The Ridges Sanctuary

Preservation, Education, and Research

Nature Notes: The Silent Art of Owling

Posted on Feb 22, 2023 by Jeanne Farrell   No Comments Yet | Posted in Blog · Featured · Nature Notes

By Anna Foster and Jackie Rath

Owls of Interest

Last February, we wrote a blog all about the common species of owls found in Door County, which you can access HERE. Common owls in Door County include the Barred Owl, the Great Horned owl, the Eastern Screech-Owl, the Saw Whet Owl, and the Snowy Owl.

Unlike most tourists that visit Door County, Snowy Owls only visit northern Wisconsin in January and February. They make their way down from their breeding grounds in the Arctic to spend their winters in a “warmer” climate. You’ll likely never hear a Snowy Owl call. They’re often on fence posts or telephone poles near or in open fields, where they hunt in the winter.

Image: Snowy Owl from

In addition to the frequent visitors in our forests, some rare sightings of owls across the state are listed as a species of concern by the Wisconsin DNR. Both Short-eared and Long-eared Owls have not been recorded as “observed” in Door County. They are both medium-sized owls, similar in appearance, but the Long-eared Owl has longer ear tufts on the top of its head. Both species hunt in open grasslands. The Short-eared Owl makes ground nests in open grasslands, while Long-eared Owls use nests that other birds have made, sometimes in tree cavities or on cliffs. You may spot these species in other parts of Wisconsin, where they have been recorded in recent years!

Like Long-eared and Short-eared Owls, Barn Owls are not usually found in Door County and are rare in the state of Wisconsin. In fact, a Barn Owl nest was found in La Crosse for the first time in over twenty years in 2021. This is exciting news for the species, and there are likely more Barn Owl nests in southern parts of the state. While we likely won’t see Barn Owls in Door County, it’s important to know what Barn Owls sound and look like so you can record one if you hear or see it.


Image: Long-eared Owl at Owl-O-Rama

How to Go Owling, Responsibly

The most important thing to remember when you are owling is that you are entering the space of a wild animal. Irresponsible behavior is not only dangerous; it can inhibit breeding practices, cause shifts in territories, cause stress to the animals, and negatively impact owl behavior.

Always keep your distance and give any animal you observe plenty of space. Don’t try to “sneak up” on animals; observe them from a comfortable distance. Move and speak quietly, so you don’t startle animals. You have the best chance of seeing an owl when you are silent! Lastly, don’t play owl sounds. In some Ridges programs, we play owl calls so that participants know what different species sound like. However, we do not recommend doing this in the field to attract owls. Learn owl calls before you depart to find owls so that you have an idea of what species you may hear on your search. Playing sounds in the field can cause enough stress on owls that it can impact their breeding behaviors. Please do not play calls to attract owls in the field.

How to Find Owls

The best times to go owling are during dawn, dusk, or on a moonlit night. Due to the increase of owl calls during breeding season, late winter is the perfect time to go owling! Forests and riparian zones are the best locations for spotting or hearing owls. Remember that you may be sitting still for long periods in one location, so dress for the weather and only go if conditions are safe!

You’ll never hear an owl fly by you. Owl wing feathers are serrated, making their flight silent. This allows owls to sneak up on prey silently, accurately, and quickly. It’s also an excellent mechanism for protection! Thus, you can find an owl in two ways: 1. Spotting an owl (if it’s light enough outside to see), and 2. Hearing an owl call.

A Few Owl Calls to Listen For

If you hear two owls calling to each other in different tones, it is almost certainly two Great Horned Owls. The male will establish a territory in the fall and begin calling, both to warn other males and to attract females. Female Great Horned Owls will respond in a higher tone than the male. Calling increases during this time of year and lasts through the mating season.

Image: Great Horned Owl from National Audubon Society

Some Saw Whet Owls will have already started their mating calls, usually picking up in mid-February. To listen to Saw Whet Owls, go outside at dusk and listen for what sounds like a child playing the same short note on a recorder repeatedly.  Saw Whets typically nest in deciduous trees.

On our Night Hikes, we are often told the call of the Eastern Screech-Owl sounds akin to a horse whinny. Eastern Screech-Owls often nest in tree cavities but are one of the few owls that will nest in boxes. Through our Owl-O-Rama event in March, we offer an Owl Nest Box workshop where you can build a nest box and learn where to place it so that you can attract the Eastern Screech-Owl to your nest box!

Resources for Learning About Owls & Birds

Two great resources for learning owl calls are the Merlin Bird ID app for your phone and the All About Birds website through Cornell University. Both the app and the website have many photos, detailed information, and the calls of each owl species. You can even use the “Sound ID” feature of the Merlin Bird ID App to identify unknown bird calls in the field!

Owl-O-Rama is returning this year on March 3rd and 4th at the Ridges! 

Here’s your chance to learn more about these mysterious nighttime predators, including what species are found in Door county, their adaptations, and how we can protect them. Find more information about Owl-O-Rama events and registration links below.

Owl Prowl: Friday, March 3rd 6:00pm-8:30pm

Join a Ridges Naturalist at The Ridges Nature Center to learn about owl species that call Door County home. Then, head down to our Logan Creek Property and out on the trail to hear them calling to one another! Meets at Ridges Nature Center. Travel to Logan Creek necessary. Car pooling will be available. Location: Cook-Fuller Nature Center. Fee: Public $15 | Member $12 | 16 & Under $7

Nest Box Workshop: Saturday, March 4th from 12:30pm: 

Head over to The Ridges Workshop to build Eastern Screech owl nest boxes, which you can take home and hang in your backyard. A Ridges staff member will provide you with all the materials you need to assemble your nest box. Location: Workshop at The Ridges North Campus. Fee: Public $40 | Member $35

Meet and Greet with Open Door Bird Sanctuary: Saturday, March 4th from 1:00pm-3:00pm.

Stop by The Ridges Nature Center to get up close and personal with birds of prey from Open Door Bird Sanctuary. Staff and birds will be set up around the nature center to answer questions and tell you about each bird! Location: Cook-Fuller Nature Center.



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