If you know anything about birds, you've probably had a friend or even stranger that knows little about birds say something along these lines to you: "I have an owl right outside my window, and it's really loud." Or better yet: "I have a bunch of owls around my place!"
Now, if you have indeed been here before, then you have likely—and rightly—responded somewhat skeptically. For this person's sake, you hope they do have an owl nearby (it's certainly possible), but you are also keenly aware of a few things that make you doubtful.
First off, if they are indeed hearing the bird directly outside their window or have "a bunch," there are already issues. Though it's not unheard of, owls don't make a habit of hanging around windows, and while you can sometimes see them in groups during mating season, they are typically solitary birds unless nesting. An alleged owl hooting during the day is another red flag, as they are largely nocturnal. Finally, if this person lives in an apartment building sandwiched between two other buildings in the dense Manhattan neighborhood of SoHo (real-life example yours truly once encountered), then there's no freaking way. Owls can live and even thrive in urban environments, but they still need trees and space to hunt. Location means a lot is what I'm saying.
If it's not an owl, then what is it? Most likely a Mourning Dove. Not only can their call sound a lot like an owl's hooting to the untrained ear, but these skittish blue-gray birds can also be found everywhere from window ledges and alleyways to backyards and bird feeders. In fact, there isn't a corner of the U.S. where you can't find one. Where there are people, there are Mourning Doves. Not so with owls.
Still, all this information isn't always enough to convince someone of the truth, and understandably so. In many cases, the forlorn cooing that gives the Mourning Dove its name sounds more like the stereotypical hoot we ascribe to owls than the actual calls of several owl species. Even the brilliant Mindy Kaling has likely made this mistake:
There’s an owl hooting outside my window. It’s not a hoot by the way, it’s a “hoo”. These are the kind of hilarious, middle-of-the-night observations you can expect from me now. #nursing— Mindy Kaling (@mindykaling) February 11, 2018
If you click through the above tweet, you'll see that the very first response suggests that she might also be hearing a Mourning Dove. I don't know where Kaling lives, so you can't completely discount an owl, but yeah, it probably wasn't one. A few tweets later, Audubon's very own social media team weighed in and agreed.
But to truly hammer home the point, let's listen to some audio evidence.
Exhibit A.) Mourning Dove call
Exhibit B.) Barred Owl call
Exhibit C.) Eastern Screech-Owl call . . .
and Western Screech-Owl call
Exhibit D.) Great Horned Owl call
As you can hear, these are all very different calls! But, at the same time, the confusion between a Mourning Dove call and an owl call is easy to understand, especially given how rich and resonant that cooing can be.
So, consider this post a public service—something people might find if they start searching for "what owl lives near windows," or a form of proof you can pull up should you ever need to. But once you've set the record straight, don't let the conversation stop there. Encourage this person's interest in bird calls by suggesting they learn to bird by ear. Heck, take them owling for the real deal. Even in a place like New York City, there are promising prospects—just, you know, not in SoHo.
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