It’s 11 pm, and you’re all snuggled in bed ready to fall asleep.
For a while, all you hear is silence. Until… “Hoot hoot.” This noisy call might be coming from one likely source: an owl.
But Why do owls hoot at night? They hoot at night because they are:
- Protecting their territory from other Owls. Screeching or low barking because they feel threatened or need to protect their territory
- Hooting to attract a mate and begin setting up their territory
They choose nighttime as their designated hoot time because most owls, not all, are nocturnal animals.
Most of them hunt and set up territory in the nighttime. This is because their senses are strong enough to live at night. It’s also easier for them to hunt nocturnal prey and avoid most of their predators.
Let’s learn more about the specific noises owls make and what else they’re up to while awake and active at night.
The Different Noises Owls Make
Even though owls make a lot of random noises, the reasons they’re being emitted aren’t random.
Owls are always hooting for a specific intention. So, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the variations and differences in each hoot.
Here are a few different sounds an owl makes and what they’re trying to communicate with each noise.
Territorial behavior is one of the most common reasons owls hoot.
Here’s an example of a great horned owl giving a classic territorial call.
A lot of owls hoot like this to send a message to other owls letting them know the territory they’ve just found is officially claimed.
There’s a lot of variation in the specific calls between species, but often when you hear owls hooting at night this is what they’re doing.
Owls don’t make their own nests, so they instead find nests that have already been made, normally by birds, and make it their new home.
Once they’ve done that, they’ll start hooting to make everyone aware of this new home and that others, especially males, need to stay away.
These calls also help to attract females at the start of their courtship season.
Attacking a Predator (Defence Calls)
Although it’s somewhat rare in certain places, owls will sometimes hoot when faced with a predator.
The owl might begin to attack or let out a loud screeching or shrieking sound until the attacker has either given up and left the owl nest or has been defeated in the fight with the owl.
This would be more common in places where you have overlapping raptor habitats, like a small Owl nesting close to a large owl.
Feeling Surprised or Threatened
If an owl spots something, or someone, out of the ordinary and thinks it may possibly be threatening them or their claimed territory, some owls will start to let out a lower pitched barking noise.
Is that a dog outside? It could be… or it might be an owl!
If an owl is surprised or feeling threatened, it will sometimes make less intense types of calls in order to scare off any threatening being that may be lurking nearby.
It’s a less intense situation than an actual predator attack, but this could definitely provoke an owl to vocalize at night.
Barking isn’t the only similarity owls share with dogs, they’ve also been known to growl at predators when feeling threatened.
When this noise comes deep out of their throat it might sound short and lower-pitched than a lot of other sounds they make.
Sometimes when they see a threat while protecting their nest, you can hear a snarl come out that doesn’t stop until the predator finally goes away.
This might also be accompanied by beak snapping to make a loud clicking sound.
Owl noises are of course made to keep things out of their home territory, but they’re also made to attract others into their territory as well.
Male owls will make sure to keep other males out of their nest and away from them entirely so they don’t have any competition standing in the way.
Some owls start to give off a deep hoot around dusk and wait for a female to return a similar but somewhat higher pitched hoot back at him.
Here’s a couple of Barred owls hooting back and forth. The female has a slightly higher voice and an audible tremolo sound, while the male is a bit lower and smoother.
Screaming & Screeching
Similar to the hoots exchanged back and forth, some owls will communicate with a potential mate by screeching or screaming at them.
Ever heard a noise coming from outside at nighttime that sounds like a woman screaming? It could be an owl calling out!
Here’s an example of an Eastern Screech Owl calling up a storm.
Different Mating and Territorial Seasons
As we’ve just discussed, a big reason why owls like to hoot at each other is to find a mate and eventually begin breeding and starting a family.
Some owls, especially Great Horned Owls, believe in staying with one partner for life and have a set schedule for when they decide to find their mate and begin laying their eggs.
Each season, a new process begins in the territorial and mating cycle.
This is where scoping out for a mate begins. The male owl has claimed its territory in a new home and has begun letting out hoots to attract a female to its nest.
Usually, the male stays in its one designated spot and lets the female come to him. This will begin in the fall, normally around October.
They will hoot at each other a few nights in a row and then will get ready for the upcoming nesting season.
By January, the hoots may still be continuing as owls try to find their mates. Then they will start to breed their babies and will hopefully begin incubating and laying their eggs in February or sometimes March.
Many people find nesting this early to be uncommon and out of the ordinary.
They would be right about this observation, as most birds try to nest when it’s warmer out so they’re eggs stay away from cool temperatures and are able to hatch fairly easily.
Since owls are a bit larger than most creatures though, they take longer to grow up and learn how to hunt and survive.
This is why owls need plenty of time to teach their young so the babies can be hatched in the spring and then have this time to train and prepare themselves for survival and hunting.
It also perfectly times the Owl juvenile phase with the spring flush of baby birds & spring vole populations so there’s plenty of easy food to catch & eat while the young are growing.
The eggs will begin hatching around this time. The mother will begin to get heftier and start growing into breeding condition.
She will stay at the nest while she rests and the male goes out at night to find food and bring it back to her in their home.
Most owls begin seeing the first egg hatch usually around the month of May. The will lay approximately four to six eggs.
Unfortunately, most owls will only see about four of their eggs actually hatch and the others don’t usually survive.
The mother lays on her eggs for around a month and the eggs will begin to hatch every two to three days.
It can sometimes take two to three weeks for all of the eggs to eventually hatch.
Once the baby owls are hatched, they will find themselves naked without fur.
The female will continue to brood and protect the babies until their feathers have grown a little thicker in a few weeks.
They will feed their babies the food the male has provided by tearing it up into little, chewable pieces for them to easily chew and digest.
By the time the babies are five weeks old, they’re ready to run around and pounce on different objects.
They’re also able to move their heads around more and more. They finally have grown more fur so the mother is able to join their father on nightly hunts instead of staying home to warm and protect the babies.
From weeks 8 to 10, the baby owls have learned how to fly and have become masters by the final week. After this tenth week, they begin learning how to hunt instinctively and start catching prey on their own.
On week 13 or 14 the owls have learned how to live on their own.
This is when they begin to fly from the nest to begin finding their own territory and starting their own new home, although many of them will still be easily identified as Juveniles long into summer.
This years juveniles may have dramatically different vocalizations than the adults even during late summer.
Are There Any Daytime Owls?
Most owls are known to be primarily nocturnal, but there are others that will hunt only at night and others that are active both during the day and night.
Some tend to crave prey that can only be found when the sun is up, so that’s when they decide to hold their hunting hours.
Below are a few types of popular nocturnal and diurnal (awake and active during the day) owls.
|Species||Location||Nocturnal or Diurnal|
|Eastern Screech Owl||Eastern to Midwestern U.S.||Nocturnal|
|Western Screech Owl||Southeast Alaska to Arizona Desert||Nocturnal, but sometimes active on cloudy days|
|Barn Owl||The U.S., Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa||Both nocturnal and active during sunrise and sunset|
|Great Horned Owl||From Alaska to Argentina||Nocturnal, but sometimes hunt during the day in winter|
|Burrowing Owl||Southern U.S. Border and Mexico||Diurnal|
|Snowy Owl||Alaska, Northern Canada, Eurasia||Diurnal|
|Barred Owl||North America||Active both at night and during the day|
Why Are Owls Hooting So Much at Night?
Lots of noise will be heard at night if your home is located close to any nocturnal owls.
We covered territory, courtship, predator defence, and even some variations between different types of Owls.
Sometimes, you’ll hear the sound of screeching or shrieking owls fighting to protect their home or territory from possible predators.
Other times, if you take a second to pause and lend your ear, you’ll most likely hear the sounds of owls hooting and mingling back and forth as they get to know each other to eventually begin their lives together as they mate and start their own family.
By taking the time to listen and get to know the different owl hoots, you can soon become an expert by knowing exactly what kind of noise is being made and “hoo” it belongs to.
Awesome thanks. I hear my mating barn owls as we speak amd it’s so cool!
Stacey jones says
A horned owl usually hoots a few times around 10PM and 4:45-5AM. Tonight was constant non stop I don’t know if he’s threatened or looking for a mate. I know I shouldn’t worry but he has lived around here for years and has never done this. I guess I need to record it so you could analyze it. I become attached to my birds. We have twoEagles that come every winter and perch right outside our patio. Any reasons this fellow would be constantly hooting non stop for long periods of time?
Brian Mertins says
Hi Stacey! This certainly is the season for courtship & territorial activity. Anytime you notice a change in behavior, it’s a great opportunity to keep observing and learn.
I would encourage you to write down anything else you remember about that night… what was the weather? Location? etc. because that way if it happens again you’ll have something to compare against and possibly find a pattern.
For example – You might someday notice the behavior only repeats during very specific weather conditions, or in certain locations. It might be linked to something really specific like a sudden boom in the rabbit populations.
It takes time and repetition to identify exactly what’s happening, so the most important thing is to keep watching & listening to your place.
Were you able to conclusively tell whether this was a single owl? Is it possible you were hearing multiple owls? Were the calls coming from the same location you normally hear them from?
Thanks for sharing!
selma whiting says
Wow how interesting to know about the different hooting noise Owls make. We lived in San Antonio Tx, and we lived in the city. I spent a lot of time outside on my patio at night. I hear an Owl hooting he is normal just looking for a mate, now that I know what are the different hooting noises I can tell what he is doing. I did see him one night flying across my back yard beautiful white medium size Owl. Just wanted to share my story about this amazing creature. I only wish I could see him again.
Brian Mertins says
Thanks for sharing, I hope you get to see him again too!
Irma Dimas says
Just heard a few owls screeching, hooting at each other. They got pretty loud then all went silent. They’ve done this before but i’ve never paid attention to their pattern or timing. I’ve seen a couple out in the trees during the day. We live out in the country, S.E Texas, and have several squirrels. I’ll have to do some investigating to see how squirrels and owls coexist.
Brian Mertins says
Owls will definitely hunt squirrels given the right opportunity. I’ve frequently witnessed red squirrels alarming in the presence of Barred Owls, and I would expect to see a similar relationship in other species. It’ll probably be most noticeable in owls that have active periods during the daytime. I’ve written a bit more about squirrel alarms on other posts: https://nature-mentor.com/squirrel-chatter-calls/
Every March we hear the barred owl, last year got a photo but a bit blurry. Almost 2 ft long! Well the other week a dog scared 2 of them away barking but they came back last night and one cackled like a chicken in trouble. I was able to view one but couldn’t find the other too. It was about 5 am. So I’m prepared tonight with my professional camera & a 300 lense! I love listening to them hoot!
Mary Jo says
After the storm Isaias, I heard two Great Horned Owls hooting very early hours (3-4 am) and they seemed to be trying to locate one another as the hoots got closer and closer. Last night though from the area of the dominant owl hoot – the hoot was mixed with a trilling – never heard that sound before- I wonder what that was about-
Cool reading . I picked this up after listening to an owl who appears to have found a new home in my yard. I’ll be listening for the different “calls”. Hoping their not too late. I’m up four a:m for work.
Brian Mertins says
Have fun out there! I’m currently being entertained by Juvenile Barred owls hunting Crickets and Katydids. The sounds they make are so funny!
I’m visiting my parents in northern CA, and we have a great horned owl that has lived here for many years. We have a blue spruce in the front of their house and almost every morning around 4am, it’s hoot-hooting. We also heard it in the backyard one evening as we have oak trees in the back area and that was around 8pm. They are such beautiful creatures. I live in RI and right around now, our local great horned owl is about to mate these next few months. We saw the owlet around March 2021. I wish I could actually see the owl in CA!
Brian Mertins says
Hi Claudia, thanks for your comment!
I would highly recommend that you try out the steps from my other article on how to find owls in the wild – https://nature-mentor.com/how-to-find-owls/
You’re very close so those steps should help you see the owl in CA. Let me know if you get stuck anywhere!
We recently (early January) have a new owl near our house. I wondered why it was hooting so much, and why the hooting that started in front of our house moved to the back (we’re guessing that he moved from one nest to another one that suited him better.) no will be listening for him to find a mate. Thanks so much!
Brian Mertins says
Owls start their courtship very early in the year, so this is most likely why you’re noticing a sudden increase in the hooting.
It’s unlikely that they’re building nests in January, but it depends on how far south you are, and what type of owls you have there…
Do you know what kind of owl it is? Sometimes you can tell males from females just by their voice!
Janet Fookes says
Hi, I am listening to an owl that has been calling this last week and wondered why. It was very helpful to find this, thanks,
We only have one owl here in New Zealand and call it a morepork or ruru (Maori language). And, it’s autumn. He may be getting ready early, has found a good spot and seeking a mate.
I am always interested in birdcalls, especially the early morning chatter of several species like thrushes, starlings, sparrows and finches. Do you have anything about this, please? Thank you.
Brian Mertins says
Thanks for sharing!
I’ve written a fair bit about our most common North American thrush, the American Robin: https://nature-mentor.com/robin-calls/
I also have an article that goes into sparrow calls, which are some of the easiest bird calls to make sense of: https://nature-mentor.com/why-sparrows-chirp/
In general – the more you learn about bird language, the easier it is to understand any bird you’re hearing. So I’d also recommend my beginner’s guide to bird language: https://nature-mentor.com/bird-language-beginners/
Thanks for your question and I hope that helps!