Most people enjoy the many wonderful sounds of birds during the day—the familiar steady protests of Blue Jays, the sweet trill of warblers, the familiar chirp of sparrows on city streets, even the raspy screeches of hawks. But when the sun sets, another group takes over. Owls are mysterious, nocturnal birds of prey whose voices often fill the night. Here’s a look at 8 owls and their sounds to help you identify “who” is “who” on the night shift in your backyard.
Owl Sounds: More Than A Hoot
The classic “hoot” call is the most familiar owl sound, but it is far from the only noise these birds can make. For silent, nocturnal hunters, owls actually have a wide repertoire of clucks, whines, screeches, whistles, laughs, and more. Knowing what sounds owls make can help birders locate these birds in the field, as well as identify which species of owls are responsible for which calls. The more we learn about owl sounds, the better we can appreciate the vocal capabilities of these extraordinary birds.
1. Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is a large owl frequently seen even in urban and suburban areas. Listen for great horned owls’ classic “whoo-whoo-whoooo-who” calls, especially when males and females sing duets together.
2. Common Barn Owl
The Common Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is one of the most familiar owls. It is happy to nest in open barns, silos, sheds, and other structures, including nest boxes. But they don’t hoot like other owls. This owl’s raspy screech is unexpected, and holds a long, single note without variations in tone.
3. Eastern Screech-Owl
Small but widespread in urban and suburban areas, the Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio) is more often heard than seen because of its small size and superior camouflage. Short hoots create a “ha-ha-ha-ha” call, and these birds also have a descending whinny call, almost like a horse.
4. Barred Owl
The Barred Owl (Strix varia) is a larger, widespread owl in the east and also found in the Pacific Northwest. This owl has a deep, rich voice. Its typical song is a “who-who-who-whoooOOOO-who” series, while a single, abrupt “who” is also a regular call. They also make an unusual caterwauling noise that is quite unexpected.
5. Great Grey Owl
The Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa) is one of the largest owls. This northern bird is rare but well worth both seeing and hearing. Its deep voice has an almost growling quality with a single long “whooooo” call that may have a slight warbling tone. Alarm notes are scratchier and raspier.
6. Snowy Owl
A favorite owl of birders and non-birders alike with highly anticipated but irregular irruptions, the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) has a cackling voice with a laughing “haaa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ho-ho-ho-ho” call, with occasional interspersed “who” notes.
7. Burrowing Owl
The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) is a western owl with an isolated population in Florida. These small owls have a rapid call that can sound like laughter. The high-pitched, twittering notes are preceded by a screech and have a hollow quality.
8. Northern Saw-Whet Owl
A widespread owl common in dense forests, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) can be easier to hear this tiny bird than to see it. Listen for its clear, pipe-like voice with even tones through its “oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo” song. The length of the song can vary widely.
Other Nighttime Voices
While owls are the most common nighttime vocalists, they are far from the only birds that sing and call at night. Other voices fill the nighttime hours, including:
Many insects, amphibians, and even nocturnal mammals make a variety of squeaks, croaks, whistles, and other sounds that could be mistaken for birds. There is a lot to listen to during the night, and the more you listen, the more you will appreciate the diversity of the nighttime chorus—owls and all.
Melissa Mayntz is a writer who specializes in birds and birding, though her work spans a wide range—from folklore to healthy living. Her first book, Migration: Exploring the Remarkable Journeys of Birds was published in 2020. Mayntz also writes for National Wildlife Magazine and The Spruce. Find her at MelissaMayntz.com.