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Whoooo's That? Learn Our Local Owl Calls

Hoo hoo-hoo! Did you just hear an owl?!

A snowy owl in a snowy landscape with trees in the background.
A snowy owl. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Listening to their night calls is the best way to enjoy the magic of owls in the fall and winter. Even if you never see them, their calls will let you know they are near.

Why do owls hoot?

Why do you talk? Or laugh? Or growl? Owls need to get their point across, too! Hoots, screeches, chatter and warbles are all used to communicate with each other. They might be saying “Hey, this is my space!” and protecting their territory. Sometimes they call out “Heyyyy, pretty lady/handsome dude” when they are wooing a mate. Or you might hear them cry out “Hey! Watch out! Danger!” as a predator creeps up.

When do owls hoot?

You will mostly hear them at dawn, dusk or night because that’s when they are awake. Most owls are crepuscular (alert during the bookends of the day: dawn or dusk) or nocturnal (active at night). You could say they are real night owls! When are you most alert? Is that when you are the chattiest?

They are built for night life with great, big tube-shaped eyes (to take what little light is there), sound-funneling face feathers and incredibly sensitive ears. Armed with these adaptations, they can navigate the dark world in a way we can’t.

Hooters, tooters and screechers

So what do some of the owls of Will County sound like? Go on, try your best hoot!

Owl calls mostly fall into one of three categories: hoots, toots and screeches. Hooter and screecher calls are what they sound like. Tooters are usually smaller owls that give off high-pitched hoots and whistles. Knowing this can help you narrow down what type of owl you are hearing.

Just like you can tell a chickadee from a red-winged blackbird based on their calls, you can also tell a great horned owl from a barred owl. Each owl species has its own sounds and patterns of calling. Once you know the difference, and with a little practice, you will be an owl call ID wizard!

A great horned owl with its head turned backward while perched on a tree snag.
A great horned owl. (Photo courtesy of Chad Morsch)

Great horned owl: A hooter: The largest of our year-round owl residents, the great horned owl call is surprisingly soft and low. It is the most owl-y sounding of the owl songs. They go, “hoo, h’HOO, hoo, hoo.” When you think owl call, this is the one that comes to mind. Listen to great horned owl sounds.

A barred owl perched on a bare tree branch.
A barred owl. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Barred owl: A hooter: With pitch-dark eyes and bar-like stripes in their feathers, barred owls make a call that’s a treat to hear. Their signature song sounds almost like, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you, all?” Listen to barred owl sounds.

A barn owl in flight with its wings fully extended.
A barn owl. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Barn owl: A screecher: Barn owls have white faces, white bellies and white on the undersides of their wings. One of the calls they make is a terrifying “SHRIEK!,” so you can forgive people for thinking they’ve just witnessed a ghost flying overhead! Listen to barn owl sounds.

An eastern screech owl perched on a tree snag.
An eastern screech owl. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Screech owl: A tooter: Turns out screech owls don’t screech at all! At about the size of a robin, the eastern screech owl whinnies and trills, creating a call almost like the long whinny of a horse. Listen to eastern screech owl sounds. The only screech owl you will hear in Will County is the eastern screech owl, but just for fun let’s compare them to their cousin, the western screech owl. This tiny owl sounds like a bouncy ball! Western screech owls live from Alaska to Arizona. Listen to western screech owl sounds.

A snowy owl sitting in snow.
A snowy owl. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Snowy Owl: A hooter: Will County is on the very southern tip of their non-breeding range, which means you might see or hear them in the winter. They make low, powerful, raspy hoots, and they will also whistle and hiss. Listen to snowy owl sounds.

The more you listen to these different calls, the better you will get at identifying the species by sound alone. You can even make a game of it, quizzing your friends or family to see who has the best owling ear. Are you any good at mimicking these calls?

Listen to the night sky for owl songs. Can you hear any in real life? You can also join in the many owl hikes around Will County this winter! Check out our event calendar for upcoming programs.


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