Have you ever heard an owl hoot and been tempted to call back? Earlier this fall, I was sitting outside with my city-loving sister enjoying the cool night air of the country, and I told her about two Barred owls that had woken me up at 4am a few days earlier. They called back and forth, over and over, seemingly right outside my bedroom window. She asked how I knew what kind they were, being under the impression that all owls made the same sound, so I started impersonating different calls. The Barred owl call sounds like “Who, WHO, who cooks for you?” while the Great horned owl says “hoo-HOO, hoo-hoo” and so on.
To our surprise and delight, a Barred owl swooped in and began calling back to me. “Who, WHO, who cooks for YOU?” It circling the house, calling from tree after tree, while my sister hooted with laughter. We imagined him a youngster, “posting up” as she would say. It’s the time of year when owls establish territory for attracting a mate. They need a sizable hunting ground for capturing enough prey, generally mice, to feed a brooding mate and chicks that will hatch in April. This owl flew in to challenge me for dominance over a range covering more than 200 acres.
I called back a few times, having my fun, but then another individual called from deep in the woods. I left to them their business, knowing that most of our resident owls don’t travel that far and are in tight competition for territory. They tend to establish themselves within a few miles of their parents, an enviable trait by human parental standards.
Barred are the most common species of owl in this part of New York state, followed closely by Great horned and the diminutive Eastern screech owl, whose call is more of a whinny. These species live here year-round. The Snowy owl is occasionally seen in winter, migrating down from Arctic regions, but does not nest in New York. Migratory species that can be seen in summer include the tiny Saw-whet, Long-eared, Short-eared, and Barn owls. These last two species are found in open areas of field and marsh, and the Barn owl has become quite rare due to pesticide use and the loss of suitable habitat. Conifers are important to many of the other species, providing good shelter and abundant small mammal prey due to their high seed production.
Owls are quiet and elusive during daylight hours but look for their sign, including pellets of regurgitated bones at the base of roosting trees, or listen for them at night. Do not fear, the presence of owls indicates a healthy landscape and is a good omen for people to enjoy.