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What is a Hoot Owl?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A hoot owl is an owl species native to Eastern North America. Known formally as Strix varia, the hoot owl is also known as the barred owl. These birds are of low concern in terms of conservation because their populations are healthy and robust. In fact, in some areas they are displacing the more vulnerable spotted owl, a threatened species found primarily in Western North America. Conservationists have expressed concern about the westward migration of the hoot owl and the policies put in forth to control owl populations.

Hoot owls are among the most vocal of all owls. They have a distinctive call with a rising and falling inflection pattern that sounds like “hoo hoo HOO aw.” The sound of the hoot owl has rising and falling stresses similar to those in the phrase “who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” The birds will also hiss when stressed, and use other calls for mating that include a drawn out “hoo WAAAAH.” Some of the sounds made by hoot owls can resemble barking.

Mature hoot owls are around two feet (60 centimeters) in height, with a wingspan about twice that. For all their size, the owls are relatively light, usually weighing in at about one pound (half a kilogram). They have distinctive barred plumage, brown eyes, and feathered legs. Unlike some owl species, hoot owls lack ear tufts.

These owls have very limited ranges, tend to mate monogamously, and can be extremely territorial. A hoot owl may not venture very far outside of his or her range over the course of a lifetime and visitors are decidedly unwelcome. The owls feed on small animals, usually around dusk, and are mostly active at night. Sometimes they may be active during the day as well and people sometimes hear hoot owls vocalizing in the forest during the daylight hours.

A great deal of mythology surrounds owls in general, including legends that alternately suggest that owls are omens of evil or wise guides that can provide assistance to people lost in the woods. Some of the legends suggesting that owls are ill omens may be explainable by the eerie sounds that some species make at night. For humans wandering in a dark forest, the screeches and hootings of owl species would be unsettling. Whether they are lucky or not, like other owls, hoot owls can be beneficial to have around the community because they will hunt small pests that might damage crops or ruin food supplies.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a hoot owl?

A hoot owl is a colloquial term often used to describe any owl species known for its hooting calls, which are typically deep and resonant. These calls are most commonly associated with owls like the Great Horned Owl, which is known for its distinctive "hoo-hoo" sound that can be heard over long distances in their native forest habitats.

Are hoot owls different from other types of owls?

Hoot owls are not a separate category of owls but are rather a non-scientific grouping based on their vocalizations. Owls are generally categorized by their physical characteristics and behaviors rather than their calls. However, the term 'hoot owl' distinguishes these owls from those that may screech, whistle, or make other types of sounds.

What do hoot owls eat?

Hoot owls, like many owl species, are carnivorous and have a diet that typically includes a variety of small mammals such as mice, voles, and rabbits. They may also prey on birds, insects, and reptiles. Their hunting is aided by their excellent night vision and silent flight, making them formidable nocturnal predators.

Where can you find hoot owls?

Hoot owls can be found across various habitats, including forests, deserts, and prairies. The Great Horned Owl, for instance, has a vast range and is distributed throughout North and South America. Their adaptability to different environments makes them one of the most widespread owl species.

How do hoot owls communicate?

Hoot owls communicate primarily through their distinctive hooting calls, which serve various purposes such as territorial defense, mating calls, and signaling the presence of predators. These vocalizations can carry over long distances and are an essential part of their nocturnal communication.

Are hoot owl populations at risk?

While many hoot owl species, like the Great Horned Owl, are currently stable, owl populations globally face threats from habitat loss, rodenticide poisoning, and collisions with vehicles and structures. Conservation efforts are crucial to ensure the protection of these species and their ecosystems for future generations.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Sara007 — On Sep 05, 2011

For those that are interested in seeing a hoot owl up close you should check out your local wildlife conservatory. In my hometown we actually have a bird sanctuary that was set up for injured birds. They have a few hoot owls there that you can visit.

Taking your kids to something like a bird sanctuary is a great way for them to learn about the ecosystem and see some lovely creatures up close.

My kids absolutely love seeing birds and other animals up close, and we make it a point to volunteer at our local wildlife conservatory a few times a month.

By lonelygod — On Sep 05, 2011

My grandfather's house has a few owls that call his property their territory. Over the years I have visited him I have distinctly heard a hoot owl make its prescence known.

From what I can tell the owls near my grandfather's house are hunting the mice and rabbits in the area. For some reason or another, the property near his house has always been teeming with small rodents. I suppose the owls see it as an all you can eat buffet.

My sister and I used to have fun sneaking out at night and watching the owls swoop down for their prey. It never scared us, we just thought it looked pretty cool because the owls moved so quickly.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 04, 2011

I often see owls in my backyard, and I am convinced that they help protect my vegetable garden from pests. Around dusk, I have even seen them swooping for something in there.

Because of the owls, I never needed any scarecrows or artificial protection from animals. I did notice while at a garden center recently that you can get a shiny, two-dimensional owl cutout to hang in your garden or fruit tree that will scare the birds away.

I thought this was funny. I wondered if birds or other animals would recognize the shape as that of an owl and be afraid. I imagine they would be more apt to notice the flashes of light it creates.

By lighth0se33 — On Sep 04, 2011

It is true that hoot owls like to stay near home. We have had two living in the forest behind our house for years, and we believe that they are mates.

I am familiar with them, so I was never afraid of them as a child. When my sister and I would have a sleepover, we would take our guests out into the woods, and they would always freak out when they heard the hoot owls.

One time, we were walking along a trail when my friend heard a wooshing sound overhead. She shone her flashlight up, and there was the hoot owl, just a foot above her head. She screamed and dropped to the ground.

By wavy58 — On Sep 03, 2011

I have seen some hoot owls out in the daylight. I usually don’t hear their calls until after dark, but sometimes, I see them hanging around.

Several times, I have been driving down a highway with electrical wires and poles running beside it, and I see owls sitting on the poles. They turn their heads and look at me.

I have seen them looking down at the grass before, too. I have yet to see one swoop, but I’m sure they are hunting by placing themselves at a high vantage point.

By cloudel — On Sep 03, 2011

My cousin lives in Hoot Owl Ridge in a log cabin. This place was named for the many owls that you can hear in the forest at night.

Her house is very rustic. She has an outdoor fireplace, and I feel like I’m camping every time I go there. The sound of the owls just adds to the feel.

Once, we were sitting by the fireplace when a rat ran across the deck. We saw a dark shadow swoop down and scoop it up. That hoot owl had an amazingly wide wingspan.

This scared my cousin, because she owns a teacup chihuahua. An owl could easily grab it and fly away in seconds. So, she makes sure that she never lets it out at night.

By sunshined — On Sep 02, 2011

I have always been fascinated by owls and their large eyes. Anytime I have seen them on display somewhere, the size of their wing span is amazing.

I don't know if it's because I always liked owls, but they always remind me of the 'Give a hoot, don't pollute' owl campaign that was popular when I was a kid.

This was always a nice reminder to throw your trash in a trash bin and not litter and pollute the environment.

By SarahSon — On Sep 02, 2011

I grew up at the edge of town with my bedroom window facing a small section of woods. I can remember hearing a hoot owl outside my window at night when I was reading.

I never saw this owl in the daytime, but looked forward to hearing it when it got dark. Anytime I hear a hoot owl, I am always reminded of this.

My sister and I wanted to learn how to hoot like an owl, and we would try to mimic their call, but we were never very good at it.

Hoot owls have a much more pleasant sound than a screech owl does. A screech owl has a really loud and obnoxious sound. I much prefer to hear the gentle sound of a hoot owl.

By summing — On Sep 02, 2011

Hoot owls are one of those creatures that really makes you curious about evolution. Why would they have evolved to have such a distinct and unusual call? How did this develop over thousands of years?

By jonrss — On Sep 01, 2011

My parents had a cabin in the woods in a rural part of Arkansas and there was a hoot owl that lived right outside one of the bedroom windows. It would hoot insistently throughout the night and me and my siblings used to fight about who would have to sleep in the room next to my owl. It kind of be came a family joke "Hoo will sleep there?".

By truman12 — On Aug 31, 2011

@Jennythelib - In Iowa City they have an entire preserve where they take raptors that have been injured in the wild whether through natural reasons or by the hand of man.

Its really a cool place. They have eagles, hawks, falcons and of course lots of owls. All of these are birds which are common enough but which you rarely get a change to see up close.

I remember that almost all the birds were very docile except the bald eagle which thrashed around its cage constantly and made a horrible screeching squawk. I don't know if this is a characteristic of the species or if this particular bald eagle was just having a terrible day.

By jennythelib — On Aug 30, 2011

@ElizaBennett - Don't quote me on this, but I think zoos need a special license or something to keep any birds of prey. I don't usually think of owls as "birds of prey" (I picture something big and fierce, like an eagle), but of course they hunt mice, etc. and so count as raptors.

I've also seen a really cool raptor exhibit - the one I saw had a bald eagle that flew on a lead - but I think that the reason they are not more common is that not all zoos are licensed to keep them.

By ElizaBennett — On Aug 29, 2011

I had no idea that a hoot owl was a specific species - I thought it was just a redundant thing to say, like "kitty cat." I probably should have known, because I really like owls. (I cried when *Harry Potter spoiler alert* Hedwig, his snowy owl, died at the beginning of Deathly Hallows.)

I remember being at a zoo once, maybe in Seattle, that had a really cool owl exhibit. I don't know why more zoos don't have owls - I would think I'm not the only one who thinks they're adorable and strangely compelling.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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