Owls turn autumn nights into haunting symphony of sound

Closeup of an owl against a black background.
Hooting season is here.

With leaves falling and days growing shorter, owls contribute more of their haunting calls to the symphony of the night.

For owl watchers, autumn is sometimes called “the hooting season.” It’s when the birds of prey lay claim to promising habitat and get a jump start on their late-winter breeding season, warning intruders to stay away while advertising their prowess to potential mates.

“Fall is when owls are setting up their new winter territory,” said Jennifer Phillips, assistant professor in WSU’s School of the Environment. A bird communication researcher, Phillips studies the intricacies of birdsong as well as the impacts that human activity has on birds’ calls, nesting, and survival.

“I was hiking the other night and a pair was out there, hooting,” she said. Male owls find and defend territory, while females select nests. Unlike many birds, both sexes are vocal.

Closeup of Jennifer Phillips
Jennifer Phillips

“In owls, females hoot back just as often,” Phillips said. “At certain times of the year, owls do a mating duet where they’re sealing the pair bond by calling to each other. She’s saying, ‘We’re still together, right? This is still our territory?’

“The male says, ‘Yes, definitely!” And he makes sure other males nearby hear that.”

If both birds are calling together, Phillips’ trained ear can tell them apart: “males are smaller, but their voice is deeper.”

For male owls, hoot-offs help size up a rival.

“If you can assess a competitor through song ahead of time, that’s advantageous,” Phillips said. “But if their song performance is evenly matched, and they figure they’re about the same size as the other guy and neither is backing down, they can fight. It’s talons out, tumbling in the air.”

Owls’ huge eyes help them see at night, while facial discs of feathers funnel sound to their offset ears. Earlike tufts of feathers on the great horned owl, one of the most-heard species in the U.S., may help signal to each other or aid in camouflage.

“Their actual ears are closer to their eyes,” Phillips said. “Their hearing is much better than ours. They can hear tiny rustling sounds, squeaky little animals and insects.”

Creatures of the night, owls have become part of our mythology.

“Somewhere along the way, we’ve associated them with being wise and mysterious,” Phillips said. “Maybe you’re out in the woods and don’t know where you’re going. An owl calls. Could something bad be about to happen?” More likely an owl’s just claiming its turf.

Sadly, Phillips debunks the wise old owl myth.

“I can’t say they’re the smartest bird in terms of wisdom,” she said. “That goes to parrots and ravens,” who can learn hundreds of words, remember faces, and use tools.

While generalists like great horned owls and barn owls can thrive in human-changed environments, others, such as the spotted owl or the flammulated owl, depend on undisturbed old growth forests for habitat.

Owls’ huge eyes help them see at night, while facial discs of feathers funnel sound to their offset ears.

A new faculty member at WSU, Phillips is currently examining how light and noise disturbance from gas wells affects long-term survival of multiple bird species in the American southwest.

“Understanding their biology and monitoring factors like light and noise, that we’re just beginning to think about, are really important for conservation,” she said. “The more we know about what these birds need to thrive, the more we can help find management strategies that make sure they persist.”

Eye-catching predators that keep rodent populations in check, owls are an audible reminder that nature can thrive alongside human communities. Their persistence helps human wellness, Phillips said.

“We’re innately moved to listen to what birds are saying,” she said. “When we hear an owl hooting or birds calling, it often brings a sense of peacefulness.”

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