Humans have a contradictory relationship with owls.
Just about everyone has an idea of what owls look like. Ask any child in elementary school if they can draw you an owl, and chances are they won’t have any difficulty drawing you a picture. We see owls as logos and as spokescreatures in television commercials.
But if you can ask someone when they last actually saw an owl in the real world, they aren’t likely to be able to give you an answer.
Owls are solitary creatures. They are active at night and hide during the day. They operate from the eaves of barns and attics or for dense woodland cover. We almost never see actual owls.
But many of us have heard them. The owl’s hoot is every bit as familiar as the owl’s image.
And the physical similarities to the human face that make the images of owls so naturally attractive to us all explain the owl’s unique hearing and its unique hoot.
An Owl’s Face is Made for Hooting and Hearing Hoots
Everything about an owl’s face is designed for hooting.
Well, everything about most owls’ faces is made for hooting.
There are a few species of owls that don’t hoot. But the owls you will encounter in North America do.
Owls Are Farsighted
Owls don’t have eyeballs. They have eye tubes. Their eyes make up 3% of their entire body weight.
As a result, owls have a great vision for objects in the distance, but everything up close looks fuzzy to them.
They have to feel their way around their nests.
They have to rely on their hearing as they approach their meals. An owl’s limited near vision makes it highly dependent on its ability to hoot and hear hoots.
Owls Can Turn Their Heads As Much As 270 Degrees
An owl’s eyes look like they are staring at us, trying to connect to us.
Actually, an owl seems to be looking at us because it can’t move its eyes.
It can swivel its head 135 degrees in either direction so it can point its ears to localize even the slightest sound.
Owls Have Flattened Facial Disks
We’re attracted to owls because they have flat faces as we do, but the shape of an owl’s face has a lot to do with its acute sense of hearing.
Owls’ faces around the ears funnel sound into its ears, magnifying the intensity of sound as much as 10 times.
Northern owls have a hearing so acute they can hear prey as much as 12 inches (30 cm) beneath the snow.
Owls Can Make Sounds Other Than Hoots
Owls can make whistles, screeches, whistles, chirps, shrieks, barks, growls, and hisses. But their “language” is hooting.
Owls Don’t Interfere with Their Own Powerful Hearing
When other kinds of birds fly, air rushing over their wings makes a gushing sound.
When an owl flies, the comb-like edges on its feathers muffle the sound of flight.
An owl’s feathers break down air turbulence, so it is free to focus on the sounds made by other animals and other owls’ hooting.
How Owls Hear
Owls’ faces remind us of human faces.
Their faces are flat. Their heads are wide and rounded. Their eyes are large, wide-set, and staring, creating the impression that owls are looking at us.
And the unique structure of an owl’s face explains how it hoots and how it hears the echoes those hoots send back.
Let’s consider what an owl’s face means for the owl.
When an owl hears the high-frequency noises made by its prey, say a field mouse, it can swivel its head in the prey’s direction.
It can leap off its perch and plunge into the darkness, keeping its head pointed directly at its future catch.
Its ears continuously pick up the sounds of its target animal. It only leans its head back and plunges forward with its talon the moment it arrives at its next meal.
Experiments with owls in the dark have confirmed that owls don’t see their prey. They don’t smell their prey. They locate their prey by sound.
If you were to see a real owl, rather than an artistic depiction of an owl, you would notice that its ears aren’t quite symmetrical.
One ear is just a fraction of an inch, a few millimeters, out of alignment with the other.
Those tiny differences in the placement of an owl’s ears create a phenomenon known as interaural difference in arrival times.
What this term means is that the sound an owl hears in one ear arrives a few milliseconds before or after the sound arrives in the other ear.
The placement of an owl’s ears also creates a phenomenon known as interaural (between the ears) level difference.
The pressure of the sound waves arriving in one ear is just a tiny fraction of a decibel louder or softer than the pressure of the sound waves arriving in the other.
Together, these tiny differences in the way an owl hears through its ears give owls a kind of GPS system. The interaural difference in arrival times tells the owl how far away its prey is in the horizontal direction.
The interaural level difference tells the owl whether it is hearing something above it or below it or at the same level.
When it takes off in pursuit of its prey, the continuous changes in the two kinds of information it gets through its ears help it zero in on the animal it wants to catch, even as the animal usually is trying to find cover.
The two ears of the owl can detect the difference in sound waves that arrive 30 millionths of a second before or after the sound arrives in the owl’s other ear. But what does all of this have to do with hooting?
Owls use hoots to communicate with each other.
Most of the time, an owl’s attitude is “I want to be left alone.” Owls mostly hunt alone and they mostly live alone.
But if owls never got together, there wouldn’t be any baby owls. That doesn’t mean that all hoots are love calls.
Owls hoot to warn other owls to stay out of their territory.
You don’t threaten an owl. An owl won’t ever hoot at you to keep you out of its territory.
Other owls, however, are a threat to owls.
Other owls could compete for prey. That’s why when an owl’s amazingly sensitive ears pick up the almost-silent rustlings of another owl’s wings (the listening owl not being heard because it isn’t moving), the owl claiming ownership will hoot to warn the other owl to stay away.
Field researchers at the University of New Mexico learned that an owl sitting in a tree can turn its head around so it can triangulate the position of another owl encroaching on its territory.
It will fly as far as 200 yards (about 200 meters) to chase a trespassing owl away.
These field researchers made the observation when they were at a party of 75 people in the woods, laughing, telling jokes, and cooking over several fires.
Dozens of people didn’t get the owl’s attention. But one intruding owl did.
Owls will let owls whose hoots they know to pass through their territory unchallenged. The hoots of different owls are as different as the voices of different people when they are studied with spectrographic analysis.
They can easily tell one howl’s hoots from another. They can tell whether a hoot is from a mate, a family member, or a strange owl.
Hoots Can Also Convey Other Messages
Not all hoots have to do with claiming territory.
Birdwatchers and ornithologists have identified at least 13 different owl sounds that are used at different times for various purposes.
- An aggressive hoot by a male owl to claim its prowess is long, loud, and dramatic.
- Owl hoot duets with short hooting sound in a series. The female howl hoots first, and the male owl hoots in reply. These are more common during the early weeks of the mating season. When they are heard later in the year, they mean that the female owl is already mated.
- Owls have a short hoot that means “Hello.” It is used to identify an owl they hear approaching.
- Owls can make very high-pitched hoots that sound something like “Who hoots for you?” that is answered with a phrase that sounds something like “Who hoots for all?” These phrases can have one note, two notes, or three notes, and they can consist of one or two phrases.
- Owls may add mumbles, gurgles, and two-phrased hoots to their duets.
Hoots seem to be spontaneous, but ornithologists have confirmed that female owls will begin a duet after a male owl brings her food.
From this, ornithologists believe that owls hoot duets more often when the females are laying and brooding eggs.
Some owls live to be as much as 25 years old.
They probably know a much richer language of hooting than birdwatchers and ornithologists have ever been able to confirm.
When Do Owls Hoot?
Owls begin to make chirping sounds while they are still inside their eggs. Male owls begin hooting the first winter after they are hatched. Fully mature female owls begin to hoot the next spring.
Young owls have to practice making their hoots sound like those of their parents.
Owls probably hoot in their first year of adult life to attract mates.
Adult owls typically hoot at night. They are loudest right after sunset, and they are boisterous again just before sunrise.
Almost all owls are night hunters, so hooting at night is associated with hunting, but owls will also hoot during the day if the sky is dark with storm clouds.
The phases of the moon influence how much owls will hoot. Some owls hoot more frequently during the week before the new moon and for a few days after the new moon.
This is the darkest part of the month. But there is an owl in Europe and Asia that hoots most frequently during the full moon.
Frequently Asked Questions About Owls and Their Hoots
Q. Which owl hoots three times?
A. Great Horned Owls inform other owls of their territories with soft but deep hoots that sound a little like a stutter, hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo.
Male and female breeding couples may perform this hoot as an alternating duet. The female will hoot in a noticeably higher pitch than the male.
Q. Which owl hoots eight times?
A. Barred Owls have a distinctive hoot of eight or nine repeated notes as if they were saying “Who hoots for you? Who hoots for you? Who?”
Q. What are the meanings attributed to owls’ hoots?
A. In some African cultures, such as the Kikuyu people in Kenya, an owl’s hoot was interpreted as a harbinger of death. If someone heard an owl’s hoot or saw an owl at dawn or dusk, this meant they were going to die soon. This superstition is not unusual in East Africa today.
In Mongolia, the hoot of an owl has the exact opposite meaning. It is the sign of a favorable outcome. Genghis Khan was hiding from his enemies when an owl started hooting in the tree above him.
His pursuers conclude that no human being could be hidden there and passed by him.
In Japan, an owl’s hoot is considered a lucky omen. Owl talismans are popular charms.
In Ancient Rome, owls were considered an omen of bad fortune. The historian Pliny recorded that Rome went into chaos after an owl was heard and seen in the Senate chamber. The poet Virgil tells a story of an owl’s screech from the top of the Temple that preceded the death of Alyssa, the first queen and founder of the Phoenician nation.
In the Apache and Seminole tribes, the hoot of an owl was considered to be a cry from the dead. In a Winnebago legend, an owl appeared before Glory of the Morning, the female chief of the Hočąk nation. She then died.
The Ojibwa people of the northern United States and their counterparts among the First Peoples of Canada regarded an owl’s hoot as a message of evil and death. However, it could also announce the arrival of a human spiritual leader.
The Spanish conquistadors of Mexico had a saying, “Cuando el tecolote canta, el indio muere.” When the owl sings, the Indian dies. This is still a Mexican saying.
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