The central flyway is a stretch of the middle of North America where many birds live and migrate. North Dakota is smack-dab in the center of this flyway, which means that hundreds of species of birds live or cross through the state.
If you’re a big fan of owls, North Dakota is an excellent place to see nearly a dozen of these majestic raptors. Some of them can only be spotted in the more rural parts of the state, but many of them hang out in the cities and suburbs of Bismark or Fargo.
Whether you’re looking for owls during the heat of the day or during the cold winter nights, there are many different species that you can see.
Here is the list of owls in North Dakota:
- Great Horned Owl
- Barn Owl
- Snowy Owl
- Short-Eared Owl
- Northern Hawk Owl
- Long-Eared Owl
- Great Gray Owl
- Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Eastern Screech Owl
- Boreal Owl
- Burrowing Owl
11 Types of Owls in North Dakota
1. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
- Size: 20 inches long
- Weight: 32-88 ounces
- Wingspan: 40-57 inches
Most people recognize the great horned owl thanks to its appearance in movies like the Harry Potter franchise and its characteristic hoot. These massive owls can weigh up to five-and-a-half pounds. They have massive claws, and they’re strong fliers, which enables them to take down fierce prey like ospreys and falcons.
Once they clench their claws around something, it takes 28 pounds of force to pry them back apart.
These birds live in every part of North America, from Mexico to the northern parts of Alaska. It’s one of the most common owls and makes itself home in deserts, mountains, forests, and prairies. The great horned owl is just at home in cities as it is in the suburbs, and wilderness areas.
All this means that you have a good chance of being able to see one. You can find it anywhere in North Dakota.
Look for the giant bird with yellow eyes and long tufts of hairs near its ears. They can be gray or cinnamon with barring over a cream or light gray body.
If you were wondering, they can’t really move their heads 360 degrees, despite what you might have heard. They can swivel their head over 180 degrees, though, giving the illusion that they’re turning their head completely around. These birds can’t move their eyes from side to side, so they move their heads back and forth instead.
2. Barn Owl
- Scientific name: Tyto alba
- Size: 12.5-16 inches long
- Weight: 14-24.7 ounces
- Wingspan: 40-50 inches
The barn owl got its name because it likes to live in abandoned barns and other buildings in rural areas. They’ll also nest in the cavities of trees. They hunt by soaring across open areas and listening for prey. As you might guess, they have excellent hearing.
You can tell it’s a barn owl by its distinct face. They have pure white, heart-shaped faces with large, dark eyes. Their wings and back are gray, golden, or cinnamon and somewhat mottled. The undersides of their wings are white, as is their chest, which means they look all-white from underneath when they’re flying. They don’t have any ear tufts as the great horned owl does.
Young barn owls will fly far away from where they were hatched to find their own territory, but once they find a spot they like, they stay there for life.
You can find barn owls across the US and Mexico except in a few parts of the central northern states like North Dakota, where they only live in a small section of the southern part of the state.
3. Snowy Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
- Size: 20.5-28 inches long
- Weight: 56.5-104 ounces
- Wingspan: 49.5-57 inches
Snowy owls are striking birds. The males are mostly white with bright, cat-like yellow eyes, and their plumage becomes whiter as they age. The females and immature birds have dark brown or black spots.
Snowy owls live in the Arctic Circle, where they hunt for mammals such as lemming and ptarmigans during the long summer days. They travel south to Canada, Alaska, and the very northern parts of the US during the winter months.
Most of the time, you can see them sitting on the ground near their hunting areas. They’ll also perch on power or telephone poles, fences, hay bales, and abandoned structures. They fly low to the ground as they scan the tundra or fields where they hunt.
In North Dakota, you can see these birds across the state during the winter season. It’s one of the only midwestern states where snowy owls live all winter long.
The snowy owl is a rare bird to see, especially because their populations are declining.
4. Short-Eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio flammeus
- Size: 13.4-17 inches long
- Weight: 7.3-16.9 ounces
- Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches
You’re right if you guessed that these owls have short ear tufts. Owls have ear tufts to help direct sound to their ears, enabling them to hunt and hear potential predators. Short-eared owls have ear tufts, but they’re small, like little horns.
They’re distinctive owls because they have brown and white mottling edged in black bars. The face is cream with dark black outlines around the yellow eyes.
Their distinctive appearance makes it easier to spot them, but the fact that they are active during the day makes it even easier to see them. They even have a distinct, moth-like flight pattern that makes identification even simpler.
Unlike many owls, they don’t prefer wooded areas. They like open fields and grasslands, where they sit on the ground and watch and listen for prey to catch. Then, they fly up and dive down to catch their prey. They even nest in the ground.
If you imagine splitting North Dakota in half from the top western corner to the lower eastern corner, these owls live in the top half during the breeding season and the bottom half the rest of the year.
5. Northern Hawk Owl
- Scientific name: Strix occidentalis
- Size: 14.2-17.7 inches long
- Weight: 8.5-16 ounces
- Wingspan: 27.9 inches
The Northern Hawk Owl gets its name because it behaves like a hawk, but it’s technically an owl. They hunt by sight, have long tails, and perch at the top of trees, much like hawks do. But they have round heads, yellow eyes, mottled gray, brown, and white bodies. They also have gray faces with a dark border, making them look distinctively owl-like.
They hunt during the day, for the most part, but you might see them looking for food at night in the forests where they make their homes.
These birds live in the northern parts of Canada, but during the winter if food is scarce, they will head south to the US. Birdwatchers in North Dakota might be lucky enough to see them throughout the state during these times.
6. Long-Eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio otus
- Size: 13.8-15.8 inches long
- Weight: 7.8-15.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 35.5-39.5 inches
Long-eared owls have surprisingly long ear tufts, which is how they got their name. The tufts are black with bits of buff or orange. They have two white lines between their yellow eyes.
They’re slender with mottled brown bodies. These nocturnal birds roots in trees and hunt in grasslands or open country.
You can often identify them by their hoots, squeals, and barks. They are quite vocal. They usually only migrate at night, but they can fly exceptionally long distances. Researchers have identified birds that have traveled from Canada to Mexico in a single year.
Those who live in or are visiting North Dakota should look for this owl during the breeding season throughout the state. Otherwise, you can find them in warmer southern areas.
7. Great Gray Owl
- Scientific name: Asio flammeus
- Size: 24-33inches long
- Weight: 24.7-60 ounces
- Wingspan: 53.9-60 inches
Great gray owls are one of the largest owls in the US. They are larger than a Great Horned Owl, but they are a bit lighter. They sit somewhere in size between a goose and a crow.
As the name suggests, they are gray with silver, white, and brown streaks or bars. They have bright yellow eyes surrounded by brown circles and a white “X” that separates their eyes. They lack ear tufts but have a large, round head.
They dislike being near humans or human settlements, so they’re hard to find. They’re quiet when they fly, and they don’t call out often, so you’ll usually see them rather than hear them.
Great Gray Owls live in coniferous forests and hunt small mammals. In North Dakota, you’ll only find this owl in the very eastern corner of the state. They don’t usually move their home unless they travel further south or to lower elevations during the cold weather.
8. Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
- Size: 7.1-8.3 inches long
- Weight: 2.5-5.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 16.5-19 inches
Northern saw-whet owls are petite, about the size of a robin, with a mottled brown and white body. They have big yellow eyes and a heart-shaped face with a small, white V-mark between their eyes.
They are difficult to see, especially because they hunt at night, but if you listen for their shrill call, you’ll know they’re nearby. During the day, they nest in cavities in trees at about eye height, so you might see them if you look carefully. Don’t disturb the sleeping birds, though!
They only live in forests, particularly mature forests, so don’t look for them in open areas or cities. They migrate long distances to breed. They eat small rodents like mice and shrews. They’ll also eat birds like chickadees, juncos, waxwings, and sparrows.
They live across the US, with scarce breeding populations in the South and permanent populations in the northern part of the country and throughout the Rocky Mountains and western Coastal ranges. Nonbreeding populations exist across the rest of the country.
The northern saw-whet owl lives in the eastern corner of North Dakota year-round and the rest of the state during the nonbreeding season.
9. Eastern Screech Owl
- Scientific name: Megascops asio
- Size: 6.3-9.8 inches long
- Weight: 4.3-8.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 inches
The eastern screech owl is related to the western screech owl, as you might expect. This owl lives on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, with a little overlap in the Rocky Mountains between their western cousin.
In North Dakota, they live in most of the state except a small patch of the northwestern corner.
Eastern screech owls are excellent hiders. Their gray or reddish-brown mottling makes them blend right into the bark of the trees where they like to perch and nest. In fact, you might not even notice them until you see their bright yellow eyes shining.
They have distinct ear tufts and a yellow beak, with a dark V between their eyes.
These owls are night hunters, which makes them even more of a challenge to see. Your best bet is to listen for the whining trill call that they make and then keep your eyes peeled.
If you’re not big on bird-watching at night, look at the cavities of trees as you walk around their native range. You should be able to see them as they sleep the day away.
10. Boreal Owl
- Scientific name: Aegolius funereus
- Size: 8.3-11 inches long
- Weight: 3.3-7.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 21.5-24.5 inches
Boreal owls live in just a tiny little sliver of the northeastern tip of North Dakota. They stick around the same general area for their whole life, but they will travel if they can’t find food in their neighborhood. They live in forests and prefer the high mountains. However, if you live anywhere near a mountain or forested area, you can place a nest box in your backyard, and they might come to live.
These owls hunt at night, looking for small mammals. But they don’t fly around actively hunting. Instead, they sit in a tree and patiently wait for a rat or mouse to run across the ground. Then they attack.
Boreal owls are adorable. They’re about the size of a robin and have a large square head. They’re brown overall with white mottling on their bodies and a mostly white face. The females are twice as large as the males.
11. Burrowing Owl
- Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
- Size: 7.5-9.8inches long
- Weight: 5.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 21.5 inches
Most owls live in the trees or shrubs, but burrowing owls have long legs to run along the ground in prairies, deserts, and grasslands. They hunt for rodents and then live in tunnels that animals have abandoned, like ground squirrels and prairie dogs.
They’ll even hunt small rodents and then take over their burrows. If that’s not available, they’ll live in pipes or tubing.
They’ve adapted to life underground by developing a high tolerance for carbon dioxide, which builds up in underground spaces.
Look for long-legged owls with mottled brown coloring and bright yellow eyes to identify them. They have flat heads.
Burrowing owls breed in North Dakota and spend the rest of the year in warmer locations like Arizona and Mexico.