Week of September 18, 2022 – September 24, 2022

Bridget Jones staff member and Environmental Educator

by Bridget Jones, Environmental Educator

As dusk begins to fall earlier, I’ve been thinking about the wildlife that comes out at night. At our Night at the Woods program this past Friday, we were lucky enough to hear several Eastern Screech Owls calling to each other in the woods! The experience made me look forward to cold winter nights, when owls start singing in search of mates. Although winter is a prime time to hear owls, owl songs can be heard year round, if you know how to listen for them.

When we think of owl songs, many of us think of the “hoot” sounds that owls are famous for. However, owls have a great variety of songs across species. This variation is key to identifying owls in the dark. Two common owls in our area, the Great Horned Owl and Barred Owl, both use the stereotypical “hoot” sounds in their songs. Differentiating between them requires listening more closely to the patterns and tones that the song contains. Barred Owls sing in a distinctive pattern that is said to sound like “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” Great Horned Owls, in contrast, sing with three short notes followed by two long ones. Since Great Horned Owls are larger, their voices also tend to be deeper than Barred Owls. Meanwhile, some owls don’t hoot at all. For example, Eastern Screech Owls give a light, musical trill that sounds like a horse’s whinny, and Northern Saw-whet Owls sing with a high pitched “too-too-too.” This song, which sometimes sounds like a saw being sharpened, is thought to have inspired their name.

In addition to being beautiful and haunting to a human ear, owl songs also function as a tool of communication between owls. Their distinctive songs are used to find and attract mates, as well as establish and defend territories against other owls. Owls also use a series of shorter calls such as screeching, barking, or cackling to defend their nest, court a potential mate, or beg parents for food. Besides vocalizations, owls also communicate using other parts of their body. Many owl species click their bills together when irritated. Some species, such as Long-eared Owls, even clap their wings while flying as part of a courtship ritual.

If you’re interested in hearing owl songs or learning more about the owls mentioned here, please check out the link below!

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/browse/taxonomy/Strigidae