Birding By Ear

Learn to Identify Five Owls by Their Calls

These original hooters have a surprisingly big vocabulary.

An owl heard is as good as an owl seen. At least, that's what you can tell yourself the next time you eavesdrop on one but can't actually spot it (they are great at camouflage). These beloved raptors are known for their impressive hoots, of course, but their language consists of a multitude of sounds: yelps, whistles, barks, and beak snaps, just to name a few. Here are five common North American species and their most oft-used calls.

All recordings are from Lang Elliott's birdsong collection, featured in Audubon's Birds of North America Field Guide.

Barred Owl

Listen:

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

No, that isn't your mother yelling at you through the woods: It's a beautiful Barred Owl, just begging for some well-deserved appreciation. This call is often used among the species, and consists of two rhythmic phrases, with the last syllable drawn out the longest. Barred Owls are found in the eastern half of the United States, along with some parts of the Pacific Northwest and Canada.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl. Photo: Helen Steussy/Audubon Photography Awards

Listen:

Though the Barn Owl may look elegant, its voice is anything but. It mainly relies on a set of high-pitched screams to communicate—either a k-r-r-r-r-ick to advertise itself to other members of its species, or a longer, more forceful shriek to signal distress or a warning. You can hear their calls almost anywhere in the Lower 48 (with the exception of a few northern states), as well as five other continents.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl. Photo: Christopher Schwarz/Audubon Photography Awards

Listen:

This tufted, yellow-eyed fellow is the owl world's version of Barry White. Its gravelly hoots carry far, and sound almost like a muffled foghorn from a distance. When pairs chant together the female goes first, followed closely by the male. The second and third hoots in their series tend to be the shortest. Great Horned Owls can be found all over the continental United States, Alaska, and most of Canada.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl. Photo: Jen St. Louis/Audubon Photography Awards

Listen:

When you think of an Eastern Screech-Owl, think of a horse on helium: The little raptor lets out a descending whinny, capped off with a trill. (Males usually call at a lower pitch than females.) In general, the bird is a master of vibrato; it uses a monotonic and soothing trill to converse with its kin, too. The screech-owls out West, meanwhile, have a call that sounds more like an errant bouncy ball.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owls. Photo: Jay Miller/Audubon Photography Awards

Listen:

If you live along the southern border of the United States or in Mexico, you get to hang out with the charming Burrowing Owl all year long! Listen for a simple coo-coooo, coo-coooo, with a gentle little wheeze at the end: That's the species' main call. Sometimes the owls will rely on sound as a defense, mimicking rattlesnakes to keep encroaching predators away from their precious burrows. Hear more about that behavior in this BirdNote podcast.

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