Owl Calls 101

This is the time of year to get outdoors and listen for owls calling. From mid-March to early May is owl breeding season in northern Alberta, so they’re actively calling to defend their territories. In previous years, I would be out right now doing owl surveys for my PhD research, but this year I’m stuck in my office trying to finish writing my thesis. You may not have seen very many owls, but they are out there, and you’re far more likely to hear them than you are to see them. Owl species have easily recognized calls, and learning them is pretty easy because they are so distinctive. So for all of you that are interested in learning owl calls or heard one recently and want to find out what species it is, here is an easy guide to owl calls! Below are details for species found in northern Alberta with clips from recordings I’ve collected during my PhD research over the past few spring seasons.

For best listening of these clips use headphones and increase the volume if need be, some clips are more faint than others‎.

Great horned owl

You all know this one! This is probably the most typical sounding owl call. It consists of 4-5 hoots in a distinct pattern. Both the female and male will call in duets, and they’re relatively easy to tell apart, the female call is a bit higher in frequency (i.e. pitch) than the male. Great horned owls are very common, so you’ve got a good chance of hearing one. They are Alberta’s official bird, a great choice considering they are found everywhere in Alberta and in almost every kind of habitat. In the first clip you can here a female Great horned owl calling very close, and in the second clip you can hear a male and female duet:

Great horned owl female:

Great horned owl male and female calling in a duet:

Barred owl

Barred owls will also call in duets, though it’s harder to distinguish the male and female calls of this species. Their typical territorial call is the two-phrased hoot, commonly referred to by its mnemonic: “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?”

Have a listen to this clip and see if you recognize this call:

Barred owl two-phrased hoot:

Another call that can be often by heard is the ascending hoot, this call has a similar ending as the two-phrased hoot. Here is a clip of what that sounds like:

Barred owl ascending hoot:

 

Great gray owl

This species of owl has the lowest frequency call of all the owls found in northern Alberta. It consists of several low hoots in fairly rapid succession. Take a listen to this clip of a great gray owl male calling:

Great gray owl male calling (with a boreal owl calling in the background):

The female great gray owl will also give a ‘whoop’ call, this isn’t very commonly heard, but it sounds pretty neat. Here’s a clip of the ‘whoop’ call:

Great gray owl female ‘whoop’ call:

 

Boreal owl

This species tends to call quite consistently. They are generally found in coniferous forest and are relatively common in the boreal forest of northern Alberta. Its call sounds like a trill:

Boreal owl call:

 

Northern saw-whet owl

The sound of this species call sounds like the backup beep of a truck reversing:

Northern saw-whet owl call:

 

Northern pygmy owl

This species is more commonly found in the western part of the province in the foothills and mountains, however I have heard them in northeastern Alberta as well. This is Alberta’s smallest owl species. They are active and hunt during the day and can be heard calling during the day as well. This species call is quite similar to the Northern saw-whet owl but with greater spacing between the hoots:

Northern pygmy owl call:

 

Long-eared owl

This species’ call is probably the most boring owl call, but it’s exciting to hear them because they are not too common. It gives a series of simple hoots that are fairly widely spaced out:

Long-eared owl call:

 

Julia Shonfield is a PhD student in Erin Bayne’s lab researching the impacts of industrial disturbance on owl habitat use and distribution in relation to oil and gas infrastructure in northeastern Alberta. For her research she conducts owl acoustic surveys and has focused on three of the species mentioned above: great horned owls, barred owls, and boreal owls.

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