Owls are mysterious creatures. They are secretive enough that most people who encounter one consider it a fortunate event, whether or not they are only casual bird watchers or self-professed “bird nerds.” I, a bird nerd, have happened upon dozens of owls over the past decade since I first became interested in hiking, camping, and – you guessed it – bird watching.
There are times when owls fly out of the thick woods into sight, peering down on human beings with a silent aura of wisdom. Other times, owls are simply heard and never seen. We are all familiar with owl hoots, eerie calls made into the night at unexpected times, as these noises shape our experiences with others while camping or roasting marshmallows over an open fire. Hoots remind us of the presence of creatures that live in darkness. We are humbled by owls, deadly hunters that can hear and see with more accuracy than us at night, just as we are humbled by the fierce nature of sharks, the superior strength of oxen, and the lightning speed of cheetahs.
One of my first memories of hearing owl hoots in the night was on my first trip to Everglades National Park in Florida. During the day, I explored several trails, gawking in wonder as Roseate Spoonbills flew overhead and warblers chipped in the mangroves. Then I lay awake at night in my tent, listening to the ocean and a distant series of noises.
I focused on the sounds until I realized the calls formed a pattern asking “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you allllll?” Remembering the bird song tapes I listened to during the road trip, I knew this was a Barred Owl, the second-largest of the five species that could be found in the state. But why was this owl making noise at night? What do owl hoots mean, anyway?
Related: 12 Tips on How to Attract Owls to Your Backyard (2022)
What does it mean when you hear an owl hoot?
Hoots are used to communicating and can convey several different messages.
- Owls primarily hoot to claim their territory and fend off any would-be intruders (1).
- Hoots can also be used to signal the presence of a predator.
- Other times, a special type of hoot is used for communication between mated pairs (2). Owl pairs can and will perform duets together to reaffirm their bond – so romantic (3)!
In some species, hoots contain enough individual variation that male owls can tell the difference between neighbors and strangers; they are more aggressive toward strange owl hoots than familiar ones (4). Read more owl facts here.
Researchers have created methods to assess individual vocalizations across several owl species, and have found individual owls will generally retain a consistent style over time (2, 5, 6). In this way, owls are as unique as people and can easily tell each other apart.
Related: Owl Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)
How to differentiate owl hoots?
Territorial hoots are very different from calls made between pairs. The vocal range of some species can include 13 or more sounds, all used in different settings and for different purposes (7). Aggressive hoots meant to advertise how macho a male owl is are longer, louder, and more dramatic than hoots used between pairs.
Duets are composed of short hooting sounds in a series, and male hoots will complement a female’s hoots back to him. Pair vocalizations are heard more frequently in the latter half of the breeding season but can occur when pairs are forming in the early season as well to alert nearby owls that their territory is occupied (3).
Other vocalizations made by owls include a short note called an “inspection call,” which is a form of contact call used when two owls approach one another. Other owl calls like “gurgles” and “mumbles” can sound similar to crow vocalizations.
Others, like “twitters” and “screams” are very high-pitched. Hoots can be ascending, descending, one-phrase, two-phrase, two-note, or three-note. Phrases can be broken up; for example, Barred Owls say “Who cooks for you?” as a one-phrase but add “Who cooks for you all?” to make it a two-phrased hoot.
One-phrase vocalizations and other short sounds like two-note, three-note, gurgles, and mumbles are more common to be heard in duets. Other calls, like two-phrased hoots and inspection calls, are almost never heard in duets. (7)
Although duets can be spontaneous, in some species, females will initiate a duet after a male brings her prey (8). This is done as a courtship behavior and increases the ability of female owls to lay eggs (8). Wild owls can live to be 25 years old or more (9); imagine how rich and complex their lives are beyond the one “hoot” sound byte we hear from them by chance.
Also read: What is a Group of Owls Called?
When it’s most likely to hear owls hooting?
The first sound an owl will make occurs while it is still inside the egg before hatching; chicks will make chirps while growing in the nest (10). The first hoots by juvenile males are practiced during their first winter, but it takes time for these young birds to vocalize sounds correctly like their parents (11).
Fully mature adult owls hoot in earnest during the breeding season, usually from late winter to early spring (but this timing varies by species and geographic location). Hoots are used frequently at this time of year to communicate to potential mates, current mates, and other neighboring owls (12).
Owls usually hoot at night; they are most boisterous right after sunset, sporadic throughout the night, and can be heard shortly before sunrise too (12). This order of birds called Strigiformes is mostly nocturnal with only a few exceptions, so hearing calls or hoots from an owl is rare during the day (13). However, this is not impossible; I have heard a Barred Owl hoot in broad daylight during the summer and I have found they are also more likely to call in the morning if the sunlight is dim from rain clouds.
Moon phases can also affect how much an owl will hoot. Some owls hoot most in the week before the new moon, which is during the darkest time of the month (12). But one species, the Eurasian Eagle-owl, hoots more when moonlight is brightest. This is thought to be because their impressive white throat patch (only exposed while hooting) is more visible with increased light conditions (14). Talk about stealing the limelight!
Also read: How to get rid of owls when they become a problem
The different types of hoots owls make
To become familiar with the different types of owl hoots you can expect, check out this video created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which covers species found in the United States:
Eastern US owl calls
Make sure it wasn’t a dove!
When I was young, I used to sit in my backyard and listen to birds chirping and singing. In the evening, I always thought it was strange that I heard calls that sounded like an owl even though it wasn’t dark yet. After I became interested in birdwatching and taught myself basic song and call identification, I realized that I never actually heard an owl! Mourning Doves call deeply and are often mistaken for owls, and there were enough of them in my neighborhood to cause confusion. Hearing the difference is easy once you compare dove calls to real owl hoots.
Mourning dove call
Other dove songs can be confused for owl hoots too. Band-tailed Pigeons and White-winged Doves are two other examples found in the south and west of the United States. In Europe, Eurasian Collared-doves make similarly mistakable sounds. The best tactic for proper bird identification is to familiarize yourself with local bird songs. With practice, you will be able to decide more easily if a “coo” was actually a “hoot,” and vice versa.
10 thoughts on “Why Do Owls Hoot? (Everything You Need to Know)”
Diamond Bar, Ca. I Was awaken by the beautiful sound of the owls hoot this morning. So amazed of this beautiful creature if I could only see it.
I just heard at dusk a cry in a pine in my backyard. The call resembled a red tailed hawk. I spotted a dark eyed owl about 20 feet up that gave an intermittent cry. I got my binos and Peterson’s and ID’d it as a barred owl. After about 20 minutes another owl arrived and perched above it. Shortly after, they flew together to another branch, and were instantly attacked by a third owl! Then all fled. No expert, but I haven’t read anything associating that call with a barred owl, or that kind of possible mating behavior on July 5 on Cape Cod. Merlin Bird ID did not recognize the call. I welcome insight!
I have live in my rural home for 15 yrs, but 2 days ago for the first time there is an owl in the back yard tree shooting. Very beautiful, deep, who whoo-whoo whoo. It was dark but I could make out a large lighter colored object in the tree above the chicken coop. Then after about 20 minutes it was gone, only to return 2 days later just for a brief 15 minutes. Majestic creature. I’m not sure what he/she might be doing, but I feel privileged to experience it’s display.
Possibly a great horned and they will eat chickens quite readily. They most commonly do 4 hoots with the last 2 being longer and often a slight pause in the middle. It’s common for them to hang around a coop waiting to see if any poultry will fail to get into shelter in the evening/overnight and will sometimes kill things in the 6-8lb range despite only being 3lb birds.
We had quite a population after we spent a few years trying to introduce guinea fowl into our chicken flock only to have them roost everywhere but the coop. They steadily disappeared every night and after about 3 years whenever you walked outside there would be a chorus of deep hoo-hoo–hooo-hooo from an entire flock of great horned owls our guinea fowl had helped breed. It did avoid the chickens being eaten instead though.
I’m in the Deep South below New Orleans. We have heard & seen Owls hanging around when my Maltese would use the bathroom. I’m always standing around him to keep him safe. Last night, owl hoots continue for awhile. I finally went outside and saw 2 very large owls hooting and sitting on wires in front my house. There was a third owl answering the hoots from about a block away. I then saw a cat, not moving and starring at the Owls. I Realized I was watching a stand off.
We live in Fort Wayne, Indiana in an addition with many trees. We have Barred owls all day and night. To me it is an ordinary thing to have Owls in our yard. They sit in the trees 2 at a time now in May. Two years ago we had 2 babies on our front porch. We left them alone hoping mom would come and get them. We finally had to call someone out to rescue them.
I live in West Seattle. We have a woodsy ravine and several large cedar and fir trees close to the house. Tonight at about 11 pm a barred owl was hooting who cooks for you over and over. All of a sudden it sounded like it was attacked by another bird. It made a very loud high pitched ack ack ack and it sounded like they were fighting. Then silence.
Hello! I live in north eastern pa. It is currently summer and we have at least one very vocal barred owl on our property. We hear him constantly throughout the summer. My understanding is that owls mate in the winter, so I’m just wondering what he’s talking about. Is he just being territorial? He’s doing the classic “who cooks for you”. Love hearing him (we’ve been lucky enough to see him a few times during the day) and would appreciate any insight into what he’s talking about!
We live in the mountains behind Santa Cruz, CA, in the redwoods. A couple of years ago, instead of the occasional owl, we began to hear several owls hooting all night long. We love it but are confused. There seem to be 5 – 6 owls in the trees surrounding us and they sometimes call back and forth all night long. When we were hit with the massive CZU wildfire in the summer of 2020, they continued to stay in the area even though the fire came to within 1/4 mile of our house. The smoke was so dense we couldn’t see even in daylight, but the owls were not concerned. We think they are great northern owls but have never seen them. And yes we know the difference between an owl and a dove.
We live in Southern Illinois, and as our property backs up to a large wooded area and a creek, the barred owls have made our grassy backyard their hunting grounds. At first we were very excited. Not so much after a few years. They have gotten used to us and have come uncomfortably close. We also have deer occasionally, and a few years ago, a doe and fawn wondered in. Darned if those owls didn’t swoop down at them a few times. I grabbed a broom and was ready to go after them. I didn’t want carnage in my backyard. Although the deer didn’t seem very frightened, they did move back into the woods. Last summer they were invading little birds’ nests. I read that shining a light at them at night might bug them. We did seem to scare them away. But I do hear them hooting away in the distance.