Many bird species—in the egg, in the nest, and as juveniles or adults—vocalize to communicate with other birds, both foe and friend.
Not all owls make a typical hooting sound, however, and most owl species make more sounds than just hoots. In fact, according to Beth Mendelsohn of the Owl Research Institute in Montana, “We can generally separate [owls’ designations by vocalizations] into hooters, tooters, and screamers. All species have more than one type of call, but the sound we generally associate with owls hooting is a territorial, advertising [to potential mates and rivals], or breeding call.”
If you think you’ve heard a hoot, you instead may be hearing the “coo” of a mimic such as the mourning dove. Because a majority of owl species are nocturnal (about 69%), they often vocalize (including hoots, screeches, shrieks, growls, twitters, and “duets” between mated owls) at night (Source). But even nocturnal owl species will join voices with their diurnal brethren during the daylight hours if provoked, Mendelsohn said.
Owls as symbols—either portents or omens—appear in many legends, myths, and folkloric traditions across the globe. Hooting owls are associated with death or paranormal happenings, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to world mythologies, with the owl being mentioned as a companion of the Greek goddess Athene.
Yet, in modern pop culture, owls serve as benign guides, comic relief, messengers, or sources of delight and wisdom, from Winnie the Pooh’s Owl to Harry Potter’s Hedwig to the entertaining mechanical owl of “Clash of Titans.”
Today we have the benefit of science, over fearful superstition, to explain nature’s sounds. If you’re in a city vs in a wooded or rural area and you hear bird calls, chances are it’s a dove, nightjar, jay, grouse, or pigeon, not a people-avoiding owl. Nocturnal owls vocalize to communicate with other owls such as a mate or rival. They may also vocalize to warn of predators.
Let’s delve further into some questions about owl biology, such as whether owls hoot or make other sounds at night, and the significance of owls appearing in legends and myth, from Native American tales to Greek myths and including English folklore and literature.
Owls Hoot, Toot, Scream, Growl, or Vocalize for Many Reasons
Like humans, owls vocalize for a range of communications-related reasons, including territorial warnings to rival owls and unique communications with mates (Source).
When two owls call together, these vocalizations have even been likened to duets (Source). It is common to hear great horned owls duet, per Mendelsohn.
Whether they are most boisterous at night-time (nocturnal), during the twilight hours (crepuscular), or even during the day (diurnal), owls vocalize for a variety of reasons. The chief reasons owls vocalize are as follows:
- Warning/territory: As owls are generally solitary, some species use calls to warn other owls or predators to stay away from their nests or hunting area. One source puts it like this: “Territorial hoots are very different from calls made between pairs. . . . Aggressive hoots meant to advertise how macho a male owl is are longer, louder, and more dramatic than hoots used between pairs” (Source).
- Announcement: A few owls announce their presence in a territory to prevent conflicts with other owls. Short-noted two-owl communications are known as inspection calls (Source). You could think of some of these announcement calls as avian conflict-avoidance!
- Mating: A big causation of owl vocalizations is mating, with different sounds in different settings and for different reasons, including during courtship and pair bonding (Source).
In fact, the vocal “range” of some owl species can include 13 or more sounds (Source).
Another very common vocalization, Mendelsohn told me, is begging calls from young owls. “Owls rear and feed their young for up to 8 months depending on the species, and the juveniles ‘beg’ or scream for food.”
She said that if you hear a single shrieked note that repeats over and over, from spring into summer (sometimes into fall), you might be hearing a “hungry juvenile owl demanding food delivery from its parents”!
How do we know all this? Science, of course! Researchers have recorded vocalizations across several owl species, finding that individual owls will generally retain a consistent style over time, such that owls can be identified by one another by their voices (Source).
Humans who enjoy birds—the study of which is called ornithology—can also learn to identify owls’ or other birds’ vocalizations by ear. One big caveat here, however: It is not ethical to hoot at owls or use your phone or other audio to play owl sounds with great gusto, to provoke or confuse them. Please use your common sense and don’t mistreat nature!
Great Horned Owls’ Hoot is Often Two- or Three-Noted
Great horned owls have a range from Canada to Patagonia in South America, and, so, are commonly heard but not seen. Mendelsohn noted that great horned owls are the raptor species that people most commonly associate with night hoots, for its vocalizations are widely sampled in the movies or audiobooks.
This is one of few owl species that can thrive near humans, in both suburbs and cities, given the presence of trees and prey.
Therefore, in the fall in the Western Hemisphere, these owls begin to declare their intention to attract or keep an existing life-mate.
“Around October (timing varies based on the part of the U.S.), male great horned owls begin setting up territories. Most great horned owls mate for life, but in the fall the pair begin a courtship display, loudly calling to each other” (Source). These owls can be heard all year long as well.
Among these horned owls, “A common hooting pattern is a longer hoooooot, followed by two or three shorter hoots.” Mendelsohn said “who’s awake? Me, too” is the mnemonic, with some variation, for this species.
Hoots themselves can descend or ascend and be one-phrase, two-phrase, two-noted, or three-noted.
The phrases can be broken up, as with barred owls, who vocalize a single phrase that sounds like “Who cooks for you?” Barred owls may follow this one phrase with a second “Who cooks for you all?” (Source).
If you’d like to learn to identify great horned owls’ hoots or other bird sounds, Cornell’s ornithology lab offers audio files (Source). But, again, please use these only to educate yourself—not to rebroadcast to confuse owls!
Only Two Owl Species are Usually Heard During the Day
Only two owl species are truly daytime (diurnal) species: The pygmy owl and the Northern hawk owl. Other nocturnal (night) owls may exhibit daytime behaviors due to circumstances such as human activity or habitat disruptions—e.g., the great horned owl and the Eastern screech owl (Source). The short-eared owl is a crepuscular species you might hear calling before nightfall, per Mendelsohn.
So, if you’ve heard a bird call during the day, although it is possible, it is less likely to have been an owl than a member of another species that sounds similar to owls.
Hooting “Mimics” Include 3 Nightjars and Certain Doves
To the untrained ear, several species of bird can sometimes sound like owls, most notably doves, nightjars, and certain species of jays (which are enthusiastic imposters of other birds).
Here’s a brief field guide to owl “mimics,” or birds with owl-like vocalizations:
|Birds that sound like owls/when & where usually heard||Vocalizations made/known for||Listen|
|Mourning dove; all across North and central America, often perch on electric wires or seek seeds as a group on patches of open ground||Soft drawn-out calls sound like laments, hence their “mourning.”||https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/mourning_dove|
|Eastern whip-poor-will (a nightjar); summertime, nocturnal; central-eastern U.S.||Quavering trill; endless chanting||https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Whip-poor-will|
|Chuck-will’s widow (a nightjar); nocturnal; southeastern U.S.||Similar to Eastern whip-poor-will; loud whistled song incorporates “chuck-WILL’S-widow”||https://ebird.org/species/chwwid|
|Common poorwill (a nightjar); warm spring or summer (nocturnal); western North America||Male common poorwills sing a repeated poor-willip.||https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_poorwill|
|Steller’s jay, an enthusiastic mimic; mountainous western North America||This bird’s screech might be mistaken for the barn owl’s.||https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Stellers_Jay|
Other birds mentioned as intentional or accidental owl-sound mimics: “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” (Source).
If you enjoy reading about owls, I personally recommend the following book:
Owls Heard at Night Because Most are Nocturnal
The logical answer to why or what it means when owls hoot at night is found in science.
Because many owl species are nocturnal—hunting or active at night—this is when you are likeliest to hear them.
One study of Mexican spotted owls found that their vocalizations were “highest during the 2-hr period following sunset, with smaller peaks 4-8 hr after sunset and just before sunrise” (Source). Keep in mind YMMV here: These vocalizations are dependent on the location and time of year (seasonality), as well as the species or subspecies.
Owls Linked to Aesop, Athene, and American Indian Lore
Given that birds’ day or night vocalizations invoke wonderment, fear, surprise, or joy, various human cultures have incorporated owls and other species into their legends, folklore, and myths.
But what are their meanings and significance? Let’s look at several nighttime-owl-hooting myths over time, and what they used to mean or signify.
Aesop May’ve Never Lived, But Morality Fables Certainly Do!
One of the tales attributed to Aesop, if he was a real person rather than a legend himself, regards the Owl and the Grasshopper (Source).
Fables are an ancient way to deliver lessons of morality and right actions through animal characters—and they exist across time and many cultures. In this supposed “Aesop’s fable,” a cunning owl coaxes a gullible grasshopper into . . . well, let’s just say it doesn’t end well for this incautious insect!
Aesop “allegedly lived during the sixth-century B.C.E., centuries before the Greeks who were writing down his fables were born,” (Source).
Likely the world will never know—either if Aesop was a real person or how many licks get you to the center of a Tootsie Pop!
Owls Swoop in as Special Symbol for Greek Goddess Athene
The image of the owl is perhaps no more strongly associated with any world figure than the patron deity of Athens—Greek goddess Athene, who was the goddess of wisdom and good advice, war, and weaving and crafts, among other attributes.
Many ancient cults in Greece sprang from Athene—and not just in Athens. Some still worship the goddess today: She and her owl have found a new home in Wiccan or pagan traditions, according to The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca (Source).
Athene is characterized by various epithets and surnames expressing her insight or intelligence, including glaukôpis, which roughly translates to owl-eyed or owl-faced and, by extension, sometimes bright-eyed (Source and Source).
Owls “spotted” prior to battle in ancient Greece were believed to convey the blessing of Athene.
Athene’s Roman counterpart, Minerva, “was often depicted with an owl on her shoulder as a symbol of wisdom, making it a highly desirable animal for a Roman soldier” (Source).
Also in Rome, “To hear the hoot of an owl presaged imminent death” (Source).
One Roman superstition suggested that witches turned into owls, so perhaps this was one of the roots of owls in the paranormal or occult world?
As you can see, the owl was more often a visual than an auditory symbol in ancient Greece. Not so with other literature or legends.
Owls Often Portend Doom in English Folklore and Literature
As if taking a page from folklore, English literature is rife with animal portents and omens. Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” for example, is littered with references to owl sightings and soundings (Source):
- Owls are the death knell heralding Duncan’s death; as Lady Macbeth puts it: “It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,/Which gives the stern’st good-night.” (Act 2, Scene 2)
- Again, Lady Macbeth is connected with the owl: “I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry” (later in Act 2, Scene 2).
- Owls are “night’s black agents” (Act 3, Scene 2).
- Two men are discussing Duncan’s death:
Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.” (Act 2, Scene 4)
In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” not only are the “rabblement” (crowds) described as having hooted, but the owl’s call and day-time appearance presage Caesar’s murder (Source):
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’
For, I believe, they are portentous things . . . (Act 1, Scene 3)
The calls of barn owls, in particular, are feared in English folklore. During the 18th and 19th centuries many believed that the screech of an owl flying past the window of a sick person meant imminent death” (Source).
Screeching owls were also sometimes used to predict weather.
Owl Myths are as Diverse as the Indigenous Tribes with Them
We cannot hope to list all indigenous peoples’ belief systems or owls’ roles therein.
But, briefly, both owls and night were often associated with the underworld or death (the afterlife) in Native American lore.
Hearing an owl hoot or screech was oft taken as a bad omen. “Historically, many tribes believed that evil medicine men who practiced bad and hurtful medicine could shape-shift into animals”—often owls (Source).
In some traditions, medicine men could communicate with owls.
Some tribes, including the Alabama, Caddo, Catawba, Choctaw, Ojibwa, Cherokee, and Cheyenne, believed that the Great Horned Owl and the Screech Owl were “the most dangerous owls” and allied with witches.
In other tribes, such as the Lakota, Omaha, Cheyenne, Fox, Ojibwa, Cherokee, and Creek, owls are thought to be either “an embodied spirit of the dead or associated with a spirit in some way.” The appearance of an owl, especially during the day (which is unusual for many species), is thought of by other tribes as a harbinger of death.
“You notice in the books and you notice in shows that when you hear a hoot-owl that means trouble. When the hoot-owl comes and hoots there’s going to be trouble. We also have a screech-owl and we know now that when he squeals it’s a bad sign” (Source).
Owls or their voices also figure in stories from the Menominee people (saw-whet owl and the rabbit) and the Montagnais people of Quebec.
Finally, the children’s book I Heard the Owl Call My Name speaks to the Kwakiutl belief that owls are the souls of the dead, so killing one should be avoided (Source).
Owls Hooting at Night is Normal from a Science Standpoint
Because almost three-quarters of owl species hunt (and, therefore, vocalize or hoot) at night and most are solitary, it is not unusual to occasionally hear them then, especially in rural or forested areas. To see a camouflaged owl is much more unlikely, day or night.
Owls are specially adapted to predate at night owing to superior eyesight, hearing, and feathers, with a diet consisting of small mammals, so both they and the night ecosystems they inhabit may escape our direct notice. Because these stealthy predators are so silent and generally unseen when hunting, we may tune into them when they do vocalize. This stealth and hidden aspect could be how owls came to be associated over time with portents or an “eerie” mystique, Mendelsohn said.
To hear an owl today, whether it is hooting, tooting, screeching, twittering, screaming, or shrieking, is to feel both special and connected to many myths and legends the world over.
We think the Strigiformes (typical owls) and Tytonidae (barn owls) are creatures to be cherished and protected.
So, yes, you might say we give a hoot about owls and their fascinating symbology. Are you with us?!