Although most birds quiet down after dark, they often turn over the airwaves to a subtler, eerier night shift. And of all the weird avian voices darkness conjures, few can fill a forest, farm or backyard with nocturnal ambience quite like an owl.
Owls may date back 50 million years or more, and they now inhabit every continent except Antarctica, ranging from tundra to the tropics. Some are active by day, but most — about two-thirds of 200 known species — are primarily night owls.
Those species are well-equipped for night life, thanks to key adaptations for finding and catching prey in almost total darkness. Their light-sensitive "eye tubes" and sound-funneling face feathers help them detect movement, for example, and they can fly in virtual silence thanks to big wings and specially shaped flight feathers.
Because owls are so stealthy, though, people rarely get to see them in their full glory. Instead, our first clue about their presence is usually an ethereal hoot — or, depending on the species, maybe a strange beep, chirp, shriek or screech.
Owls emit a wide range of noises, some of which are easier to recognize than others. In hopes of making these moonlight crooners just a little less mysterious, here's a who's who of some commonly heard owls from around the world:
Barred owl (North America)
'Who cooks for you?' is barred owls' trademark question. Maybe they're tired of raw mice? (Photo: June West/Flickr)
If a ghostly voice in a tree has ever demanded the name of your chef, you probably met a barred owl (Strix varia). They're famous for a distinctive series of hoots, traditionally anglicized to "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?"
Barred owls are abundant in North America east of the Mississippi River, especially in old-growth forests and treed swamps. They're adaptable, too, inhabiting some urban areas with enough old tree cavities suitable for their nests. They've also recently expanded across parts of Canada into the Pacific Northwest, where they can outcompete the similar-looking but much rarer spotted owl.
A typical "who cooks" call consists of eight or nine soulful, warbling hoots, although barred owls seem to give themselves a fair amount of artistic license:
Mated pairs also perform a howling treetop opera of caterwauls and "monkey calls," described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as a "riotous duet of cackles, hoots, caws and gurgles." Here's an example recorded in Berkeley County, West Virginia:
Great horned owl (Americas)
Haunting diverse habitats from Alaska to Argentina, great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) are the most common owls in the Americas. And thanks to their piercing yellow eyes, imposing size and distinctive ear tufts — technically "plumicorns," not horns — they're also one of the most iconic New World raptors.
Great horned owls hunt mainly at night, tackling prey ranging from mice, frogs and snakes to rabbits, skunks, crows and geese. They can be recognized by a chain of "low, sonorous, far-carrying hoots, hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo," according to the National Audubon Society, "with second and third notes shorter than the others."
Barn owl (Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania)
The common barn owl (Tyto alba) is the one of Earth's most widely distributed land birds, found on all continents but Antarctica. It hails from the family Tytonidae, one of two main lineages of modern owls. (All other owls in this list are from the more diverse Strigidae family, known as "true owls.") Like other Tytonidae species, T. alba has large, dark eyes and a characteristic heart-shaped facial disk.
Barn owls hunt rodents at night by soaring over open land like marshes, prairies or farms, or by scanning from a low perch. They roost and nest in quiet cavities, including trees as well as barns, silos and church belfries. They're strictly nocturnal, but don't hoot — instead, their signature call is a raspy, drawn-out scream:
Eurasian eagle owl (Europe, Asia, Africa)
With a wingspan of nearly 2 meters (6.5 feet), the Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) is one of the largest owl species on the planet. It lives throughout much of Europe, Asia and North Africa, where it preys on a variety of animals — even mammals as large as adult foxes or young deer — and fears no natural predators of its own.
Eagle owls are most active at night. Their primary call is a "deep, booming 'ooo-hu,'" per Wildscreen Arkive, although each bird puts its own individual twist on the species' soundtrack. In fact, every member of a Eurasian eagle owl population can be reliably identified by voice alone, according to the National Aviary.
Scops owl (Europe, Asia, Africa)
Scops owls are true owls in the genus Otus, with about 45 known species across the Old World. They're small and agile, usually 6 to 12 inches tall, and use camouflaged feathers to blend in with tree bark. Calls vary by species, but most make a string of high-pitched hoots, fewer than five per second, or a long, single whistle.
The Eurasian scops owl (Otus scops) is one common species, found in parts of southern Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor, the Arabian Peninsula and Central Asia. Like other scops owls, its small size makes it vulnerable to predators, so it hides itself in trees during the day. At night, it hunts insects, songbirds, and other small prey.
Here's a recording of O. scops hooting near Mattersburg, Austria, followed by another widespread species, the oriental scops owl (O. sunia):
Screech owl (Americas)
For such big-voiced birds, screech owls are surprisingly small. About 20 species are known to science, all in the Americas, filling a niche similar to Old World scops owls. They rely on camouflage to hide in trees during the day, then come alive at night.
The eastern screech owl (Megascops asio) is about the size of a robin, and ranges across most of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S., from the Great Plains to Atlantic coasts. Despite its name, it doesn't really screech, instead producing whinnies and trills. The male's main call (A-song) is a mellow trill that fits about 35 notes into a few seconds, according to Owl Pages, and his B-song is a descending whinny.
The western screech owl (Megascops kennicottii) ranges from southeastern Alaska to the Arizona desert, and while it bears a visual resemblance to its eastern cousin, it sounds significantly different. The species makes "an accelerating 'bouncing ball' series" of six to eight whistles, according to the Audubon Society.
Great gray owl (North America, Europe, Asia)
The great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) is the largest owl in North America, standing more than 2 feet tall (0.6 meter) tall with a wingspan up to 5 feet (1.5 meters). But "its great size is partly an illusion," the Audubon Society points out, thanks to a fluffy mass of feathers that envelop a much smaller body. Great gray owls are lighter than great horned or snowy owls, and they have relatively diminutive feet and talons.
The rodent specialists can hunt by hearing alone, often diving to grab mice from underneath deep snow. They're most active at night, and can be identified by a deep "hooo-ooo-ooo-ooo" bellowed slowly over several seconds. Territorial calls begin after dusk, according to Owl Pages, peak before midnight and then again later in the night. They can be heard up to half a mile away (800 meters) on clear nights.
Tawny owl (Europe, Asia)
Tawny owls are especially vocal on clear nights in fall, winter and spring. (Photo: Andreas Trepte/Wikimedia Commons)
About the size of a pigeon, tawny owls are widespread across Europe, including about 50,000 breeding pairs in the U.K. (but not Ireland). They're the most common owls in Britain, where they're also known as "brown owls." Their range extends to North Africa, Iran, western Siberia, the Himalayas, southern China and Taiwan.
The species starts forming territories in fall, a process that "involves much hooting and calling," according to Wildscreen Arkive. They tend to nest in tree cavities, and at night swoop from perches to grab small prey like earthworms, beetles and voles.
Males' primary call, used in claiming territory as well as courtship, is a series of spaced-out "hoohoo" sounds. Females can respond with a similar hoot, but they more often make the "kewick" contact call. The clip below — a 2014 recording from Norfolk, England — features a male calling to a distant female: