Owls are a subset of birds of prey that are primarily nocturnal, with a few exceptions. They use their large forward-facing eyes to track prey by sight and their offset, sensitive ears to hunt by sound. They have specialized feathers on their wings meant to silence their flight, making them apex predators that specialize in surprise attacks. There are 9 species of owls in Nebraska, as listed below along with where they can best be found, and what time of year you can see these sometimes elusive but always awe-inspiring predators.
9 Owls in Nebraska
The 9 species of owls found in the state of Nebraska are the Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Eastern Screech owl, Burrowing Owl, Snowy Owl, and the Barred Owl.
1. Northern Saw-whet
Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
Length: 7.1-8.3 in
Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz
Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 in
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is relatively rare throughout Nebraska. Through its range in the west, it’s considered to be a resident everywhere but higher elevations. In the north, it’s considered to be more nomadic based on prey availability. They’re most vocal in late February throughout their range, primarily in the cedar canyons of southeast Lincoln County where the species winters, and then the birds will choose to depart in later April.
There have been recent reports of breeding pairs remaining in the state in the forest habitats of the Pine Bluffs and Pine Ridge areas; these sightings suggest that breeding occurs over much of northern and western Nebraska. Winter visitors occur statewide, with most reports from population centers near coniferous or riparian woodland. The majority of the sightings for wintering birds are in the Cedar Canyons of southeastern Lincoln county.
2. Barn Owl
Scientific name: Tyto alba
Length: 12.6-15.8 in
Weight: 14.1-24.7 oz
Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 in
The Barn Owl is relatively uncommon throughout Nebraska. They’re mainly concentrated in the southwest region of the state, but having occasional sightings statewide during the summer. Their highest concentrations are in the North Platte River Valley, but they’ve been slowly spreading further into the Missouri River banks, most likely due to recent warmer winters allowing wintering and/or breeding further north and east.
The majority of the Nebraska population departs in October, as the state is near the north edge of the species’ breeding range. There have been reports of some sedentary wintering owls, but they’re less common during the colder months.
3. Great Horned Owl
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
Length: 18.1-24.8 in
Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 in
The Great Horned Owl is highly adaptable, meaning it occurs in a variety of habitats. While it can live in dense woodlands to deserts, it prefers open-forested habitats across the state, seeming to select larger older trees. They’re also common in city parks, making the Great Horned Owl an urban as well as a rural resident. It’s an uncommon permanent resident across the state.
They’re most common along heavily wooded river valleys and the Pine Ridge area, primarily in the spring as a migrant and in the summer as a breeder, as sightings spike around those times. They’re the largest owls in Nebraska, and their preferred prey in the state are skunks, making them popular among rural populations. It’s most often spotted during the winter months when trees have lost their concealing foliage.
4. Long-eared Owl
Scientific name: Asio otus
Length: 13.8-15.8 in
Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz
Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 in
The Long-Eared Owl is a fairly common regular visitor statewide in Nebraska, primarily during the spring, fall, and winter. It’s been suggested that some of them move south following breeding, but many have been shown to be residents of the state. They’ll use old crow and magpie nests as platforms, typically located in conifers such as junipers, hardwoods, and elms.
They’re most numerous in the state between November and March, as birds arrive from the north of Nebraska. Winter congregations typically consist of family groups, which accounts for many roosting sites developing degrees of permanency with these families revisiting the same nests every winter. They’re most commonly spotted in areas that are near a foraging area of open habitat, such as grassland or fallow cropland that supports their favorite small prey – voles.
5. Short-eared Owl
Scientific name: Asio flammeus
Length: 13.4-16.9 in
Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz
Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 in
The Short-Eared owl is a rare regular resident statewide, as well as an uncommon winter visitor. Breeding populations fluctuate widely depending on rodent populations, and have recently declined significantly in Nebraska due to habitat loss for both them and their prey, the prairie dog.
Most sightings of this owl are associated with native grasslands between May and September. During the winter, it’s regarded as nomadic rather than migratory, often following prey generally south of the snowline. Numbers vary from winter to winter depending on snow cover, with the species being entirely absent some particularly cold winters.
6. Eastern Screech-owl
Scientific name: Megascops asio
Length: 6.3-9.8 in
Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz
Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 in
The Eastern Screech-owl is a common regular resident in the eastern and central portions of Nebraska, and relatively uncommon in the west. It’s common in the Platte Valley, but has also been spotted as far west as the Niobrara Valley Preserve and throughout the Republican Valley with its range slowly extending further westward.
Their numbers drastically declined approximately 15 years ago due to them being most affected by West Nile Virus. However their numbers are recovering and they’ve been found spreading back into their native habitats. There appear to be more sightings in the winter, suggesting there are winter visitors that travel to Nebraska from the north and the west.
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7. Snowy Owl
Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
Length: 20.5-27.9 in
Weight: 56.4-104.1 oz
Wingspan: 49.6-57.1 in
The Snowy Owl is a regular winter visitor in Nebraska. They primarily arrive in the state in mid-November, with a few earlier reports concentrated at LaPlatte Bottoms in Sarpy County. They’ll depart around mid-March. This species has a tendency to wander southward in most years in varying numbers, with the occasional “invasion” of large influxes of this owl.
The reasons for this kind of “invasion” are unclear, but it’s believed to be related to increased breeding in years with high lemming populations, which may enlarge the population beyond carrying capacity and prompt them to travel in search of more. The diet of the snowy owl in Nebraska and on the Great Plains is much more diverse than on the breeding grounds, with wintering birds eating whatever’s available, dead or alive. Unlike most owls, the Snowy Owl will even include fish in this wide diet to ensure survival.
8. Burrowing Owl
Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
Length: 7.5-9.8 in
Weight: 5.3 oz
Wingspan: 21.6 in
The Burrowing Owl is a common sight to see in Nebraska during the Spring and Fall during their migrations, and have been abundant during the summer for the breeding season in the western and central areas of the state. They’ll typically arrive in early April for their first migration, and will stay throughout the summer until August. They used to be a common breeder throughout the state, but as prairie dog colonies have declined, so have the burrowing owl populations.
This bird will nest in any available burrow, and make full use of abandoned prairie dog villages. They’re the easiest owl to find in the region, as they’re active during the day and relatively bold and approachable. They’ll often be found perched alone on a fencepost or posed together as family units on the prairie.
9. Barred Owl
Scientific name: Strix varia
Length: 16.9-19.7 in
Weight: 16.6-37.0 oz
Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 in
The Barred Owl is a fairly common regular resident on the eastern portion of the state, although has been found roaming statewide. They’ve been slowly expanding their range westward as woods along riparian corridors mature, most notably in the Republican River and Platte River Valleys.
It’s most common in the lower Missouri River Valley in mature deciduous forests. They have a small migration, where northern breeders may move southward in severe winters, as has been shown by rising numbers in central and western Nebraska.
When looking for this species of owl, they usually aren’t found far from water in more heavily forested areas. They are incredibly important predators in the region, and play a large role in controlling the populations of mice, rats, snakes, and rabbits. They’re also credited with maintaining a strong prey base by primarily taking the ill, aged, or less fit individuals, keeping the forest ecosystem running smoothly and healthily.