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Who's that hooting in the woods? We have four species of owls resident in Indiana, plus another four that visit during the winter. You can easily learn the calls of the three most common, and if you practice, you can even hoot back at them and start a conversation.
Great horned owl, Bubo virginianus--This large owl has adapted well to our modern fragmented landscape. It is most often found hunting in farm fields near small forests. Its call is a sad, "Who's awake? Me too. Me too."
Barred owl, Strix varia--This owl is large like the great horned, but lacks the ear tufts. It prefers to live in mature woods, especially in river corridors or swampy areas. Its call is the most familiar owl song: "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? Madam, who cooks for you all?"
Eastern screech owl, Megascops asio--Li'l Screechy weighs in at 4.3-8.6 oz. and comes in two color varieties, red phase and gray phase. They can be found in all kinds of areas, not only forests but also parks and towns. Screech owls make a soft trilling "Oooh-oooh-oooh" like a ghost or a tiny horse (or a tiny horse's ghost.) They also make a terrifying scream, especially if you are camping in the deep dark woods and happen to stand right next to a tree where they are roosting, unseen. Who knew that the tiniest owl would be the most terrifying?
Barn owl, Tyto alba--This beautiful, medium-sized owl is an endangered species in Indiana--only ten to fifteen nests are found in the state each year. They nest in old barns, hollow trees, or special nest boxes and hunt in open fields. The barn owl doesn't hoot, but makes a creepy scream or hiss. Now, imagine that you're standing outside and come face to face with one of these owls, perched at eye level in a tree. It raises its wings in a threat posture and screams at you. All you see in your terror is the pale, heart-shaped face and soulless black eyes. Well, you've just explained away Mothman and any number of alien encounters.
Now to the winter owls!
Snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus--The snowy is the biggest owl in North America. A close relative of the great horned owl, it only comes to our area in the winter, and then only in irruptive patterns related to the availability of prey. You can search for them in snowy fields or even airports. Listen to its hoots and bill snaps at All About Birds.
Northern saw-whet owl, Aegolius acadicus--This teensy-weensy pocket owl can fit in the palm of your hand. You can tell it from a screech owl by its round, tuftless head. They are hard to spot in a forest, but if you're willing to go out on a wintry night, listen for its soft, flutey too-too-too.
Short-eared owl, Asio flammeus--If you're lucky enough to spot a short-ear, you probably won't see its "ears"--the tufts are small and usually tucked down. Short-eared owls are medium-sized and like to hunt in open fields. You can see them at dawn or dusk flying very low over the ground in search of prey. Listen for its bark to clue you in to its presence. If you'd like to look for a short-ear, try a reclaimed strip mine such as Columbia Mine in Patoka National Wildlife Refuge, Chinook Fish and Wildlife Area, or Universal Mine.
Long-eared owl, Asio otus--This close relative of the short-ear can be distinguished by its darker color and its much-longer ear tufts. They usually spend their time hiding in dense foliage, so you aren't likely to see one. Like short-eared owls, they make various barking calls. They are much rarer in Indiana than short-ears, but you might get lucky at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area.
Want to practice at home? Download a free owl songs album from Cornell University.