WHO GIVES A HOOT - AND WHO DOESN'T

AUTHOR'S NOTE: More than any other animal group that comes to mind, with the possible exception of snakes, owls have become almost irretrievably intertwined with myth, misperception and half-truths. This article is the first in a series of articles, each of which will focus on a specific owl characteristic or behavior. The aim of the series is to cut through the thicket of inaccuracy and downright silliness that obscures the truth about owls.

   Occasionally (not often, just occasionally) I wonder what Martha Stewart would make of my house and grounds. My home has evolved as my work as a raptor rehabilitator has taken over more and more of my life. The backyard houses not only recovering raptors, birds that will eventually be returned to the wild. It is also permanent home base for a number of nonreleasable birds of prey. These residents, handicapped as a result of various mishaps, accompany me to daily educational programs. Many of my residents are owls of several different species. In order of magnitude, they range from a pair of huge snowy owls down to a saw-whet that is roughly the size of a Beanie Baby. Between these two extremes are screech owls (including, at this time of year, several babies slated for release later in the summer), a long-eared owl, a lonely short-eared owl that was once half of a mated pair, an elderly barn owl, barred owls and great horned owls. These eight species, quite conveniently, represent the eight species that can be said to live in New England. While the snowy owl does not nest here, it is a regular visitor, particularly to Boston's Logan Airport. The other seven species all nest in New England, although three (barn owl, long-eared owl and short-eared owl) are uncommon. That leaves the saw-whet owl, screech owl, barred owl and great horned owl. These four species are considered to be fairly common New England residents. I didn't say they were easy to find (owls are masters of camouflage and of the art of sitting still), but they are yearlong residents.

   All these owl species vocalize in various ways and for various reasons. Both the calls and their motivations change with the seasons. Some calls are contact calls to mates; others express apprehension or annoyance. In general, the best-known call for each species is the territorial call. Owls are unusual among birds in that both male and female produce the territorial call, often duetting back and forth. The male's voice is almost always deeper than the female's (the barn owl is an exception), the better to carry through woodland. His territorial call may be longer and more elaborate than the female's.

   A territorial call is all-important to owls, which are distinctly limited in the ways they can proclaim property rights. In common with most birds (turkey vultures are a notable exception), owls have a poorly developed sense of smell. Unlike mammals, therefore, owls do not scent-mark their territory with urine or dung. Unlike many songbirds, owls do not boast bright colors and flashy feather patterns. Songbird males use their brilliant colors in part to delineate their territories and to keep out rival males. Owls by contrast are a subtly colored group, modestly attired in shades of cream, brown, black and gray. To establish and hold a territory, they must rely on sound.

   There is a distinction to be made between an owl's call and a songbird's song. Songbirds, also known as passerines, may produce complicated, multi-note passages that sound pleasantly musical to us. Such a complex vocalization is a song. Owls, by contrast, typically produce less complex sounds. Owl calls may vary in pitch, intensity, number and emphasis (they may even contain regional accents), but they lack the elaborate structure of true birdsong.

   Still, owl calls vary tremendously, as you might observe by concealing yourself in my backyard some evening in late March. This is the time of year when wild owls are moving through the neighborhood and my residents, with their superb hearing, are aware of the presence of strangers. They respond with territorial calls, each species with its own signature call. My residents also respond to one another, each setting the others off, and there are nights when my yardful of owls will all be vocalizing in a kind of owlish call-and-response (these are nights when I don't get a great deal of sleep).

   The resultant chorus, aquiver with eerie wails and punctuated with staccato barks and yelps, is living (and noisy) proof that owls do not necessarily hoot. In fact, some owls, like the barn owl, cannot produce a sound that resembles a hoot, although they certainly vocalize. Among my resident owls there is only one species that produces what might be termed a classic hoot. That would be the great horned owl, whose booming territorial call is routinely dubbed into movie soundtracks to invoke an atmosphere of foreboding. This, by the way, is not a new technique. Long before the birth of the cinema, writers like Shakespeare were inserting owl cries into their stories to presage sinister events.

   Impressive as my great horned owls sound, however, they are not my loudest owls. Neither, for all their bulk, are the snowy owls, whose vocalizations often sound as though they're wrapped in a thick sweater. My loudest owls, the ones that can stop all the others in mid-cry, are the innocent-looking barred owls. Of the 19 owl species found in North America, the barred owl produces the widest range of sounds, and some of these are loud. Unlike the muffled tones of the massive snowy owls and great horned owls, barred owl vocalizations have an emphatic, in-your-face quality.

   While the different owl species have characteristic vocalizations, all owls hiss and beak-clack to express annoyance or fear. Even baby owls will hiss like snakes if they feel threatened. The beak-clack also begins in the nest, and is not just a simple matter of snapping the two mandibles together. The lower mandible is pushed beyond the curve of the upper mandible and then forcefully snapped back into position with a clearly audible clack. Barn owls actually use their tongues to produce the snapping sound. However, these are generalized owl sounds that won't help us to identify different owl species. Let's return to my yardful of resident owls and listen in on some of the calls produced by the different species. These species-sound descriptions aren't meant to be complete records of every vocalization the different species are thought to produce. They are meant to be records of sounds I've actually heard my birds produce. With these eight species-sound descriptions, I hope to prove three things:

1) My observations of what my resident owls sound like frequently do not square with descriptions in reference books. I'm tempted to wonder if much of what is reported might be based on mishearing or misinterpretation or misidentification or mis-something. The incorrect information is then repeated in print without being checked for accuracy.

2) Owl calls not only vary greatly from species to species, the different genders sound different, and there is regional and individual variation as well.

3) Not all owls hoot. Even the great horned owl, which does hoot as a territorial call, produces other, very different calls to express anger, warning or fear.

   From the smallest species among my resident owls up to the largest, here are the sounds I can hear at different times of the year in my backyard.

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
Weight: 3-4 ounces
Length: 7-8 ½ inches
Wingspan: 17-21 inches

   While I have been rehabilitating raptors for over twenty years, I have cared for relatively few saw-whet owls. Only nine in over two decades, while my screech owl, barred owl and great horned owl patients have been far more numerous (the screech owl is by far the owl species I rehabilitate most often, followed by the great horned owl). Saw-whets tend to live and hunt in dense evergreen forests or in red maple / cedar / hemlock bogs, and they are rarely seen, even by avid birders. Nor does this species seem to hunt for insects attracted to street lights in the summertime, as screech owls are known to do. Studies done in Massachusetts with mist nests show that this engaging little owl with the high forehead and gem-like yellow eyes is more common than was previously thought, and gets closer to human habitation than was previously known. Still, the saw-whet seems to prefer to hunt in wooded areas and is not hit by cars nearly as often as our other three common resident owls. Of the nine saw-whets I've cared for*, two males (smaller than the females, as is the case with almost all owl species) and one female were nonreleasable and so became permanent residents. One male lived with me for nine years. So what sounds did these diminutive owls produce?

   I'll start off by saying that I don't subscribe to the oft-repeated story that saw-whet owls derive their common name from the fact that they make a sound like a lumber saw being sharpened with a file. This story can be traced back to none other than John James Audubon, who spun the tale in his book Ornithological Biographies. According to Audubon, who at one time owned a mill in Kentucky, one summer day he heard a scraping sound produced by a bird and coming from inside his mill. Although he did not get a good look at this bird (the mill foreman, on the other hand, did see the bird close up and came up with a totally different identification), Audubon thought he knew what it was from the sound it produced. That, he promptly decided, was the call of a saw-whet owl. Therefore, the mill's avian occupant was a saw-whet owl. It seems to me that Audubon jumped rather wildly to that conclusion, since he hadn't gotten close to the bird. More important, as far as I can find out, while Audubon knew that New Englanders called a certain tiny owl the saw-whet, neither he nor anyone else had any evidence that New Englanders named the owl that because they thought the owl's call sounded like a saw being whetted.

   There is more evidence against Audubon's mystery bird being a saw-whet. The incident took place in the summer, when every reference book indicates that saw-whets are quiet. My own observations bear this out: saw-whets give the territorial call only in the spring, and then they fall silent. When saw-whets do call it would be at night, and Audubon heard this owl call by day. The location was Kentucky, which is part of the saw-whet's range only during winter migration, and last but by no means least is the evidence of the mill foreman, who (unlike Audubon) did get a good look at the owl. He called it a "screech owl," which is what the barn owl was appropriately called by rural people. Barn owls do screech, and they routinely roost and nest in buildings, which is why they're now called barn owls.

   Very well then, so Audubon cobbled together a story that is full of ornithological holes, but such is the man's reputation that the story is still believed. If his tale is untrue, as I think it is, what's the explanation for the saw-whet's unusual name? My etymology is not based on an original thought, but I can bolster someone else's theory with original observations. Julio de la Torre, writing in Owls: Their Life and Behavior, points out: "As Davis Finch pointed out years ago, the name of the owl is almost certainly an anglicization of the French word chouette (shoo-ET), a word universally used in France and French Canada to refer to any small owl. La chouette is indeed what farmers in the Gaspe and elsewhere in French-speaking Canada call this little owl, which for them is a backyard species." I might add that chouette is also used by French speakers to mean "nice," "fine" or "something particularly good of its kind." The saw-whet merits those descriptions. To my eyes, at least, this elfin owl with the expressive face is the cutest of the 19 North American owl species.

   And how did chouette become saw-whet? Well, foreign-language words that enter the English language often end up mispronounced. When Yankees, perhaps lumberjacks or trappers, came in contact with French speakers, either in Maine or Canada, they picked up the name chouette for this little owl, but turned the pronunciation into saw-whet. The saw-sharpening story is a misguided attempt to force together an implausible story, an implausible owl and an implausible location.

   Okay, so now I've got that off my chest. What call does the saw-whet owl produce? Well first of all, as far as I can tell, it's only the male that makes the territorial call, and he only produces the sound in the spring - from March to May. This sound is described by many experts as a TOOT or a TOO. To my ears (this may be the way I hear, or perhaps different saw-whet owls sound different) the call sounds like a POOT or POO, and the males repeat the bell-like note rapidly: POO- POO-POO-POO-POO-POO. The most consecutive notes I've counted were twenty-two. Then the male stopped, was silent for a few seconds, and then began again. The calling starts around 8 PM and continues, at intervals, until 5 AM. I have never heard this call by day, nor have I ever heard it at any time of year other than springtime. Either the POOT call is territorial or it is a call to contact females, or it is both. One clue that the call is a territorial/contact sound is its carrying quality. The POOT call is designed to be heard a considerable distance from the caller. When my male is calling, I can cross the street and still hear the POOTs coming from my backyard, which is at least the length of a football field away. The tone is clear, unmuffled, quite unlike the hoot of a great horned owl.

   The other saw-whet sound I'm familiar with is produced all year long by both genders. The annoyance call is not loud, not designed to carry a long distance, nor is it a clear note, as the territorial call is. It is a metallic buzz, NNAAA, like that produced by a very small dentist's drill. Its meaning, roughly translated, is: go away and leave me alone. It is produced when an intruder (another bird, a squirrel or a person) gets too close to the owl. Both sexes also hiss and beak-clack when disturbed.

* All nine were impact-injured, meaning they were struck by something, and all nine might have been hit by cars. Five were picked up by the side of roads and were almost certainly struck by vehicles.

Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio)
Weight: 6-7 ½ ounces
Length: 7-10 inches
Wingspan: 18-24 inches

   The screech owl should sue for libel. The New World screech owls (there are several related species in Central and South America, as well as in North America) were so named by European settlers because of a fancied resemblance to the barn owl. The bird Americans now call the screech owl doesn't screech, but the bird Americans now call the barn owl, which the Europeans called the screech owl, does screech. Well, that's unenlightening, so let's see what we can do to clear up the confusion.

   Screech owl adults of both sexes vocalize, but the territorial/contact call is most definitely not a screech, or anything like a screech. It is an eerie, tremulous warble, a quavering WOO-OOO-OOO-OOO. The male's voice is lower than the female's, and a pair will duet back and forth, sometimes calling at the same time. The call is not far-carrying, and its origin is very hard to pin down. I've cared for dozens of screech owls over the years and always, as I watch the throat of a vocalizing bird pulse, I'm at a loss to explain the tonal quality of this call. It seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. Some reference books describe this as a ventriloquial effect, but this isn't exactly right. When a ventriloquist "throws" his or her voice, the voice seems to come from somewhere other than the real speaker's vocal cords. When a screech owl calls, the sound seems to have no origin. If you hear the sound in your area (it's usually produced at night, with peaks around dusk and dawn), don't rush out expecting to find the owl. It will be hidden and will not reveal itself to you. And the call will not give its location away, since the call's quality disguises its true origin. This has survival value for a small owl with many predators, including larger owls.

   A pair may duet as they care for the young in spring and summer, but the peak time to listen for this call is in early spring, as the parent birds are reaffirming their pair bond and delineating their territorial boundary lines to migrating birds moving through the area.

   A call often described as a whinny is also a contact call, but it is not a territorial call. It is a specific vocalization, and it conveys apprehension. It is used when a screech owl sees or hears something threatening, and it is a warning to other screech owls. Like the territorial call, this sound has an eerie, quavering quality and I'd transcribe it like this: WHOOOOOoooo. It rises and falls, and it is not given repeatedly. A screech owl making this "miniature horse" whinny is a perturbed bird. Both sexes make the sound when they feel apprehensive, and I can't detect a difference in pitch. When a screech owl is so frightened that it freezes in position (as when my residents catch sight of a cat trying to scale my stockade fence), it gives a soft, sad OOO, which I interpret to mean "imminent, serious danger." When annoyed both sexes will chitter, a buzzing sound that means "back off." The young produce a WHEEP begging-food call which ends as they become independent of their parents in mid or late summer.
   
   A screech owl produces a variety of calls, but as far as I've heard, there's nothing resembling a screech among them.

Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)
Weight: 7 ½ - 11 ½ ounces
Length: 13-16 inches
Wingspan: 36-42 inches

   We now move from two small owls to the medium-sized owl category. The long-eared owl and the short-eared owl are congeners, close relatives that are placed by taxonomists in the same genus. The question is, are the vocalizations of these two relatives similar?

   I should point out, first of all, that the long-eared owl and the short-eared owl live in vastly different environments. The short-ear is an open-space bird, hunting for mice and voles over meadows, farmland and marshes. The secretive long-ear, by contrast, is a woodland owl, a master at concealing itself in conifers by day, while floating buoyantly through the forest by night in search of woodland mice like deer mice and white-footed mice. Because of its strict nocturnal habits and because it is completely tied to forest life, the long-ear, named for long tufts of feathers positioned almost directly above its eyes, is rarely seen and even more rarely handled by rehabilitators. In my twenty-three years as a raptor rehabilitator I've only cared for two long-eared owls. One, a probable female (given the bird's dimensions it might be a large male or a small female), has produced one of the most interesting owl vocalizations I've ever heard.

   The long-eared owl, according to my reference books, does hoot upon occasion, and it would seem that the contact/territorial call sounds like this: KWOO or KWOO-KWOO. Julio de la Torre, writing in Owls: Their Life and Behavior, characterizes this call as "remarkably pure and musical, given in long, leisurely series by both sexes…." Well, I look forward to someday hearing this musical sound in the wild, because the one vocalization I've been hearing from my patient is an emphatic and totally unmusical yyyYOW! The call begins low and builds to a spat-out snarl. I'm unsure about the meaning of the call. It's produced when the bird sees me approach as well as when I'm concealed. It may express annoyance at seeing a trespasser (me or another bird) moving near the owl's cage, which is also its territory. This growly sound has a distinctly feline quality to it, and no other owl I've worked with produces a call anything like it, except the long-ear's close relative, the short-eared owl.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Weight: 9-15 ounces
Length: 13-17 inches
Wingspan: 38-44 inches

   The beautiful short-eared owl is glimpsed far more often than the long-ear both because of its diurnal hunting habits and because it hunts over open spaces. While this tawny-colored owl does not nest in my area of Massachusetts - indeed, it no longer nests anywhere on mainland Massachusetts, restricting its breeding areas in this state to Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and to a few smaller islands positioned between these two large ones - it does migrate along the Connecticut River, and I've cared for a male and a female. The two were housed together in hopes that they would breed. While that never happened, the two did seem to form a pair bond and coexisted peacefully (or semi-peacefully) for some years. The noises these two produced were all unpleasant-sounding, cat-like and growling. I never heard anything that could be described as a hoot, although according to my reference books the courtship call might be rendered BOO-BOO-BOO. The call I heard daily from the male was a rasping eeeYERP! which I presume was a territorial vocalization. He spat the call out whenever he saw me approach, and then the female would back him up by producing the same call in a shriller tone. During the day or night both birds commented on birdlife around them with a snarling yeeOW! call that was so feline-sounding that the first time I heard it I promptly began patrolling the yard, searching for a trespassing cat. The pair would yeeOW! to each other when they got on each other's nerves. In looks, particularly when these owls raised their short head tufts in alarm, and in vocalizations, the short-eared owl is the most cat-like owl I've personally dealt with.

   My pair were both wing-impaired birds, so I never heard them produce a sound that wild male short-eared owls are noted for. During courtship flights, the agile male will swoop and dive to impress the watching female. At the beginning of each dive he claps his long wings together under his body, producing, says Julio de la Torre, "…a sound much like the fluttering of a flag" in a high wind. I hope someday to hear that sound in the wild. One other non-vocal way the short-eared owl communicates is with its eyes. Like the long-ear, the short-ear has intensely yellow eyes set off by black patches. The black, like dramatic eye makeup, emphasizes the eyes, and the owl will glare directly at a trespasser to its territory. I believe the eye glare, in both the long-eared and short-eared owl, is a threat display.

Common Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Weight: 10-20 ounces
Length: 14-21 inches
Wingspan: 41-47 inches

   We come now to the last of the medium-sized owls being profiled for this article. Here is the owl that should be called a screech owl. The barn owl's syrinx, or voice box, is made in such a way that it cannot hoot. But boy, can it screech. The only barn owl I've handled is a male that is a longtime permanent resident. Barn owls in Massachusetts are at the farthest extension of their breeding range and are uncommon as nesting birds in this state. So my experience with the species has been limited to this one male, but he's been a source of endless wonderment, since his behavior and his vocalizations are so different from other owls. Barn owls and their tropical relatives the bay owls are placed by taxonomists in the Tytonidae family, while all other owls, called "typical" owls, are placed in the Strigidae family. Barn owls differ from other owls in build and in bone structure, and their calls are decidedly unlike "typical" owl calls.

   The call I hear the most is best characterized as a snore. Iroquois, my resident barn owl, makes this as a greeting utterance. He also produces a very engaging cricket-like chirp, but this can escalate in volume and intensity to indicate annoyance. During the breeding season he will make a specialized call that I never hear outside the nesting period. For which I'm grateful, because the call can go on with nerve-racking monotony for several minutes at a time. I'd render it BLUH-BLUH-BLUH, and the call is accompanied by foot stomping, done while the owl is on the floor of his cage. I've near heard the call made from a perch. Typically, Iroquois flies down into a corner of his cage and then foot-stomps and calls for several minutes. This, I suppose, is both a territorial and a contact call, designed to attract a female and repel rival males.

   The shriek the barn owl produces is so unowl-like and so startling that I have to wonder if it's designed to scare prey and induce a mouse or vole to move, so the barn owl can then home in on the sound of the rodent's movements. This rasping sssSEEK! is emphatic and far-carrying, and Iroquois has a habit of making it when I least expect it. That call has made me drop many a filled waterbowl as I go about my cage-cleaning chores in the yard. This vocalization may be made in response to other owls and it may be territorial in nature. Whatever its meaning or intent, it certainly gets one's attention. Shakespeare called the barn owl "the owl that shriek'd," and, as usual, the man was right.

   Barn owls also hiss and beak-clack, but during the beak-clack they visibly snap their tongues, something I've never seen another owl species do. The beak-clacking is often accompanied by a strange rolling of the head from side to side. This slow-motion swaying is done with the face directed downward, while the tongue THWAPS rapidly. Clearly a threat display, although the mechanics of this display have always puzzled me. If you're threatening something that poses a potential hazard, is it wise to take your eyes off it?

Barred Owl (Strix varia)
Weight: 11-22 ounces
Length: 16-24 inches
Wingspan: 38-50 inches

   The barred owl qualifies as a large owl. It also qualifies as North America's champion owl vocalizer, both in range of sounds produced and in volume. The usual transcription of this owl's contact call is: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? Birding and rehabilitator friends tell me that they can actually discern this phrasing in the barred owl calls they hear. I never have, and I'm quite sure that there is individual and regional variations in bird vocalizations. My barred owls rarely give the eight-hoot call that is considered so typical that the barred owl is called the "eight-hooter." My resident barreds shorten the sequence to four very loud, very emphatic syllables: hoo-hoo-hoo-HOOaww! The last syllable is characteristic. The downward aww, like the bray of a demented donkey, is only made by a barred owl.

   Earlier in this article I made the statement that among the Northeast's eight resident owl species only the great horned owl gives what I would call a "classic" hoot. While it is true that the barred owl does indeed hoot, the call has a very different quality from the great horned's booming foghorn. Barred owls have a nasal quality to their hoot, and there are echoes of other animals in their commonest call - a chimpanzee, a dog, a burro with a stomach upset. Great horned owls sound as we imagine an owl should. Barred owls, on the other hand, sound like lots of things.

   Although this species has the reputation for producing a variety of calls, from barks to groans, the only other sound I've heard my barred owls produce is a hair-raising scream. This is not the rasping shriek of the barn owl. This is an all-too-human-sounding scream, as though a person were in terrible pain. This call, from my experience, is always produced at night (the HOOaww call may be given by day, particularly when thunder and/or rain are imminent), and I'm not sure of its significance. It is usually given singly, not in sequence, although the male may vocalize and then be answered by the female's scream.

   Of all my residents owls, the barred owls are the loudest and they win every vocal argument with my other species. On a March night when my snowy owls, great horned owls, screech owls and my lone saw-whet owl may all be vocalizing back and forth, suddenly there erupts an almighty HOOaww! from the barred owl cages. Even the male snowy owl falls silent. Translation? "Everybody shut up!" And, for a short time at least, everybody does. Territorial competition among owls is probably based partly on how loud a bird's calls are. Biggest mouth wins.

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
Weight: 3-4 ½ pounds
Length: 18-25 inches
Wingspan: 35-55 inches

   The deep booming hoot of the great horned owl is, at least in my mind, the quintessential owl call. The great horned owl sounds the way an owl is supposed to sound. The contact/territorial call is full and satisfying, accurately hinting at the size and power of its owner. This is the bird that rules the skies of the Western Hemisphere at night. While the snowy owl is somewhat larger, the snowy has a limited northern range, while the highly adaptable great horned owl is found from Alaska to the tip of South America. And while I've never seen a battle between a great horned owl and a snowy owl, I'd bet on the great horned owl if such a fight ever occurred. The great horned owl is a fiercely determined hunter, known to take mammalian prey up to and including porcupines. Avian quarry can include swans, herons and turkeys. This strongly territorial species is a known limiter of other raptor species, including the swift-flying peregrine falcon. After 1972, when the use of the deadly pesticide DDT was banned in the United States, scientists waited for the peregrine falcon to reestablish itself in its old haunts. Wiped out as a breeding bird in the eastern half of the U.S. by DDT, the peregrine was reintroduced to the East through captive breeding-and-release programs. As of this writing, Massachusetts is home to six pairs of peregrines, but not one is nesting outside of a city. The old territories have been taken over by great horned owls (and, in at least one instance, by ravens) who are fully capable of killing young peregrines. The great horned owl is a top predator, one feared by all other North American raptors. As proof of its power and the respect with which it is held by other birds, a pair of great horned owls nested in the winter/spring of 2002 in a great blue heron rookery along Route #2 in Massachusetts. The two young were being raised successfully, which means that the parents were flying unmolested past numerous great blue herons on their daily trips to and from the hunting territory.

   So does this awesome predator always hoot? Usually, yes. A generalized contact/territorial call might be written WHOOO-who-who. The number of hoots varies, as does the accented beat. The last two hoots in the sequence are usually very emphatic and more drawn-out than the middle calls, so the male's deeper, more complex vocalization might look like this: WHO! who-who-who WHO! WHO! The female also gives voice to the contact/territorial call. Her pitch is higher than the male's, and the number and arrangement of her calls is shorter and simpler than his. A mated pair will duet during the early-winter courtship period. As actual mating nears, the pair will call together, although not in unison. The different arrangement of the male's and female's calls is always discernible, as is the difference in pitch.

   This mated-pair duetting can get loud, but never as loud and nasally emphatic as a barred owl call. There are two other great horned owl calls produced for specific reasons that are real attention-getters. One is a lunatic laugh, which seems to be made by the male during the courtship calling. Possibly it is meant to be romantic, an enticement to mating. Possibly it demonstrates virility. I'll tell you what I'm sure of - it's a very disturbing sound. Twice my resident male great horned owl has made this call by itself, without the context of the contact/territorial call. Both times I went charging out into the yard, convinced that a maniac had broken out of the asylum and had irrationally chosen to camp out among my cages. Another call with a disturbing edge to it is a rasping bark: neeYARK! Some reference books describe this as a nestling great horned owl call, and since my male is an imprint, socialized to people, perhaps he occasionally reaches back to his babyhood and produces this emphatic vocalization. Great horned owl young, like other owl nestlings, typically make a wheezy EEEP! to beg food from their parents. The pitch and pronunciation is individual, and I can tell the difference among three young calling at the same time. The young also hiss and beak-clack when disturbed.

Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca)
Weight: 3-3 ¾ pounds
Length: 20-27 inches
Wingspan: 54-60 inches

   Of the eight species of North American owls I've handled, this one, the largest, is also the least vocal. Virtually all the sounds I've heard are produced by the male, and the typical call is a definite bark, like a rottweiler with a sore throat: BOOF! The call is not produced in a discernible sequence, like the hoots of the great horned owl. Indeed, I've not been able to work out any kind of pattern to the male's vocalizing. The "boof" call is produced at any time of year, and may be in response to what he perceives as a territorial threat. The female very occasionally has made a similar sound, but it does not seem to be in response to the male or any of his actions. My female, who insists on making a nest every year (even though she and the male are not housed together), produces a clear whistle from time to time. She only does this when sitting on her nest, so the vocalization is tied in with the nesting season.

   Snowy owls hiss and beak-clack like other owls to convey threat or annoyance. They also have a non-vocal way to express those emotions that is unique to the species. Male and female have deep red mouth linings, and when they're disturbed they open their mouths wide and confront the threat head-on. Before I acquired these snowys I'd seen many photographs of wild and captive birds demonstrating the mouth-gape but hadn't realized the significance. Now since I see the red mouth-gape on a regular basis, I'm all too aware of its message: BACK OFF! Snowy owls don't hoot, but they can be very effective communicators.

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