The hooting of an owl after sunset is one of the most distinctive sounds in nature. It conjures up a sense of mystery, excitement, and even fear in some people. But why do owls hoot? Are they communicating?
Owls hoot for various reasons. The primary reason for these calls is to communicate with other members of an owl's own species. Owls mostly hoot to tell other owls that they are occupying a specific territory and that visitors are not welcome. They may also hoot to attract a mate and strengthen their pair bond, however.
Owls are capable of a wide variety of different vocalizations, ranging from whistling and chirping to hooting and grunting. The familiar hoot is a well-known call of common American species like the great horned and barred owls, although several other owl species make similar calls.
Read along as we learn more about why and when owls hoot. It may just change the way you think about these mysterious nocturnal hunters.
In the US, Barred Owls are one of the most common and familiar owl hoots to hear
Most people associate owls with hooting, but these birds are able to produce a wide variety of calls. The different owl species are each capable of producing a range of sounds for different reasons, and not all owls can hoot. Many of these sounds are very different from the deep mellow hooting that we expect owls to make.
Owls produce all sorts of strange sounds from high-pitched screams to non-vocal snapping sounds made by shutting their bills. Barn owls, for example, produce a rather spooky hissing shriek call while eastern screech owls whinny almost like a horse!
Instead of hooting, barn owls produce a shriek
The great horned owl and the barred owl produce the most recognizable hooting calls of all the American owls. As a general rule, the larger owl species tend to hoot while smaller species have higher-pitched voices. The flammulated owl is an interesting exception, however, producing a remarkably deep hoot for a bird of its size.
The following other American owls species also hoot:
These American owls do not hoot:
Long-eared owl (strix otus), taken in the countryside in mid Wales, Great Britain, UK
Owls are capable of producing a surprising array of different vocalizations. Here are just some of the different sounds these birds can make:
Continue reading to learn more about when owls hoot and what these mysterious calls mean.
Most owls are nocturnal birds that are active during the night. This means they do most of their calling under the cover of darkness. Owls are also most vocal in the months leading up to the breeding season although this timing varies between the different species. Snowy owls, for example, begin nesting in the late fall while great horned owls breed in the middle of winter.
Some owls make their first vocalizations even before they have hatched, possibly to get the attention of their brooding mother. Immature owls usually do not produce quite the same hooting calls as their parents but they do make a range of vocalizations as they mature.
Great horned owls, for example, only begin true hooting at about a year of age.
Snowy owls become more vocal during late fall
Owls tend to be most vocal in the first hour after sunset and just before sunrise the following morning. They can be heard at just about any time of the night, however, and sometimes they will call practically from dusk until dawn.
Researchers studying eagle owls in Spain found that the birds were more vocal on moonlit nights when their white throat patches were more visible.
The great horned owl has a similar throat patch and is a closely related species of the same genus, so they may well show the same preference for calling when the moon is up.
You are far more likely to hear an owl calling after dark than during the day but there are some exceptions to this rule. Barred owls, for example, are very vocal birds that are often heard hooting during the daylight hours. You are more likely to hear their characteristic hooting call after dark, however.
Sometimes an owl calling during the day is not an owl at all. Some diurnal birds like mourning doves and rock pigeons also produce low-pitched calls that can be easily mistaken for a hooting owl.
A perched Great grey owl
Owls hoot to communicate with other members of their own species. These calls can be used to attract other owls, or keep them away. Keep reading to learn the meaning of different owl calls.
Owls hoot to mark their territories. By hooting, owls are informing their neighbors that they are still present and willing to fight to defend their space. Owls will fly in and respond aggressively if they hear or see any intruders in their territory.
Breeding pairs often hoot together in duet, and it is even possible to tell which bird is male and which is female by their calls. Female spotted owls, barred owls, and great horned owls have higher-pitched voices, even though they are larger than their male counterparts.
Owls also hoot to attract a mate and to strengthen their pair bond. The calling often intensifies well before breeding actually takes place. The calls of the different sexes can be quite different. Male and female spotted owls, for example, produce different hoots and whistles before mating.
A breeding pair of male and female barn owls
Winter can be a tough time for bird watching, especially in the north where so many species are only present for part of the year. This is a great time of year for spotting owls, however.
Many owl species are most vocal during the breeding season and this is certainly true of one of America’s largest owl species, the great horned owl. Great horned owls breed in the winter months, which is quite unusual among birds. These owls provide prolonged parental care lasting several months, so it makes sense for their chicks to start fending for themselves in the warmer months when food is plentiful.
Great horned owls begin hooting during their courtship in January. The pair will often call in duet at this time delighting bird watchers on cold dark nights with their familiar hooting call.
The barred owl is another resident owl species that begin breeding early. These owls often start calling from forested areas in February, producing their characteristic ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call.
Great horned owls usually begin hooting during their courtship in January
The hoot of an owl on a dark night is an evocative sound that has different meanings to different people all over the world. For some, a hooting owl can be a bad omen, while others take it as an indication of good fortune.
Some Native American peoples revere and respect the owl as they are thought to guide the dead into the afterlife. It is easy to see why they could be feared and seen as a bad omen! Other people see the owl as a symbol of wisdom, even though owls are not known to be particularly smart birds.
The great horned owl produces a characteristic hooting call that often sounds like 4 syllables. The typical call has been described as hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo, although the number of hoots in each call can vary.
The barred owl is a common species of mature forest habitats. These owls have a wonderful call that sounds just like ‘who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?
Perched barred owl calling from a branch
Owl calls can carry for long distances on still, cold nights. Some researchers have claimed to have heard snowy owl calls from nearly seven miles away, although that could be a bit of a stretch!
Owls can produce some pretty unexpected calls. Great horned owls scream when defending their nest and the screeching call of the barn owl is enough to startle anyone with a nervous disposition!
There are a few different birds that can sound a lot like owls. The mourning dove is a common bird that can sound very much like a hooting owl, but these birds usually call during the day.
Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox