I’m a complete scaredy cat, so there’s quite an array of nighttime noises that make me sit bolt upright when I’m in bed. Only a few catch my undivided attention in a good way, though. The quiet sounds sneaking through my window right now are of that good variety, the kind that has me rushing outside, or to open the nearest window and turn my ear out into the darkness.
There are several Great Horned Owls calling back and forth in the woods behind the apartments. One is close, perhaps in the treetops just beyond the next building. The others–at least one or two more, but maybe three–are spread far and wide throughout those woods. Their calls are nothing more than a muttering that I have to strain to catch.
Owls always enthrall me. There’s an air of mystery surrounding them: they have quite a persona as secretive, seldom-seen creatures of the night. I see rescued and rehabilitated owls at work all the time, but wild owls will have me standing reverently on the porch at night for a good long while, eyes closed, listening.
We don’t have very many year-round resident owl species where I live, so it’s incredibly easy to tell what kind of owl you’re hearing, if you’re in the know. The Great Horned Owls out back are all saying, “Who who-who WHOOO whoo whoo.” Their hoots tend to be a little bit deeper than the other common owls around here, and they often start with a bit of a chuckle before two or three longer, tapering hoots.
Barred Owls are the only other species I’ve heard, myself, and are a bit more common. They have a very distinctive hoot, and one of the most well known: “Who cooks for you?” They also do these absolutely wild caterwauls in pairs, so if you hear something in the woods that you would swear was a monkey escaped from the zoo, you may have some of these beauties as neighbors
Eastern Screech-Owls, despite what you’d think from the name, are most likely to make an adorable sound like a tiny horse whinnying. They tend to be active in the very early morning, though, so it might take some effort to hear one. Barn Owls, on the other hand, are known for their screams. As a colleague put it, if you hear something that sounds like either an angry ghost or a murder in the forest, it’s probably (hopefully) one of these.
If you’re lucky, you won’t only identify these incredible birds by sound. Plenty of owl species are not actually nocturnal, but crepuscular–active at dawn and dusk. Even some truly nocturnal species change up their schedules in the winter, when hunting gets harder. Late last week, I stepped out of the office and heard that same deep, thrilling hoot that’s serenading me now. I pinpointed the direction and struck off into the woods. To my delight, I quickly spotted a big shape perched in the leaf-bare canopy.
I couldn’t make out much in the way of details, but I didn’t need to. My ears and the two spiky, raised “ears” on the silhouette told me all I needed to know.