares for a great horned owl that imprinted on humans as a baby. Named Ulysses, it now serves as a permanent education bird.

Not every type of owl exhibits such flexibility as the great horned, but all owls have developed specific adaptations that make them easily recognizable from other birds. Their facial disk and forward-facing eyes and ears allow for extraordinary vision and hearing. With unusually large eyes, owls can navigate through the darkest environments. Tiny, precise edges along their wings allow them to silently fly and ambush their prey.

“Their feathers are positioned to direct sound to their ears,” says Rasheed. “They have such extraordinary hearing that they can hear moles and mice burrowing out of sight, triangulate their position and catch them.”

A more iconic characteristic is their far-turning necks. While humans have seven vertebrae in their necks and can turn their heads less than 180 degrees, all raptors have 14 vertebrae that let owls reach almost 270 degrees. They also have large arteries in those vertebrae, says Rasheed, to support blood flow to the head during long stretches of fast movement.

Another large, fairly common owl of the region is the barred owl. It is called a wood or swamp owl and prefers to hunt slightly smaller rodents and amphibians. Because the great horned owl hunts during dusk and dawn and often attacks other owls, the barred owl hunts in the dead of night as well as the day, making it crepuscular. Its rounded head with no tufts, gray-and-brown feathers, and almost-black eyes make it more challenging to spot, but its nine-note “Who cooks for you, who cook for you all?” call is distinctive.

“A great time to look for barred owls is in the spring, especially along rivers with plenty of toads and frogs,” says Olson.

Common and Unique Visitors

“Another common owl we have is the Eastern Screech owl,” says Ridlbauer. “It’s the smallest of our tufted owls.”

This short, stocky owl, grouped in red and gray types, likes to nest in suburban areas. It needs a small, open area, such as a backyard, to hunt, as well as trees to roost and nest in. People often see them by porch lights catching moths, bats and other birds in flight.

“When they play the soundtrack of spooky noises in a forest or a jungle, it’s usually a screech owl,” says Rasheed. “It’s often an even-pitched trill.”

These small birds are easily camouflaged, so their calls are their best giveaway. Even in daylight hours, they blend against tree branches and keep perfectly still to sit in sunlight without calling attention to predators, says Ridlbauer.

Smaller in size but with no tufts, the northern saw whet is a migratory bird that visits the area during the winter season.

“They’re more migratory than probably any of the other owls coming from the north and heading south, across the United States and into New Mexico, sometimes even further depending on weather and food supply,” says Ridlbauer.

Perhaps the most famous and rare migratory owl to visit northern Illinois is the snowy owl. With recent booms in the lemming population, which is their biggest source of food, younger generations of these arctic birds are slowly pushing south in search of new territory. These regal owls are the largest by weight in North America and are most commonly spotted during the winter season as they sweep open, snowy fields, parks, airfields and golf courses before nesting along the ground. They are one of the few diurnal owls, meaning they are active and hunt during daylight hours.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to photograph them in my home state, not even as a photographer but as a person and bird-watcher,” says Olson. “I’ve traveled up to 1,000 miles in the past to photograph them, and now you can find them right here in Illinois and further south.”

Struggling Illinois Natives

Long-eared and short-eared owls are both medium in size. “We don’t really see all that much of them around here because of their choice of habitat,” says Rasheed.

The long-eared owl migrates from northern parts of North America only during the winter months. The tufted, nocturnal bird stays camouflaged in deep, dark parts of forested areas, hunts small mammals and roosts in large numbers during winter months, when they’re most easily seen.

“A group of owls is actually called a wisdom of owls or a parliament of owls, which I think is very appropriate to the way they are,” says Rasheed.

Another common owl of the region is the short-eared owl. It lacks tufts, has yellow eyes, is crepuscular and hunts for small mammals within the prairie grasslands. It is the only Illinois native owl to hunt from a hover, an almost butterfly like flight, and nest on the ground.

“The short-eared owl and the northern harrier are dear to my heart because they are both on the endangered species list in Illinois,” says Ridlbauer. “About 95 percent of Illinois prairies, grasslands and marshes are gone, and that is their preferred habitat. The short-eared owl and the northern harrier are what Illinois used to be.”

Short-eared owls often overlap territory with the barn owl, the most endangered owl in Illinois. While every other owl type is classified as a true owl, barn owls make up their own classification. Their unique heart-shaped faces, medium-sized bodies, smaller black eyes and ghostly pale feathers make them hard-to-notice nocturnal hunters. Unlike other owls, a barn owl’s call is an unmistakable and loud hiss. While they use dead trees for nesting sites, their other preference for agricultural areas, farmlands and barns puts them in harm’s way.

“The barn owl is the most widely distributed owl in the entire world, and yet it’s on the endangered species list in Illinois,” says Ridlbauer. “Their lifespan out in the wild is anywhere from two to four years, while a bird of that size should be lasting maybe 12 to 16 years.”

These birds provide an important role in Illinois’ ecosystem and its agricultural industry.

“If they live 10 years, barn owls can eat up to 11,000 rodents,” says Ridlbauer. “Those rodents might otherwise spread disease, and they eat the equivalent of 13 tons of crops.”

In other areas, such as the vineyards of California, people are releasing barn owls and encouraging their nesting to combat destructive rodents in agricultural areas, says Ridlbauer.

“The barn owl took the most amount of time to photograph,” says Olson. “It’s very rare to find in our area and Winnebago County. Hopefully, with time, this species can its numbers back up before it leaves Illinois for good.”