Who’s HOO in the World of Owls
By P.J. Dunn, Huntley Meadows Park Volunteer Naturalist
Imagine for a moment that you are deep in the woods on a dark, chilly night. The only sounds are the rustling of the wind through the trees and the soft crunching of the leaves under your feet as you walk the trail. You are by yourself, but you are not alone. Off in the distance you hear a sound. You stop to listen. First, only silence. Then, you hear it again. A soft whinnying, not unlike a horse. It repeats itself a few times, then is followed by a long whistled trill on one pitch. You have just heard the call of the Eastern screech owl.
The Eastern screech owl is one of three owls com-mon to our area. The other two are the great-horned owl and the barred owl. The screech owl is the small-est of them all, standing only 7 to 10 inches tall. It is the owl most likely to be seen near houses, as its favored habitat is wood edges and shade trees. Sitting perched on a branch, the owl vigilantly scans the ground for food. Its diet consists mainly of small rodents and insects.
The Eastern screech owl breeds in the late winter and early spring, nesting in tree cavities. She will sit on her four to five eggs for just under a month before they hatch into down-covered chicks in the late spring. The owlets will become a foxy red or a shadowy gray when grown.
Perhaps the best known of our three resident owls is the barred owl, sometimes referred to as the "hoot-owl," whose call is the loudest of the three. Its most commonly heard call is two groups of accented hoots: hoohoo-hoohoo, hoohoo-hoohooaw. Or, as it is sometimes described, "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?" This fairly large owl (17 to 24 inches tall) is usually found not too far from water. Preferring moist woods or swampy areas, it will find a cavity in a large tree to make its home. Some-times it may even use an abandoned squirrel’s nest.
During the courtship season in late fall and early winter, the barred owl can be the source of some very strange sounds. One of the ways the male and female acknowledge each other and strengthen their bond is by greeting each other with a series of hoots and monkey-like screams. This caterwauling continues throughout the courtship and early breeding season. The breeding season is mid-winter to mid-spring and the two to four downy young emerge from t he nest in mid-spring to early summer.
The largest of the three owls in our area is the great-horned owl. Standing 18 to 25 inches tall, it has a wingspan of 44 inches and weighs as much as three pounds, almost twice as much as the similar-sized barred owl. Feeding mostly on rodents, rabbits, and sometimes even other owls, the great-horned owl is an accomplished hunter. When it sits perched up on a branch, no small mammal is safe from its razor-sharp talons or its hooked beak. In sharp contrast to its fierce reputation, the great-horned owl has a soft call of "hoohoohoo-hoo- hoo-hoo."
Generally heard during the courtship and mating season of late fall through mid-winter, this owl’s call is not the voice you would expect from such a large owl. The great-horned owl can be found in almost any habitat that has trees, preferring to make its home in an aban-doned hawk’s nest or crow’s nest. It is the earliest nester of our three resident owls, fledging one to six young in mid- to late spring.
Now imagine yourself once again in the woods. Silently stealing down the trail, you are alert, listening. You are surrounded by silence. Then, not too far away, you hear it. Is it the whinny of a horse? Or maybe the screaming of monkeys? Perhaps it is the soft, beating of your own heart? Armed with your new-found knowledge of our resident owls, soon you will see just WHO is making those sounds in the night.