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Winter Wonderland of Owls

Discover which owls visit the Great Lakes region in winter, and where to spot them

Boreal and arctic owls visit the Great Lakes region each winter, making winter a great time to plan an owling trip. If you are lucky enough to encounter one of our winter owls, please remember to keep a respectful distance and follow these best practices to help keep them safe.

Learn about each of our winter owls and where and how to find them across the Great Lakes region:

Snowy Owls breed in the arctic where they primarily eat lemmings, a small arctic rodent. When in the upper Great Lakes region, they eat a variety of prey including rats, muskrats, waterfowl, and fish. Male Snowy Owls are mostly white, while females and juveniles have black barring. You can find Snowy Owls in wide-open spaces such as fields and shorelines. Snowy Owls like to perch in conspicuous areas, and can often be found by scanning high points on the landscape such as hilltops, fence posts, and rooftops.

Northern Hawk Owls breed in the boreal forests of Canada where they primarily eat voles, mouse-like rodents. Like the Snowy Owl, the Northern Hawk Owl is a rare visitor to the Great Lakes region, but can occasionally be found in northeast Minnesota, northwest Wisconsin, and Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula. When in the Great Lakes they supplement their diet with ptarmigan and grouse. They can be spotted perching on solitary trees in wooded farmlands, lakeshores, pastures or prairies in the middle of the day.

Great Gray Owls are elusive and difficult to find, despite being the tallest owl of North America. They breed in northern evergreen forests, where they hunt small mammals in meadows and bogs. During the winter, they can be found in northeast Minnesota, Willow Flowage in Wisconsin, and occasionally Michigan’s eastern U.P. They are often found perched in trees at meadow edges. Check all levels within a tree to better spot them. They are sensitive to disturbance and audio recordings should never be used to lure them.

Boreal Owls are likely our rarest visitor from the north. Boreal Owls breed in boreal forests and high elevation mountains of Canada where they primarily eat small mammals, birds, and insects. In the winter, they can be found scattered in spruce-fir forests of northeast Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s eastern U.P. Boreal Owls are usually extremely quiet except from mid-February through April, nocturnal, and can best be spotted by going out at night to listen for their hooting calls. They are difficult to spot but can occasionally be found roosting during the day, in aspen, birch, or conifer trees 15-20 feet above the ground.

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MI Birds is a public outreach and engagement program created by Audubon Great Lakes and Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which aims to increase all Michiganders' engagement in the understanding, care, and stewardship of public lands that are important for birds and local communities.

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