Whooo's out there in the cold winter weather? Owls! They are majestic, beautiful and interesting. When we hear them call out across the snow, we get excited. And if we see them? It’s the best. So strap on your winter gear and go owling tonight.
Which owl is which?
Part of the reason we think of owls at wintertime is because some of them stick around Will County all year. Before you go outside, get to know them. It will help you identify them in the wild.
Great horned owl: Great horned owls are our largest owl residents, so they are recognizable with their yellow eyes, large tufts and deep hooting voice. Take a listen. They nest in flat areas, so look for them up high in blown out trees or old red-tailed hawk nests.
Barred owl: Named for the bar patterns on their feathers, barred owls have a great call that sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” Can you hear it? They’re known for their black eyes and round heads, which you might spot in a tree cavity. They like forests.
Barn owl: Most known for their heart-shaped white faces, barn owls have an intense call. They sound like someone screaming in the night. Check out their call. Search for them in open spaces. Barn owls are endangered in Illinois. While they are common in some places, this is the owl you are least likely to see here.
Eastern screech owl: No bigger than a glass, eastern screech owls look like miniature great horned owls. Listen for their whinnies and trills in forested areas. Take a listen.
Grab your gear
Owling is a nighttime adventure during the coldest time of year. Make sure to suit up in warm clothes and protective winter coats, boots, hats, gloves and scarfs. Snow pants aren’t a bad idea to keep the cold away. Don’t wear reflective outer layers, because that will capture owls’ attention. Optional gear you can bring: binoculars, warm soup or hot chocolate in a Thermos, chairs, hand warmers and blankets. You can bring a flashlight, but don’t plan on using it too much.
How to go owling
Owls have amazing night vision and even better hearing. You’re not going to sneak up on them. They will know you are there. The trick is to make them comfortable with your presence. How? Just be as quiet as you can.
Go out for an owl walk at dusk or at night. Or you might want to find a good spot and just sit there for a while. You can get comfy in a camp chair or lay out a blanket in the snow. Watch and listen. The key is patience. On your first go-around you might not hear an owl, but what other noises do you hear at night? Don’t forget to enjoy the stars while you wait.
Flashlights are fun, but challenge yourself to leave them off. By doing this, we give our eyes time to adjust to the dark. We can see a lot more at night than we give ourselves credit for! Plus, you won’t startle owls with flashes of light.
Where to go?
Forest preserves are closed at night, but you can try owling in your own back yard or neighborhood. The Forest Preserve District offers owl hikes throughout fall and winter. Keep an eye on our event calendar for upcoming events.
A word of caution
February is nesting season, which is an important time of the year for owls. We don’t want to stress them out. To help them stay safe in their environment, do not play owl calls outside. If you spot an owl, make sure to give it plenty of space. A good rule of thumb: If an owl (or any bird) reacts to your presence, you are too close.
Owling is a great way to enjoy this season at night. Good luck on your owl hunt!
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