Calling All Owls

By Jim White: Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity

The Delaware Breeding Bird Atlas has just started its fifth and last year. While it is far too early in the year for most birds to be nesting, it is in fact a great time to look for nesting owls.  There are four species of owls that regularly nest in Delaware: Great Horned, Eastern Screech, Barred, and Barn Owls.  The former three are nesting now and the latter will be nesting soon. Jean Woods, Curator of Birds at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, is collecting data on nesting owls for the atlas project and is encouraging all birders to keep an ear out for calling owls and report any that are heard. In fact, she is challenging us to go out and actively look and listen for owls. This may sound a bit of a difficult, if not crazy task; however, it can be quite enjoyable and not that hard.

Great Horned Owls start nesting in January and are very vocal now at dawn and dusk. Photo by Jim White

Owls can be spotted during daylight hours; however, surveying for owls is best done on a quiet, windless night. Dusk can be a particularly good time to hear owls but owls can also be heard later in the night.  For logistical, safety, and enjoyment reasons, owling is best done with a companion.

Eastern Screech-owls are very common in Delaware, even in urban settings with some trees. Photo by Jim White

Great Horned and Eastern Screech-owls are relatively common in our area and can be found in most woods. Barred Owls typically are found in or near swamps, wet woodlands, or floodplains, while Barn Owls are birds of open areas such as freshwater marshes, saltmarshes and agricultural fields. Stopping safely along roads that pass through these habitats and listening for the owl’s distinctive calls can produce good results. Of course you have to know the calls of each species but don’t worry: learning them is not that hard. Owls have more than one type of call: fright calls, begging calls, aggressive calls, and the most commonly recognized advertisement call.   The advertisement call, as you might expect, is usually the loudest call and is used to attract a mate or declare territory.  The Great Horned Owl’s advertisement call is a classic hoo – h’HOO – hoo – hoo. The Eastern Screech-owl’s is a eerie high trill. The Barred Owl’s well known “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all“ is hard to confuse. The Barn Owl has the least musical call of the four and is a high-pitched hissing scream. Owl calls can be heard at several websites, including Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds.

Barred Owls are year-round residents of Delaware and usually breed in areas with extensive woodland, swamps, and forested floodplains. Photo by Jim White

You can report any sighting or hearing of owls to Jean Woods at Click this link for more information about the Delaware Breeding Bird Atlas.  To find out what breeding bird atlas blocks still need owl breeding records, click here.

Barn Owls are restricted to large open areas such as salt marshes and farmland. For the most part, they nest in human structures like barns, silos, and abandoned buildings. Photo by Jim White

So get out there, have some fun and collect some valuable data on Delaware’s breeding owls.  If you would like to join me on a day-long owling adventure, register for the Delaware Nature Society program Owls at Other Winter Raptors which takes place Sunday, February 12.  On this field trip, we try to find the owls mentioned in this story plus wintering Northern Saw-whet Owl, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl, and if we are really lucky…Snowy Owl.

5 thoughts on “Calling All Owls”

  1. We got some great shots of the owl who lives in the stream area behind our Magnolia house. Would you like the pictures?

  2. Richard J Papp

    Our home is surrounded by mature dense hardwoods. I am in the process of building an owl box and would like to know how high off the ground it should be.
    Thanks in advance,

  3. Joe Sebastiani

    I received your question about the height of an owl box. If it is for a screech-owl, I would try for at least 8 feet. For a Barred Owl box, I would go very high. The only Barred box we’ve put up has been with the help of arborists who climb trees. I assume that you are installing a screech-owl box. I have seen them nest in wood duck boxes that are on 8 foot poles, but if you can go higher, I think that is better. If you attach it to a tree, chances are you’ll get a gray squirrel living in it. I have had success putting owl boxes on tall poles well away from a tree so with a predator guard so squirrels have a hard time getting to it. I also try to face afternoon sun so that it encourages the owl to stick their face in the hole to look around in the afternoon, and in a location where you can see it. I hope that helps.

  4. We have a beautiful owl wooing just outside our house, it’s 1:00 AM and we are all loving the sound!

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