Owls of the US: Calls, Identification, and Cultural Significance
Nocturnal Predators and Rodent Control
Owls are those nocturnal, mysterious denizens of the night, sometimes heard but rarely seen. Owls have been anthropomorphised as being wise and associated with wisdom, though some cultures see owls as harbingers of death.
Owls are nocturnal predators with both eyes in front, which allows greater depth perception in the darkness. Their flight is silent, due to their thick, soft-edged feathers.
Owls are great for rodent control, and artificial owls are often mounted on rooftops to scare away pigeons.
Learn to identify owls in the United States by understanding their habitat, region, the way that they look, and the way that they sound.
Owls in the Culture
- In ancient Greece, Athene, the goddess of wisdom, was depicted with an owl. The owl was viewed as a protector of Greece in war and a source of inspiration. Owls watched over trade and were embossed on coinage.
- Ancient Rome associated owls with death and witchcraft. A dead owl nailed to a door protected the inhabitants from evil.
- Celtic tradition associated owls with clairvoyance, stealth, wisdom, and change. The owl was the keeper of hidden truths.
- England looked at owls as sinister due to their nocturnal activity. Nailing an owl to a barn door was thought to ward off evil, a practice, perhaps, inherited from the Romans.
- American Indians often associated owls with death, and their calls were thought by some tribes to be calls from the spirits of the dead. Dakota tribes saw owls as protectors of warriors.
Owls in Modern Culture
- Owls are popular collectible figurines and seen on posters and paintings. They have become common motifs in various crafts and featured in fabric prints.
- In T.H. White's 1958 Arthurian novel, The Once and Future King, Merlin was depicted as keeping a pet owl. Merlin's owl also appears in the Disney feature-length cartoon, The Sword in the Stone.
- The popular Harry Potter series of books features owls as messengers of the young wizards.
- Owl is a frequent character in A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books as well as in the Disney cartoon versions of the Pooh stories. Owl is a long-winded storyteller and giver of unwanted advice, living in a very comfy tree hole in the Hundred Acre Woods.
Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is a large (18-25") bird, the classic owl of cartoons and books. The Great Horned Owl is a heavy bird, heavily barred, with a large head and white patch on its throat. In flight, it has short wing beats.
In Canada, Great Horned Owls appear paler than in the United States, and may almost be mistaken for Snowy Owls.
Its call is a loud, resonant, deep hooting of three to eight hoots in a rhythm. The male's call is four to five hoots (hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo) while females sound lower in pitch with six to eight hoots (hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-oo, hoo-oo). Young birds make cat-like screams.
This owl is common in forests and occasionally seen in cities. It preys on larger mammals and birds such as skunks or grouse.
The Barred Owl (Strix nebulosa) (17-24") is a large, fluffy owl with dark eyes and dark horizontal bars on the upper breast, with dark streaks below and pale spots on the back.
Its call is a rhythmic series of eight loud hoots in two sets of four hoots, occasionally heard during daylight hours. Its call sometimes sounds like crazed barking.
It is common in the eastern and central US and south-central Canada in forests, wooded river bottoms, and swamps.
The Screech Owl (Otus asio) is a small (8 1/2") owl that comes in three types, all yellow-eyed, and usually round-headed unless the tufts are lifted. The breasts have vertical streaks and dark bars. The Eastern Screech Owl is a bright, foxy red. In the Great Plains and south Texas, it is gray. A light gray version is seen in the northwestern part of its range.
Its call is not a screech at all, but a tremulous, quavering whistle, descending in pitch, or a long trill: quite a pretty sound. Sometimes the Screech Owl makes a sound like a whinny.
The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is a rusty, light brown owl (15-20") with a distinctive, pale, heart-shaped face. Females are darker than the males. Longer-legged than most owls, it flies with shallow, slow wing beats.
Its call is a raspy screech.
Its range includes open country, grasslands, farms, and marshy areas. It is uncommon (and in decline) in the eastern and central US, although sightings along the eastern seaboard have increased over the last few years. It is also found in Mexico and South America.
The Short-Eared Owl (Asio flammeus) (13-17") has barely visible ear tufts. The dark area surrounding its eyes accentuates the bright yellow eye color. It is tawny brown with a vertically streaked breast and a black "wrist" patch. Its erratic, bounding flight is similar to that of a long-eared owl.
Its call is a rapid, high-pitched, sneezy bark.
Its range includes open country, prairie, dune, fresh- and salt-water marsh, and tundra. It nests on the ground and often hunts in daylight. Nearly world-wide but not common. In North America, it breeds from the Arctic to the central US, and winters in Mexico.
Short-Eared Owl Sounds (at 3:49)
The Long-Eared Owl (Asio otus) (13-16") is a slender, crow-sized owl with long, close-set ear tufts. It perches close to the tree trunk. It has a rusty brown facial disk with a large white mustache, and a heavily streaked breast and belly.
Its call is a long, low, moaning "hooo," but it is usually quiet, with an occasional cat-like whine or dog-like bark. It frequents thick woodland, thickets, and conifer groves, and hunts at night over open fields.
It is uncommon from Canada to the southwest and south-central US.
Great Gray Owl
The Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa), at 27", is the largest but not the heaviest of owls. It is a dusky gray, vertically striped, with a round head, a heavily ringed facial disk, a black chin, and no ear tufts. The Great Gray Owl has a relatively long tail for an owl.
Its call is a deep, resonant "whoo-hoo-hoo" (as recorded here by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) as well as a thin screech (as in the video at right)
Its range includes south central Canada and the north central US, and occasionally further south. It often hunts during the daylight and on overcast days.
Great Gray Owl Screech (First of Several Owls in the Video)
The Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi) is, at 5-6", a tiny brownish-gray owl with a very short tail and no ear tufts.
Its call is a series of irregular chirps and chattering.
It is nocturnal, and roosts in holes and hollows in trees in Texas and the southwest US.
The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) (9-11") is a long-legged ground owl with bars and spots, and a white chin stripe with no ear tufts. It flies low to the ground.
Its call resembles a high-pitched version of the mourning dove's, or a series of chattering notes.
It is found in grasslands, prairie, farmland, and fields in southwest Canada and rarely on the Great Plains. It winters in Florida and the South.
The Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus), at 8", is a small, friendly owl, with a white front streaked softly with brown, reddish-brown above, no ear tufts, and a black beak. Young birds are a rich brown color, rusty brown below, with a white V over the beak.
Its call is heard primarily in breeding season in late winter and early spring: a single tooting whistle, repeated in a monotone up to 100 times a minute.
It is uncommon in forests and conifer groves in southeastern Alaska and Canada. It winters from the northeastern US to central Mexico.
The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus or Nyctea scandiaca), at 20-27", is a large, dramatic-looking white owl, with dark flecks on its feather tips, a rounded head, and no ear tufts. The males are whiter than the more heavily streaked females and juveniles.
The Snowy Owl is usually silent, but utters a deep "hoo" when nesting.
Its range includes open country, grasslands, farms, marshes, dunes, beaches, and tundra. Snowy Owls are Arctic owls that dine on lemmings; when food is in short supply, they may wander as far south as Oklahoma and Virginia.
Owl Vocalizations from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
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