Screeches in the Night

photo of dusk scene

The first leg of my Australia trip involved driving from my hometown of Ithaca, New York to Columbia, Missouri, where Carl Gerhardt, my co-traveler lives. His home is on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. I arrived yesterday evening and immediately noticed that it was dead-calm. So when darkness fell I walked the ridge trail to a small clearing in the woods, hoping to record the mellow insect chorus. But as I approached the clearing, I became aware of periodic screeches given by two mysterious creatures of the night, one fairly near and the other much farther away.

Excited to get a recording, I quickly placed my soundscape microphone at the edge of the clearing, a hundred feet or so from the nearest screecher. I turned the recorder on, left it sitting on the ground, and then moved back in the woods where I sat on a log and enjoyed the spectacle. How exciting, but “who” or “what” is making these unusual sounds?

Mysterious screeches in the night, set against a cricket and katydid chorus, 16 September 2012, 11:00 pm, near Columbia, Missouri. (don’t play too loud or the insects will overwhelm).

Someone new to nature’s night chorus might think these sounds are made by some kind of mammal. Or, if by a bird, they must be the screeches of a Screech-owl (that sure seems logical, doesn’t it?). Well, they are indeed made by owls, but not by screech-owls (which hardly ever make any sound approaching what we may call a screech) … these are the screeches of two young Barred or Great Horned Owls, I’m not entirely sure which.

Given the time of year, these are certainly not the calls of “baby” owls, but rather of immatures … adult-sized but still dependent on their parents for food. Such screeching sounds are generally thought to be “begging calls” or else “location calls” that allow the parent owls to find and feed the young.

But which species of owl is this? My initial impression was Barred Owl (at times, I could hear adults calling way off in the distance), but Carl says there are a lot of Great Horned Owls in the area. So I’m just not sure. Maybe someone out there can tell me how to tell the two apart, based entirely on the sound of the screeches of the immatures?

To my ear, this is a very pleasurable soundscape. The insects provide a continuous and reasonably mellow backdrop for the owl calls. And I love the distant caller, which adds depth to the recording. On the whole, I am very pleased to snag these mysterious voices of the night, only two days prior to our launch toward Australia.


  1. 100% Whitetail Deer. Been hearing this sound all week and finally this morning I watched a Doe making the sound. Watched through my binoculars with my son. We too thought it was an owl but not it’s confirmed.

  2. Great, now it’s still in a deadlock. 🙂 Some say Great Horned Owl, some say Fox of some kind. I heard the very same EXACT calling again last night (4 days later), but it was too far away to bother with trying to record it, or try to find it — in the dark, in the woods, in the night … (I’m still going with the Halloween theme LOL). (The rest of the line from the original “The Haunting of Hill House”, is “Nobody will come to help you in the night … in the dark. Nobody will come closer than town. In the dark … in the night. Nobody will come closer than that. In the dark … in the night.” LOL That’s about where I live. That far from any town. 🙂 )

    I’m not convinced it’s foxes though. I’ve been living here nearly 25 years now and I’ve NEVER heard any of the foxes around here make this kind of sound before. Got both kinds, red & grays, mostly grays. The grays like to prance through the yard on occasion. I’ve heard deer snorts too, lots of times, up close and personal once. Like the time one startled me from 5 ft. away while I was in a moonless cornfield trying to get photos of aurora at 2-am. It snuck up so quiet I never heard it behind me. Scared the bejeebers outta me! I guess I was in the way of its nightly freeway bypass, it snorted me out of the way. I obliged and it calmly walked by. 🙂

    I wanna go with Great Horned Owl (though that may not be what it is). I need more kinds of owls around here. Got a boatload of Barred-Owls now (one even keeps watch over my yard for voles a McMouse-burgers), like a good friend outside at night saying, “All’s well …” while hooting. But would be nice to have some owl variety.

    I’m going to leave that recording up ’til I get the majority vote on one kind of critter. 🙂

    Thanks for checking it out. It’s another seasoned input/data-point into the mystery. Much appreciated.

    This all just reminded me of something. If you really like mystery nature sounds, years ago while in a remote national forest camping for about a month, I heard a frog one night that had about 5 different short melodies to its call. Floored me. Just like a songbird that will change-up their tune between favorite phrases, this was a frog doing that. I never did find out what kind of frog it was. Never saw the frog, just snuck up close and recorded it while it was “singing” in the middle of the night. I should find that old recording and post it somewhere. Bet it would stump the most seasoned frog-experts.

  3. Uncanny.

    “… my primary reason being that there were at least two and probably three birds making the calls, all of which shifted positions every now and then and seemed to always be within earshot of one another. It seems unlikely that these would be three females, moving about together in the woods.”

    This is a near-identical situation to what I recently recorded, but the calls I recorded sound different. Similar but lower in tone.

    If any of you smarties can de-sleuth what made the sounds I recorded recently (Halloween night actually, great sound FX! 🙂 ) I sure would appreciate it. These sounds are driving me nuts trying to figure out what made them.

    See (read/listen-to):

    • In reference to your recording, I would say for sure that it’s not a Great Horned Owl. The repeated calls remind me of the alarm snorts of a white-tailed deer, but I know that’s not right either. Plus the odd calls near the beginning of your recording … what animal does that? So I’m actually stumped. Maybe some strange (gray) fox call?

  4. I live in Drummond in New Brunswick Canada and i ear that sound almost every night, and was driving me nuts specially night time so i went out and it was just getting dark and the sound was so close and look up on top of dead tree and there it was a big Owl and the color was kind of grey.

  5. I followed sounds very similar to these several years ago near Hungry Mother State Park in southwest Virginia. While I never got a really clear view of the species, I was pretty sure they were juvenile Great Horned owls since I have never (in almost 50 years) heard a Barred Owl here, but have frequently heard Great Horned owls. I, too, was able to locate at least three young owls making the screeching noises on any given night. It was during August, if my memory serves me correctly.

  6. I have seen many bird recordings by Wil Hershberger on Does Wil work for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology?

  7. I have seen immature Great Horned Owls give this call in captivity, so it’s Great Horned. The begging Barred Owls in your soundscape “Night Screeches” sounds way different than this.

  8. It sounds very much like the juvenile Great Horned Owls that grew up in my neighborhood. They would would begin begging after dusk and throughout the night. The two owlets fledged and began limbing March 31st and began to fly by June, begging into the summer. By fall they were still sighted, and sadly moved on by winter.

  9. What you say makes perfect sense. Too bad you don’t have my “nightscope”! It would be great to nail this down, at least to species, OAFA. Good luck. And I still wonder what Wil has to say about his recording (#1-14).

  10. Bob:

    Well, methinks then that the consensus is building that it is Great Horned Owl.

    But I don’t like the “female call” hypothesis, my primary reason being that there were at least two and probably three birds making the calls, all of which shifted positions every now and then and seemed to always be within earshot of one another. It seems unlikely that these would be three females, moving about together in the woods. More likely these are adult-sized immatures (of both sexes) giving location (begging) calls and attempting to stick together at least to some extent.

    ALSO, there could very well be confusion about identities in the recordings on the Cornell owl CD. For instance, if a juvenile is full-sized, unless the birds have been banded, how on earth would an observer be able to sex it correctly, much less know if it was a mated adult, especially when viewing at night at a distance with a spotlight? People often make their “best guess” when identifying field recordings, and this “best guess” soon morphs into “apparent fact” and may eventually earn the status of “true fact,” when “in fact” there is some question as to the true identity of the caller.

    If weather permits tonight, I’ll try tracking one down and getting a spotlight on it, at least to determine species. But I doubt that will work because when I tried to approach one after making my recording the other night, it flew to a different position before I got very close.

  11. Great catch! That is the exact same call that I recorded at Carl’s on 30 September 2009. I recall that back then we couldn’t decide on who was giving it, Great Horned or Barred. In going through the Lab’s “Voices of North American Owls”, I now find that the call which comes closest in 1-47 “Female chitter call and squawk” (it’s the “squawk part”) recorded by Wil Hershberger. The call you have recorded is a bit higher in pitch, but the overall form is the same. Perhaps Wil can chime in here. I would love to see the ID cleared up!! BTW, none of the Barred Owl calls on the CD are anywhere similar to what you have.

  12. I think we can safely say they are the calls of immatures. At this point, I think they are probably Great Horned Owls. But Barred Owl young also give begging screeches. So just because these calls sound like GHOW doesn’t mean they are GHOW. I think we need more information about the BAOW possibility. I have recordings of very young BAOW fledglings giving screech calls, but I don’t have any recordings of full-grown young giving such calls … although I fully expect they do in fact give such calls.

    So I still feel we haven’t nailed it for sure.

  13. This call is definitely of a great horned owl! I believe it is of a begging adult female. i hear these calls regularly during our northern saw-whet owl fall migration monitoring station which is due to start in October. As you know, Great horneds are early breeders so it makes sense that the pair is bonding, the female begging for food from her provider. I have also worked for years with Barred Owls, they do not make this vocalization. Hope this helps!

    • Interesting idea … that it is an adult female. But what of the other caller in the distant? Another adult female? That seems unlikely. And what I didn’t say in my blog post was that I heard a third caller at one point, farther down the trail, though not when I was recording.

      So I still think they are young, but I’m definitely tending toward Great Horned Owl as the species.

  14. I love your wonderful site. I am thinking that just perhaps you were hearing young red foxes calling and not owls. I have chased similar sounds through our TN forests for several years- usually in the spring- and finally found the sound to be young red foxes. We have barred, screech and great horned owls too, so the forest is often filled with odds sounds. Just suggesting- I could be way off on my guess. Keep up your fabulous work! Have an awesome time in Oz!

    • Definitely not Red Fox. Long ago, I actually watched three full-sized Great Horned Owls in the top of a pine tree, giving loud screeches similar (though not identical) to the calls in this recording.

  15. 🙂 I didn’t play loudly 😉 even in England there is not eny dager to be overwhelmed by insects :))) I am happy for that.Love your nice records <3

  16. Hi Elliot,
    I love your work and admire the great effort,
    thanks for sharing and get a big hug from Venezuela,
    thank you for existing … ♥
    Ely Aurora

  17. I hear a distant, similar sounding screech at periodic intervals on your recording, which made me wonder if it could be foxes communicating. But their screams tend to be sharper.

    There is a Great Horned begging call here, which, of all the sounds I found, seems most like yours (but I did not do an exhaustive search):

    There are links to other owl, fox, and various mammal sounds at

    Many barred owl sounds are here, but they don’t sound like your recording: I have heard the wheezing of the 16-week old owls outside my window, but that is nothing like your screech.

    • I think they are Great Horned Owls. Wish I could have spent the whole night listening and waiting for the parent owls to arrive with food. Then I might have nailed down the identification with certainty.

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