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Owl Hooting Behavior

Dear Bird Folks,

The other night I was out in my backyard and heard a Great Horned Owl giving its deep hoots. Soon, a second owl joined it, from roughly the same location. Then, way off in the distance, a third owl started calling. My book says that owls usually call in late winter, but this was September. Why were they calling at such an odd time of year? Also, do you think, since there were three owls calling, that it was a family?

– Jess, Jackson, WY


Me too, Jess,

I have that same book, the book that tells everyone to go outside on the coldest night of the winter to listen for calling Great Horned Owls. When I first read that I couldn’t wait for winter to arrive so I could go out and hear the owls. I still remember the freezing night that I went out to listen. I set my alarm for quarter-past-the middle-of-the-night, jumped up and put on about twenty layers of clothes. My wife asked what was going on. I said, “It’s owl night.” She just rolled her eyes and fell back to sleep. (Evidently, she hadn’t read the book.) Anyhow, I heard the owls that night and thought the person who wrote the book was a genius. But as the years went by, and I started taking more nature walks late at night, I began to realize that owls call all the time. In fact, Great Horned Owls never shut up. Winter, spring, summer…they are always calling for some reason. The book person wasn’t a genius at all, but instead probably had stock in some company that made winter clothing. I should have known.

To be fair, the info reported in the book isn’t as bad as I made it seem. Great Horned Owls do call in warm weather, but in many ways they are easier to hear on cold, crisp nights, when their sounds aren’t dampened by summer foliage or drowned out by the blaring of crickets and the neighbor’s wild parties. And they probably do sing a bit more often in the winter, for that is when they start the nesting season. When many birds are struggling to survive the endless cold, great-horns are setting up house. Why so early? It is thought that by starting early, the owls are better able to find food for their growing chicks before spring, and the coming warm weather, hides their prey under a blanket of vegetation.

Owls are good hunters and they need to be, just to keep the family fed. Even with the early start it takes a long time for young owls to grow and learn to hunt. Much of an owlet’s first summer is spent sitting and screeching for its parents to come and serve dinner. In fact, most owl questions we get in the summer aren’t about their hooting, but are about the blood curdling screams of the young birds as they beg food from the adults. There’s something about blood curdling screams that makes people ask questions.

This brings us to the second part of your question, Jess: Were the three owls that you heard hooting in September a family group? Probably not. As we’ve just mentioned, the young owls do more screeching than hooting. The owl that you heard in the distance was more than likely an adult owl calling from another territory. Great Horned Owls defend their territory year-round. That’s why they can be heard calling during winter and summer. The two birds you heard calling near each other were probably a resident pair. The distant third owl was telling the pair to call all they want but to keep their distance or one of them could end up like so many of its victims. Owls don’t have a lot of close friends.

Speaking of victims, just about anything that moves is fair game for this powerful bird. Great Horned Owls are definitely an equal opportunity predator. What do they eat? To name just a few menu items, this owl will capture and consume snakes, fish, mice, rats, woodchucks, house cats, bobcats, turkeys, herons, other owls, porcupines and skunks. Yes, skunks, which is the main reason why you should always ask for PB&J when attending a dinner party at an owl’s house.

Because Great Horned Owls aren’t fussy about what they eat, they can be found just about anywhere. They are comfortable living in your neighborhood, in deserts, farms, grasslands and woods. They nest from Alaska and northern Canada, all the way down to the bottom of South America. In Argentina Great Horned Owls feed on this crazy-looking animal called a “viscacha.” If you have never seen a viscacha you have to jump on the Internet right now and check out this wacky creature. It looks like a cross between a rabbit, a squirrel, a kangaroo and a gargoyle. You’ll see.

There is nothing unusual about hearing Great Horned Owls call in the summer, Jess. But hearing their deep hoots should serve as a warning to anyone with pets. If there is an owl around they would be wise to keep an eye on any small dogs, cats or gargoyles.