Great horned owls are usually heard at dusk

A great horned owl and its owlet. Photo by Lawrence Syverud

A great horned owl and its owlet. Photo by Lawrence Syverud

It was 3 o’clock in the morning and I heard a soft “Whoo, whoo, whoo.” I gently touched my wife’s leg, waking her, and whispered, “There’s an owl outside.”

“Where?” she asked.

“Just listen,” I said.

And, sure enough, there came another three soft hoots. Jean bounded out of bed and headed for the window.

“She’ll never see anything,” I said to myself.

“There it is! I see it!” she stagewhispered.

And there it was, a silhouette in the huge maple across the alley.

As we watched, it spread its wings and took flight into the night. It was a great horned owl.

I don’t know why we figured we had to whisper, but it was exciting!

I’ve been leading owl walks for many years, and before we head out on the trail, I describe several owl calls so if we do hear one, folks will recognize the owl making the sound. Many of us have learned the barred owl call as “Who cooks for you?” That’s kind of the tempo of its vocalization.

For the great horned owl call, I’ve been using the Danish phrase, “Tak skal du have,” pronounced Tak ska du ha. Then I add two whoos at the end. In Danish, it means “Thanks!” directed to a specific person. Again, it’s about the right rhythm for the owl’s call.

But recently I’ve come to realize that everything before the “Ha” and the whoos is rarely heard in the wild. You can hear it on a tape recording of the call, but it tends to get lost in the woods. So now I listen for the “Whoo, whoo, whoo” and consider that definitive. Perhaps I’ll change the phrase to “Thanks for the food, whoo, whoo.” It’s easier for others to learn than the Danish. (And how did the great horned owls learn Danish in the first place?)

National Audubon sponsors its Christmas Bird Count annually between mid-December and the first week of January. I’ve been taking part in the St. Paul Audubon count for a number of years. Our team of four went out early on a Saturday morning in December to begin counting all the birds we see or hear in our assigned area, which included parts of Roseville, Arden Hills and Shoreview.

We start about an hour before sunrise with the hope of finding some owls. We don’t find them every year, but we try to hit the places where we’ve seen or heard them in past years. We pulled up at our first site, Cottontail Park on County Road C2 in Roseville. As we got out of the car and shut the doors, we immediately heard the “whoo, whoo, whoo” of a great horned owl. I thought, “Man, that was quick!” But Tom Schnadt, new to our team this year, said he’s seen the same thing happen with wild turkeys. When the car door whumps shut, you hear a “gobble-gobble.”

We tried a couple of other spots without success and wound up just at first light at Island Lake in Shoreview. Once again, as we shut the car doors, we heard a great horned owl off in the distance. Wow! All these years I’ve been carrying a recorder with owl calls on it, when all I needed was the recording of a car door shutting. In both cases, hearing the owl was adequate to count it on the Christmas Bird Count. We didn’t try to track them down.

There have been reports of one or more great horned owls in Lauderdale. A recent one came from Lynn Abrahamsen, who lives on the east side of Lauderdale, near what’s known as Breck Woods. She hears the calls just at dusk and has been hearing them over several years. She’s also been able to see them occasionally, both perched as a silhouette in the tree and also gliding soundlessly through the woods.

“They’re really big,” she says. The owls are probably nesting in the area, since this report came in January, prime nesting season for great horned owls.

I often get owl reports in the course of my daily life. Our dental hygienist, Janice, reports on owls she sees and hears at Roseville’s Central Park. She says sometimes, when she’s walking there alone, she tries giving a hoot or two (but only when no one else is around). And she’s had a response occasionally.

Lauderdale Mayor Jeff Dains has had a great horned owl in his yard, checking for rabbit, vole or mouse action under the bird feeders. I’d call that the night shift.

Great horned owl territory is about two square miles. I’ve read that you’re never more than five miles from a great horned owl in North America. So start listening for those three low “whoos” right around dusk. They’re out there.

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