Minnesota Profile: Northern Hawk Owl Surnia ulula
Like most members of the Strigidae family, the northern hawk owl has a large head and round, fluffy body. Its long, pointed tail and hawklike flight give it a distinctive appearance and account for its name hawk owl. A medium-sized owl, it stands 14 to 17 inches tall and has a wingspan of about 30 inches. Fine brown horizontal bars streak the breast, belly, and underside of the tail. Bold, black markings frame white facial disks. Black diagonal eyebrow lines enhance large, yellow eyes, giving the bird a fierce, intimidating look.
The northern hawk owl is a bird of birch-coniferous forests and muskeg across subarctic Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Eurasia. From November to March, it is a rare but regular visitor to northern Minnesota's open spruce and aspen forests. A few nests have been recorded here in summer.
Its flight is direct, fast, and low, with powerful down strokes, often interrupted by glides. It usually approaches its perch from below and breaks into a sharp upward curve just before landing on a branch. It sometimes hovers like a kestrel.
Unlike most owls, the hawk owl usually hunts during the day?an adaptation to summer's long photoperiods in northern latitudes. It preys primarily on rodents such as mice, voles, and lemmings, but it will also take birds, especially in winter when deep snow makes rodents more difficult to catch.
The movements of many northern owl species are closely connected to cyclical fluctuations in their prey's reproduction cycles. When rodent populations crash in Canada, great gray, snowy, and boreal owls sometimes migrate south into Minnesota in search of food. Perhaps because hawk owls do not depend on one specific food source, they are less likely to migrate south.
How to Spot
The hawk owl is an approachable bird, not very wary of humans. Most winters a few hawk owls can be found in coniferous forests and tamarack-spruce bogs in St. Louis, Cook, Koochiching, Beltrami, Lake of the Woods, Roseau, and northern Aitkin counties. The Sax-Zim Bog is especially good for spotting them. Look for a hawk owl to be sitting high on an exposed snag or treetop at the edge of a clearing or bog, often with its tail cocked. The owl usually snatches its prey right off the ground and takes it up a tree to tear apart and eat.
Dominique Braud, wildlife photographer