For the Birds Radio Program: Owls

Original Air Date: March 1, 1995

March is the month when owls begin mating in the Northland. 3:15

Audio missing


(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)

When March roars in, birders thoughts turn to owls. Great Horned Owls are starting to hoot their deep, mellow hoot at night.

(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)

The Great Horned Owl is a huge bird with tufts of feathers on the top of its head giving it a cat-like silhouette. Although many people call these feather tufts “ears,” their function has nothing to do with hearing. It seems like a poor adaptation—because of its distinctive shape, Great Horned Owls are mobbed relentlessly by jays, crows, ravens, and hawks. The easiest way to find a Great Horned Owl in the daytime is to make the neighborhood crows do the looking—listen for their angry caws once they’ve spotted one. In evening and early morning, their distinctive silhouette can often be seen in the leafless trees along roads—I usually see two or three on the drive between Duluth and the Twin Cities.

Barred Owls will soon be calling, too. The Barred Owl is much more often heard than seen. It has a strident hoot that follows the rhythm pattern “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

(Recording of a Barred Owl)

Barred Owls are smaller than Great Horneds, but if you see a large owl in flight at night, it’s hard to tell which one it is. The two owls are easy to tell apart when you see them in the day. The Barred Owl has no feather tufts, and has solid brown eyes, compared to the Great Horned Owl’s fierce yellow eyes. The Barred Owl is not named for William Shakespeare, so don’t spell it b-a-r-d: it takes its name from the barring on its upper breast and throat.

Snowy Owls have been very rare in the Northland this year–it sounds like their numbers may be down throughout the United States. Only one individual has been seen in the harbor all winter. I saw one sitting on a hill of snow on the Minnesota prairie when I went out to East Grand Forks a few weeks ago, but that was my only sighting all season. Snowy Owls are the heaviest of all North American owls. Adult males are quite white, but females and young birds have varying amounts of dark barring on their bodies, and sometimes dark caps. Snowy Owls are usually silent in winter, but in case you’re wondering what they sound like on their breeding grounds:

(Recording of a Snowy Owl)

The only other large owl seen in the Northland is the Great Gray Owl. This supreme bird looks enormous, but that’s all fluff–in reality it weighs less than the Snowy or the Great Horned Owl. Great Grays nest in the Northland, especially in boggy areas like the area around Meadowlands. They sometimes nest on man-made platforms. Great Grays have a deep, constant hoot.

(Recording of a Great Gray Owl)

If you hear a hoot owl, it’s easy to identify it–just remember that the Barred Owl’s strident hoot follows the rhythm, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?,” the Great Horned Owl’s mellow hoot doesn’t follow any particular rhythm, and the Great Gray Owl’s resonant hoot is in a constant, steady beat.

(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”