Ohio is famous for its rich avifauna – there are almost 450 bird species there with a number of those being very active during the night!
Examples of nocturnal birds in Ohio include the common nighthawk, American woodcock, black-crowned night heron, great horned owl, long-eared owl, and many others.
Do some of them sound familiar? Let’s jump in and see what each of these looks and sounds like!
Night Birds In Ohio
1. Common Nighthawk
- Scientific Name: Chordeiles minor
- Length: 8.7-9.8 in
- Wingspan: 20-24 in
- Weight: 1.9-3.5 oz
These medium-sized birds with split tails and long, pointed wings are crepuscular and nocturnal raptors found throughout Ohio.
You might get to spot one from May to September when they come to the state to breed before going back to South America. During their 1,600-4,200-mile-long travels, common nighthawks might migrate during the night, in thousands.
Keep in mind that common nighthawks are camouflaged and blend well with the environment during the day. Their plumage is usually gray, black, and brown with white wing patches close to the base of primary feathers.
There are 9 recognized subspecies of common nighthawks. They are common around prairies, forests, savannahs, and urban areas, where they feed on large insects during the night.
Source: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
During summer evenings, watch and listen to their “booming” flight displays where they fly slightly above trees before diving down for the ground. Their wingtips will make deep booms, similar to racing cars passing by.
- Scientific Name: Antrostomus carolinensis
- Length: 11-13 in
- Wingspan: 23-26 in
- Weight: 2.3-6.6 oz
Chuck-will’s-widows are large night birds with big heads, short bills, and long tails. Their plumage varies from grayish to rufous with intricate patterns, camouflaging them well in the trees.
In Ohio, these nightjars can be seen during summer in southern parts of the state. Chuck-will’s-widows are migratory and resemble eastern whip-poor-wills and common nighthawks.
These birds are nocturnal, calling and hunting at dusk, predawn, and at night – you might have spotted them in your headlights while driving as they love to sit on the roads and roadsides at night.
These birds hunt for insects when the sun sets and are particularly fond of moths, beetles, and winged ants. They were named after their distinctive whistled songs that sound like “chuck-wills-widow“.
Source: James G. Howes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Eastern Whip-poor-will
- Scientific Name: Antrostomus vociferus
- Length: 8.7-10.6 in
- Wingspan: 17.7-19.6 in
- Weight: 1.5-2.4 oz
Eastern whip-poor-wills can be seen in southeastern Ohio during their breeding season. In the state, they breed from May to June, and migrate south around September and October – they start returning back around the end of April.
These cryptic nocturnal birds are easier to hear than to see as they remain motionless and sleep during the day. The best way to identify them is by their song – a whistled “whip-poor-will” that is emitted in forests with open understories they inhabit.
Source: G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Eastern whip-poor-wills have mottled plumage with a mixture of brown, black, and gray that camouflages them well with their environment.
They hunt at night, feeding on flying insects they catch from the ground. Eastern whip-poor-wills closely resemble common nighthawks – the two can be differentiated by their behavior and characteristic calls.
4. American Woodcock
- Scientific Name: Scolopax minor
- Length: 10-12 in
- Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 in
- Weight: 5-8 oz
American woodcocks are small shorebirds found throughout Ohio during summer; they are one of Ohio’s earliest spring migrants.
They mainly inhabit brushy and young-forested habitats and are easy to spot by their large heads, short necks, and short tails. Their plumage is a mix of browns, grays, and blacks.
American woodcocks also have very long, straight, and prehensile beaks. During the night, they spend their time probing the soil in pursuit of earthworms and other invertebrates. Thanks to the unique beak structure, woodcocks can open and close the tips of their upper bills while they are sunk into the ground.
American woodcocks also migrate at night and might hit windows, communications towers, and other structures. Because of their nocturnal lifestyle, inconspicuous colors, and low-profile behaviors, American woodcocks are usually very hard to spot. Around dusk and dawn during springtime, you might manage to find males calling and showing off with their stunning aerial displays.
Source: Jonathon Jongsma, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
They are also known as timberdoodles, bogsuckers, and hokumpokes and have unique and large eyes that allow them to see 360° horizontally and 180° vertically. American woodcocks are popular game birds, with over half a million birds caught annually by hunters.
5. Wilson’s Snipe
- Scientific Name: Gallinago delicata
- Length: 9.1–11.0 in
- Wingspan: 15–18 in
- Weight: 2.8–5.2 oz
These small and stocky shorebirds are one of the most widespread in North America. Easy to recognize by their mottled brown upperparts, pale underparts, a dark stripe through the eye, and pointed wings, they are breeding residents of Ohio.
Source: Doug Hynes, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Wilson’s snipes are common around pond edges, damp fields, and other wet, open habitats, with low vegetation that camouflages them well. When the breeding season comes, males will make “winnowing” displays, flying high in circles and then taking shallow dives to produce a distinctive sound. This behavior can be spotted during the day and long into the night.
6. Barn Owl
- Scientific Name: Tyto alba
- Length: 13-15 in
- Wingspan: 31-37 in
- Weight: 9-19 oz
One of the most widely distributed species of owl in the world, barn owls are highly elusive raptors found around open fields, riparian areas, and farms.
These medium-sized owls have a “ghostly” appearance due to their heart-shaped heads, cinnamon and gray upperparts, and white underparts.
Barn owls are strictly nocturnal birds listed as threatened within the state of Ohio. You will find them around wet meadows, hay, and lightly-grazed pasture habitats, in central and southeastern parts of the state.
According to the Ohio Department Of Natural Resources, there are around 60 pairs in the state with most of them found in Holmes and Wayne counties, near Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area, and Pike and Ross counties in south-central Ohio.
Barn owls do not hoot and make bone-chilling screams instead. They hunt for rodents during the night and roost in nest boxes, caves, tree hollows, and old buildings.
Source: Luis Gracia, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
7. Eastern Screech-owl
- Scientific Name: Megascops asio
- Length: 6.3-10 in
- Wingspan: 18-24 in
- Weight: 4-8 oz
Eastern screech owls are small and stocky owls with big heads, large yellow eyes, often-raised small ear tufts, and horn-colored beaks. Out of all North American owls, they are the most strictly nocturnal.
In Ohio, they are common throughout the state, usually around different habitats with trees and near water. They are considered the most common owl in the state and occur in every county.
Eastern screech-owls are easier to hear than to see – they are most active at night when they hunt insects, small mammals, and birds. Their big eyes and sharp vision come in very handy for picking up small movements at night.
Source: Jonathon Jongsma, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Eastern screech-owls come in two colors: mostly gray or mostly reddish-brown – regardless of the overall color, they are patterned with complex bands and spots that help camouflage these birds against tree bark. Gray morphs are more common in the northern half of the state, while red morphs can be locally abundant in southern Ohio.
8. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
- Length: 17-25 in
- Wingspan: 35.8-60.2 in
- Weight: 2.7-3.5 lb
Great horned owls are one of the biggest birds found in Ohio. They measure almost two feet long, weigh up to 3.5 pounds, and can be found throughout the year in the state. They live in mountains, grasslands, conifer forests, deserts, chaparrals, and many other habitats.
They are the second most common owls in the state, after eastern screech-owls. Despite becoming quite rare at the start of the 19th century, great horned owls can be seen in every county in Ohio – Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area and Magee Marsh Wildlife Area are some good places to spot these birds.
Great horned owls have the most diverse diet of all North American raptors. Aggressive and excellent hunters, these big birds feed on rabbits, hares, rats, mice, voles, other small mammals, larger mid-sized mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. They might occasionally even attack larger prey, including raptors such as ospreys, Peregrine falcons, prairie falcons, and other owls.
Great horned owls hunt during the night using their acute hearing and excellent eyesight and can fly in near silence to catch the prey by surprise. Typically well-camouflaged, these nocturnal owls are never easy to spot in the wild.
In case you see a great horned owl in person, you will notice long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow eyes, and a deep hooting call.
Source: Michael & Katie LaTour, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Interested to see what these owls would look like with blue eyes? Check out this article.
9. Barred Owl
- Scientific Name: Strix varia
- Length: 16-25 in
- Wingspan: 38-49 in
- Weight: 1.3-2.5 lb
Known under several names (northern barred owls, striped owls, or more informally, hoot owls), barred owls are large birds with mottled brown and white plumage.
They can be identified by their yellow beaks, absence of ear tufts, and hoots that sound like “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” and that can be heard almost half a mile away.
Source: Jonathon Jongsma, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Barred owls also have large and dark brown, almost black eyes.
Barred owls are nocturnal birds of prey that live in Ohio year-round and hunt for small prey such as insects, small mammals, crayfish, and crabs, around mature forests, particularly swampy woods and forested ravines.
They are mostly active at night but might occasionally call and hunt during the day.
Barred owls will nest in tree holes or use abandoned nests of other animals, from red-tailed hawks to squirrels. After they establish nests, they become very territorial and aggressive – they will chase away intruders by hooting aggressively or attacking them with their sharp talons!
Read more: Most Common Birds Seen In Northeast Ohio
10. Long-eared Owl
- Scientific Name: Asio otus
- Length: 12-16 in
- Wingspan: 34-40 in
- Weight: 9-15 oz
These secretive, nocturnal, and well-camouflaged birds are winter residents of Ohio. After spending most of the year in the boreal forests of Canada and the northern USA, long-eared owls can be seen anywhere in the state, except in the heavily forested areas of the southeast.
If you live in Ohio, the best way to identify them would be to listen for their calls – males can be extremely vocal and emit hoots that can be heard from over half a mile away.
Source: Alexander Kurthy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Also known as northern long-eared owls, lesser horned owls, or cat owls, these medium-sized owls with long ear tufts inhabit brushy thickets, conifer groves, and semi-open areas.
North American long-eared owls have yellow eyes, while their Eurasian counterparts have orange-reddish ones. Long-eared owls also have gray-brown bodies with pale bars and heavy streaks on their underparts.
Long-eared owls are strictly nocturnal and only hunt over open fields and meadows; you will not see them hunting during the day. Thanks to their strongly developed sense of hearing, long-eared owls can grab prey in complete darkness.
They are specialized hunters, focusing entirely on small rodents. For example, in Japan, long-eared owls primarily consume Japanese grass voles, gray red-backed voles, and house mice.
You can also read more about the other 11 owl species found in Japan.
11. Short-eared Owl
- Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
- Length: 13-17 in
- Wingspan: 33-43 in
- Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz
Short-eared owls are found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia, making them one of the most widespread bird species.
In Ohio, these owls can be seen during winter throughout most of the state; there might be some pairs breeding in the southernmost parts. They are the only ground-nesting owls in Ohio and mostly inhabit open grasslands, including weedy fields, grass strips of small airports, coastal marshes, and even agricultural fields with stubble.
Short-eared owls are mottled brown above, whitish below, and have very short ear tufts and black beaks. They also have large yellow eyes that are accentuated by black rings, making them look like they are wearing mascara!
Although mostly silent, short-eared owls will make a series of “voo-hoo-hoo” calls during the breeding season.
Source: Jamescandless, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
They are generally nocturnal when most of the hunting happens, but they can also be crepuscular (active near dawn and dusk) and even diurnal (to a much lesser extent). These owls are migratory birds that feed mostly on voles, rats, bats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, and some birds.
Fun Fact: Short-eared owls are fearless birds that will often harass falcons, herons, and eagles, just for fun!
12. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
- Length: 6.7-8.7 in
- Wingspan: 16.5-22.2 in
- Weight: 1.9-5.3 oz
These small owls native to North America are often found around coniferous and deciduous forests. They are similar to American robins in terms of size which makes them the smallest owl species in Ohio.
Because of their tiny size, strictly nocturnal habits, and roosting in heavy cover, they are one of the toughest nocturnal birds in Ohio owls to spot during winter.
Northern saw-whet owls are mottled brown with white-spotted heads, whitish facial disks, yellow eyes, and lack of ear tufts. What makes their flight feathers unique is the compound called porphyrin – the pigment gives their feathers a neon pink fluorescence when exposed to UV light.
Northern saw-whet owls were named after their loud and repetitive whistles that are described as “a saw being sharpened on a whetstone”.
Strictly solitary, the species hunt at night from low perch and use sight and sound to locate their prey. Northern saw-whet owls are carnivores and mostly feed on mice, voles, lemmings, small birds, and some insects.
Read More: Most Common Night Birds In Texas
13. Black-crowned Night Heron
- Scientific Name: Nycticorax nycticorax
- Length: 22.8-26 in
- Wingspan: 45.3-46.5 in
- Weight: 25.6-35.8 oz
These pale grayish herons with large heads, black caps, short legs, and red eyes, often hold their short necks tucked in which gives an impression of a stocky build.
Black-crowned night herons, also known as black-capped night herons, are one of the most widespread heron species in the world.
Although they were once common in marshes and swamps throughout Ohio, the majority of nesting night herons are found on West Sister Island National Wildlife Refuge and Green Island in Lake Erie, and Turning Point Island in Sandusky Bay.
Unlike most of their long-legged heron relatives, black-crowned night herons are most active at night or at dusk, when they feed on fish, frogs, small mammals, young waterbirds, insects, snakes, and even garbage at landfills.
Black-crowned night herons are one of several heron species that will bait fish – throw some food in the water to lure the fish before striking them with their long beaks. These nocturnal and noisy herons will also migrate in large flocks exclusively during the night.
Part of their scientific name “Nycticorax” comes from ancient Greek and means “night raven”, referring to their nocturnal feeding habits and croaking crow-like calls.
Source: Jonathon Jongsma, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Read More: List Of Birds Heard During The Night In Florida
Ohio’s rich avifauna is brimming with nocturnal birds. Some can be seen year-round there, like several owl species, while others, like common nighthawks, visit the state only to breed.
In case you’ve stumbled upon any of these birds or head them at night, we hope this guide helped you identify which ones they were.