Wisconsin is home to a variety of species, including some very large birds. These birds can be found in various parts of the state, ranging from forests and wetlands to grasslands and open fields.
Here’s what each of them looks like.
12. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
- Length: 17-25 in
- Wingspan: 35.8-60.2 in
- Weight: 2.7-3.5 lb
Also known as tiger owls, great horned owls are the largest and most common owl species found in Wisconsin. They are widespread in the state and can be even seen in suburban areas, year-round.
On average, these massive raptors measure between 17 and 25 inches in length and have a wingspan of approximately 3 to 5 feet. They can weigh between 2.5 and 5 pounds which also makes them one of the largest owls in North America.
They are named for the tufts of feathers on their heads that resemble horns. Great horned owls are powerful hunters that can take down prey as large as skunks and rabbits. They hunt using their acute hearing and excellent eyesight and can fly in near silence to catch their prey by surprise.
11. Wild Turkey
- Scientific Name: Meleagris gallopavo
- Length: 30-49 in
- Wingspan: 49.2-56.7 in
- Weight: 5.5-24 lb
In the 1880s, wild turkeys were basically extinct in Wisconsin. Thanks to strong conservation efforts and the successful reintroduction of 29 birds in 1976, their population has grown to over 350,000 birds today.
Wild turkeys are native to North America and are considered to be ancestors of domestic turkeys. They are the main course on Thanksgiving and Benjamin Franklin called them “a true original native of America.”
Wild turkeys are permanent residents of Wisconsin, found statewide around the forests and fields, except in the far north.
They are among the largest in North America and can be identified by their large bodies, long legs, and small heads. They are mostly brown and males have red wattles on their throats and necks.
Adult males called toms usually weigh from 11 to 24 pounds; females (hens) are smaller and weigh 5.5–11.9 pounds. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the heaviest wild turkey ever recorded weighed amazing 37.1 pounds!
Despite their somewhat stocky build, wild turkeys are strong runners that use their powerful legs and long wings to reach 25 mph on foot and up to 50 mph in flight.
These enormous birds have good eyesight and hearing and prefer to stay hidden. Wild turkeys are most known for the gobble call (ll-obble-obble-obble) males use to attract females.
Wild Turkey Call | Source: bod, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
- Length: 19.7-26 in
- Wingspan: 50–71 in
- Weight: 2-4.6 lb
Ospreys are longer, heavier, and with a bigger wingspan than great horned owls.
On average, these large diurnal birds of prey measure between 20 and 26 inches in length and have a wingspan of approximately 5 to 6 feet. They can weigh between 2 and 6 pounds – females are about 20% heavier than males and about 10% longer.
Found on every continent except Antarctica, ospreys are summer residents of northwest and north-central parts of Wisconsin. They might be common around lakes and rivers but were never numerous in the state.
Ospreys were seriously declining around the USA around the 1950s because of the use of pesticides like DDT that caused their thin-shelled eggs to break during incubation. In 1972, these pesticides were banned which helped slowly increase osprey populations.
Ospreys went from a low of 82 breeding pairs in 1974 to 530 nests in 2019 in Wisconsin.
They are known for their ability to dive into the water to catch fish, which make up the majority of their diet which resulted in their nickname “fish hawks”. Like other raptors, ospreys have keen eyesight and sharp talons, which they use to catch and kill their prey.
Osprey diving to catch fish
Because of their small white heads, wide wingspans, and sharp beaks and talons, people sometimes mistake them for bald eagles. Ospreys are white below, brown above, and overall whiter than most raptors. You will easily identify them in nature by their M-shaped wings when soaring and white heads with a broad brown stripe through the eyes.
9. Turkey Vulture
- Scientific Name: Cathartes aura
- Length: 24-32 in
- Wingspan: 63-72 in
- Weight: 1.8-5.3 lb
Turkey vultures are the largest vulture species found in Wisconsin. On average, they measure between 24 and 32 inches in length and have a wingspan of approximately 5 to 6 feet. They are heavier than osprey and can weigh between 2 and 5 pounds.
Turkey vultures come to Wisconsin around spring to breed statewide. Scientists tracking the seasonal movements of vultures discovered that almost all of Wisconsin’s vultures migrate to spend winter in South America.
These enormous black birds are the most widespread of the New World vultures. Turkey vultures are also known as turkey buzzards, or just buzzards, and got named for their resemblance to turkeys, but they are not closely related.
With their habit of soaring on thermal updrafts, dark plumage, bare red heads, and white legs, turkey vultures are hard to miss in the sky. Look for their silvery flight feathers that are contrasted with dark wing linings while they fly.
Using their keen vision and sharp sense of smell, turkey vultures can locate carrion easily. They are scavengers, and they feed primarily on the carcasses of dead animals. You will often spot them sitting in trees on the sides of roads waiting for their next meal.
Because of their extremely strong stomach acids, turkey vultures can eat and digest carcasses tainted with anthrax, tuberculosis, and rabies, without getting sick.
They lack a syrinx (the vocal organ) which makes them voiceless; all turkey vultures can do is hiss, whine, and grunt.
Turkey Vulture Vocalization | Source: G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
They are one of the largest raptors in the USA, just after the eagles and condors. Some wildlife experts estimate a population of over 18 million turkey vultures in total.
8. Great Egret
- Scientific Name: Ardea alba
- Length: 31-41 in
- Wingspan: 52-67 in
- Weight: 1.5-3.5 lb
These impressively large white birds are common in southwestern parts of Wisconsin during summer, around wetlands.
On average, great egrets measure between 31 and 41 inches in length and have a wingspan of approximately 4.5 to 5.5 feet. They can weigh between 1.5 and 3.5 pounds which makes them one of the biggest members of the heron family of the state.
Great egrets are easy to recognize by their beautiful snow-white plumage, slender bodies, long, yellow beaks, and black legs and feet.
Their beauty almost cost them everything as people hunted these birds so much in the 19th century for the plumes called “aigrettes” which were used as hat decorations – great egrets almost became extinct. Thanks to several laws and conservational measures, their numbers have since recovered but are still listed as Threatened in Wisconsin.
They are seasonally monogamous (stay with the same partner for one breeding season) and breed in colonies in trees close to large lakes. To attract a female, a male great egret will display its mating season plumage and colors and point its beak upward.
Great egrets will slowly stalk their prey or stay motionless, waiting for the right moment to strike and impale prey with their long, sharp bills. They forage in shallow water or drier habitats and mostly feed on fish, frogs, small mammals, small reptiles, crustaceans, and insects.
7. Canada Goose
- Scientific Name: Branta canadensis
- Length: 30-43 in
- Wingspan: 50-73 in
- Weight: 5.7–14.3 lb
Canada geese (not Canadian geese) are the largest goose species found in Wisconsin.
With their 6-foot-long wingspans, length of 3.5 feet, and weights of over 14 pounds, they are one of the most well-known and infamous waterfowl of the state.
These birds are considered a nuisance, destroying vegetation, creating sanitation issues (mostly by dropping feces everywhere), and causing conflicts with people.
According to the 2021 Waterfowl Breeding Population Survey for Wisconsin, there are over 181,000 Canada geese in the state – a massive increase compared to 158,000 in 2018.
These birds are commonly found around wetlands, parks, fields, and golf courses; you will identify Canada geese by their brown color above that is paler below, black necks and heads, white cheeks, and black bills and legs. They are also known for flying in a distinctive V-formation and series of loud “honk” calls.
Canada Goose Call | Source: http://www.nps.gov/archive/wica/Bird_List.htm, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Out of 7 subspecies of Canada geese, there are 4 of them in Wisconsin. Many of them belong to the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP), a group of geese that move from Canada through Wisconsin.
6. Sandhill Crane
- Scientific Name: Grus canadensis
- Length: 47.2 in
- Wingspan: 78.7 in
- Weight: 6-14.8 lb
Less than 100 years ago, it was almost impossible to see a sandhill crane in the state – their numbers dropped to just 15 breeding pairs in the 1930s. Thanks to strong conservation efforts, there are now almost 95,000 sandhill cranes in Wisconsin.
Sandhill cranes are one of the tallest and the most striking birds seen there. These large stork-like birds flying over Wisconsin’s marshes measure almost 4 feet in height, span almost 7 feet across the wings, and weigh almost 15 pounds.
If you are a birdwatched in Wisconsin, you will recognize them by their mostly slate gray plumage, rusty washes on the upperparts, pale cheeks in adults, red patches on their heads, and black legs. These extremely tall birds also have long necks and legs, and very broad wings.
Sandhill cranes are summer residents in the state, usually found around marshes, stubble fields, and parks; they have been also adapting to suburban areas. They might dip themselves in mud to paint their feathers and camouflage themselves in brown grasses.
They are also monogamous and mate for life, staying together for years, until one of the cranes dies. Sandhill cranes mostly feed on plants, insects, and snails.
5. Great Blue Heron
- Scientific Name: Ardea herodias
- Length: 36–54 in
- Wingspan: 66–79 in
- Weight: 4-7.9 lb
Great blue herons are one of the biggest blue birds in the world. They are also the largest herons native to Wisconsin and can be found year-round in wetlands stalking fish with their scissors-like long beaks.
With a wingspan of up to 6.6 ft, these massive birds are hard to miss. Great blue herons are blue-gray and have large yellow-orange beaks, short black plumes on their heads, and black and chestnut patterns on the shoulders. During the flight, they will hold their neck in an S-shape with legs trailing behind.
Great blue herons are monogamous only for a single season and will go through some interesting courtship rituals, locking and rubbing their bills on the feathers of the other bird before mating. Both parents will take turns in incubating the eggs.
They nest in colonies called heronries that can occasionally have more than 500 nests! Great blue herons are carnivores that feed on fish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, small mammals, and even other birds. These wading birds can be seen motionless in shallow waters, waiting to strike at passing prey.
4. Bald Eagle
- Scientific Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
- Length: 28-40 in
- Wingspan: 70.8-90.5 in
- Weight: 6.6-13.9 lb
Bald eagles are the largest eagles in Wisconsin. They range from 28 to 40 inches long and have a wingspan of up to 7 feet 7 inches.
These large raptors were selected in 1782 as the national symbol of the United States and can be identified by their brown bodies, white heads and tails, and yellow legs and beaks. Before attaining these characteristics around the age of five, bald eagles are mostly dark brown with varying amounts of white mottling.
Bald eagles were once listed as Endangered species in Wisconsin but in 1997 they were taken off that list. They went from 108 nests in the early 1970s to a record 1,695 in 2019, expanding to 71 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
Bald eagles build one of the largest nests of any North American bird – the largest recorded one was in Florida and measured 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep.
These magnificent raptors are hard to miss as they soar through the air with their 7.7-foot-wide wingspan. Bald eagles are carnivores and opportunistic feeders that primarily consume fish they snatch from the water with their sharp talons.
If you want to entertain yourself a bit, check out this article where you can see what bald eagles would look like if they had no beaks.
3. Mute Swan
- Scientific Name: Cygnus olor
- Length: 49-67 in
- Wingspan: 79-94 in
- Weight: 18.7-32 lb
Mute swans are large swan species that were introduced to North America in the late 19th century to decorate parks and estates. Wisconsin has several hundreds of mute swans, mostly in the northeastern parts.
They were named “mute” for being less vocal than other swan species, but still produce a variety of hisses and other sounds. Mute swans measure up to 5 ft 7 in long, span 7 ft 10 in across the wings, and weigh up to 32 pounds – this makes them one of the largest birds in Wisconsin!
Identify mute swans by their all-white plumage, orange beaks with black borders, and pronounced knobs on top of their beaks. Mute swans are common around wetland areas including marshes, lakes, parks, and ponds.
These aggressive, territorial, and invasive swans will fight with the native trumpeter swans, pushing them out of their nesting area. Due to their large numbers and negative effect on other waterfowl and vegetation, they are considered invasive species.
2. Trumpeter Swan
- Scientific Name: Cygnus buccinator
- Length: 54-70.8 in
- Wingspan: 72.8-98 in
- Weight: 21-30 lb
In the late 19th century, trumpeter swans were almost extirpated from Wisconsin. Thanks to strong conservation efforts and successful reintroduction in 1989, there are now several thousands of them in the state – they were removed from the endangered species list in 2009.
Trumpeter swans are one of the largest species of waterfowl in Wisconsin. They are also both the heaviest and longest native birds of North America, measuring almost 71 inches long and weighing around 30 pounds.
The largest known trumpeter swan measured 6 ft long, had a wingspan of 10 ft 2 in, and weighed impressive 38 lbs. They can be identified by their enormous size, white colors, pinkish legs, and black bills up to 4.7 inches long.
Trumpeter swans breed in large shallow ponds, undisturbed lakes, wetlands, wide slow rivers, and marshes of northwestern and central North America and Alaska. They migrate to spend winter around the Pacific coast of Northwestern USA and Canada.
Trumpeter swans are loud birds and their calls sound similar to a trumpet, which resulted in the specie’s name. They are omnivores and eat plants found in or near the water. Their diet might also include some insects, small fish, and eggs, but trumpet swans prefer plants overall.
1. American White Pelican
- Scientific Name: Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
- Length: 95-120 in
- Wingspan: 50–70 in
- Weight: 11-20 lb
American white pelicans are the largest birds in Wisconsin.
Everything about these white birds with black flight feathers is enormous. They have a wingspan of up to 9.85 feet and can weigh as much as 30 pounds!
American white pelicans also have one of the longest necks and beaks of any North American waterbird. Their beaks are vivid yellow-orange and measure 11.3–15.2 inches in males and 10.3–15.2 inches in females.
They were once very rare in the state, but American white pelicans have been increasing in numbers in Wisconsin. They are becoming a common sight on many state waterways, nesting on Cat Island near Green Bay, islands on Lake Butte des Morts, and in the Horicon Marsh refuge.
The white pelican population in Wisconsin went from two nests in 1993, 1,101 nests in 1995, to 4,123 in 2013. After nesting, around September, these huge birds will leave their nesting grounds and move south for the winter.
American white pelicans are colonial nesters that gather in large groups around islands. Unlike the closely related brown pelicans who dive from the air to catch fish, white pelicans will sit on the surface of the water before plunging their beaks below the surface.
Their diet mostly consists of fish, but also some crayfish and salamanders – they also love to eat walleye in spring in the Fox River.
This concludes our list of large birds in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is home to a variety of large birds, including several species of raptors, such as bald eagles and ospreys, and waterfowl, such as Canada geese and trumpeter swans. Other large birds found in Wisconsin include turkey vultures, great blue herons, and sandhill cranes.
Some of these birds are permanent residents of Wisconsin, while others migrate through the state seasonally.
If you are interested in learning more about large birds found in other US states, check the links below.