Owls are mysterious creatures. They are secretive enough that most people who encounter one consider it a fortunate event, whether or not they are only casual bird watchers or self-professed “bird nerds.” I, a bird nerd, have happened upon dozens of owls over the past decade since I first became interested in hiking, camping, and – you guessed it – bird watching.
There are times when owls fly out of the thick woods into sight, peering down on human beings with a silent aura of wisdom. Other times, owls are simply heard and never seen. We are all familiar with owl hoots, eerie calls made into the night at unexpected times, as these noises shape our experiences with others while camping or roasting marshmallows over an open fire. Hoots remind us of the presence of creatures that live in darkness. We are humbled by owls, deadly hunters that can hear and see with more accuracy than us at night, just as we are humbled by the fierce nature of sharks, the superior strength of oxen, and lightning speed of cheetahs.
One of my first memories of hearing owl hoots in the night was on my first trip to Everglades National Park in Florida. During the day, I explored several trails, gawking in wonder as Roseate Spoonbills flew overhead and warblers chipped in the mangroves. Then I lay awake at night in my tent, listening to the ocean and a distant series of noises. I focused on the sounds until I realized the calls formed a pattern asking “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for youuu allllll?” Remembering the bird song tapes I listened to during the road trip, I knew this was a Barred Owl, the second-largest of the five species that could be found in the state. But why was this owl making noise at night? What do owl hoots mean, anyway?
What does it mean when you hear an owl hoot?
Hoots are used to communicate and can convey several different messages.
- Owls primarily hoot to claim their territory and fend off any would-be intruders (1).
- Hoots can also be used to signal the presence of a predator.
- Other times, a special type of hoot is used for communication between mated pairs (2). Owl pairs can and will perform duets together to reaffirm their bond – so romantic (3)!
In some species, hoots contain enough individual variation that male owls can tell the difference between neighbors and strangers; they are more aggressive toward strange owl hoots than familiar ones (4).
Researchers have created methods to assess individual vocalizations across several owl species, and have found individual owls will generally retain a consistent style over time (2, 5, 6). In this way, owls are as unique as people and can easily tell each other apart.
How to differentiate owl hoots?
Territorial hoots are very different from calls made between pairs. The vocal range of some species can include 13 or more sounds, all used in different settings and for different purposes (7). Aggressive hoots meant to advertise how macho a male owl is are longer, louder, and more dramatic than hoots used between pairs.
Duets are composed of short hooting sounds in a series, and male hoots will complement a female’s hoots back to him. Pair vocalizations are heard more frequently in the latter half of the breeding season, but can occur when pairs are forming in the early season as well to alert nearby owls that their territory is occupied (3).
Other vocalizations made by owls include a short note called an “inspection call,” which is a form of contact call used when two owls approach one another. Other owl calls like “gurgles” and “mumbles” can sound similar to crow vocalizations.
Others, like “twitters” and “screams” are very high-pitched. Hoots can be ascending, descending, one-phrase, two-phrase, two-note, or three-note . Phrases can be broken up; for example, Barred Owls say “Who cooks for you?” as a one-phrase but add “Who cooks for you all?” to make it a two-phrased hoot.
One-phrase vocalizations and other short sounds like two-note, three-note, gurgles, and mumbles are more common to be heard in duets. Other calls, like two-phrased hoots and inspection calls, are almost never heard in duets. (7)
Although duets can be spontaneous, in some species, females will initiate a duet after a male brings her prey (8). This is done as a courtship behavior and increases the ability of female owls to lay eggs (8). Wild owls can survive to be 25 years old or more (9); imagine how rich and complex their lives are beyond the one “hoot” sound byte we hear from them by chance.
When it’s most likely to hear owls hooting?
The first sound an owl will make occurs while it is still inside the egg before hatching; chicks will make chirps while growing in the nest (10). The first hoots by juvenile males are practiced during their first winter, but it takes time for these young birds to vocalize sounds correctly like their parents (11).
Fully mature adult owls hoot in earnest during the breeding season, usually from late winter to early spring (but this timing varies by species and geographic location). Hoots are used frequently at this time of year to communicate to potential mates, current mates, and other neighboring owls (12).
Owls usually hoot at night; they are most boisterous right after sunset, sporadic throughout the night, and can be heard shortly before sunrise too (12). This order of birds called Strigiformes is mostly nocturnal with only a few exceptions, so hearing calls or hoots from an owl is rare during the day (13). However, this is not impossible; I have heard a Barred Owl hoot in broad daylight during the summer and I have found they are also more likely to call in the morning if the sunlight is dim from rain clouds.
Moon phases can also affect how much an owl will hoot. Some owls hoot most in the week before the new moon, which is during the darkest time of the month (12). But one species, the Eurasian Eagle-owl, hoots more when moonlight is brightest. This is thought to be because their impressive white throat patch (only exposed while hooting) is more visible with increased light conditions (14). Talk about stealing the limelight!
The different types of hoots owls make
To become familiar with the different types of owl hoots you can expect, check out this video created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which covers species found in the United States:
Eastern US owl calls
Make sure it wasn’t a dove!
When I was young, I used to sit in my backyard and listen to birds chirping and singing. In the evening, I always thought it was strange that I heard calls that sounded like an owl even though it wasn’t dark yet. After I became interested in birdwatching and taught myself basic song and call identification, I realized that I never actually heard an owl! Mourning Doves call deeply and are often mistaken for owls, and there were enough of them in my neighborhood to cause confusion. Hearing the difference is easy once you compare dove calls to real owl hoots.
Mourning dove call
Other dove songs can be confused for owl hoots too. Band-tailed Pigeons and White-winged Doves are two other examples found in the south and west of the United States. In Europe, Eurasian Collared-doves make similarly mistakable sounds. The best tactic for proper bird identification is to familiarize yourself with local bird songs. With practice, you will be able to decide more easily if a “coo” was actually a “hoot,” and vice versa.