Tawny Owl calls and vocalizations (page 2)

Longer mp3 samples


The male's main call -- the hoot


Full hoot 295 kb 15 s

Two males 610 kb 31 s


Single hoots 1 (real interval) 1.4 Mb 1.2 min

Single hoots 2 (edited interval) 1.1 Mb 56 s

The male performs his hoot in two main ways. The first is the classic full or double hoot: whooo . . . . hu hu-u-u. There's an interval of 5 to 6 or more seconds between the first and second parts of the call. Examples are Full hoot and Two males.

More often heard is the single hoot. In the first example, Single hoots 1, a paired, dominant and very active male is on patrol in his territory. In the second, Single hoots 2, the owl is an unpaired male who had been attempting to take over a neighbouring pair's territory for some time. Here he's sitting just outside the territory making single calls at 30 s intervals (here edited down to about 11 s). As these two clips show, the pitch of males' calls can be very different.


The female's hoot








Female hoots 930 kb 47 s


Male-female hoot comparison 590 kb 29 s



Wild female hoot 300 kb 15 s



Nestbox female 2 1.3 Mb 1.2 min














Very early female hoot 110 kb 6 s

Although females are often described as being able to hoot, I've found almost no recordings of this call and don't often hear it in the wild. Yet it is the call my 3-year-old female makes most frequently; she also makes full-volume kewicks, which males cannot do. She has never done a male-type hoot. Since Sept 2007 we've been lucky enough to find a second female going round with our nestbox pair, and this bird I've now been able to record quite often doing her hoots.

The first clip is my female, responding to (real) wild owl calls. First you hear her kewick, though not loudly, followed by a series of her "hoots".

The second clip is a comparison of the male and female hoots. A male full hoot is heard first, then the female hoot. After that the first and second parts of the hoots are compared side by side.

The third clip is an example made by a wild bird in Hemsted Forest. There are two females in this one moving around doing kewicks and the other stationary and doing a hoot that's identical to what my bird does.

The fourth clip is an assemblage of calls made by the female who shares our nestbox owls' territory. She doesn't take part in breeding, so we think she's a youngster from the 2006 nesting season. First you hear her on her own, then with the breeding female, and then with the male. Recorded at the nestbox in March 2008.

There are several big differences. The male hoot is unvoiced, whereas the female's sounds more voiced, even "croaky". The male does just one hoo before the last part of the call, while the female does up to three. The male's call is loud and can be heard for great distances, in contrast to the female's rather muted volume. And with its croaky quality the female's call sounds as if made by an immature bird. But these birds are not youngsters: I've heard a captive owl known to be at least 10 years old making the female hoot.

So why is it my young female's preferred call? My current belief is that it's made by females who don't have a partner, and that when they find a mate they switch to the kewick as their main call.

The young female makes her first kewick perfectly. Mine made hers at exactly 4.5 months of age (14 Sept). She was doing her first "hoots" 3 weeks earlier. Clip 5 is one of her very first baby-like efforts, recorded 23 August 2005, when she was a week short of 4 months old.


Footnote — female hoots on other websites

On his site, The Owl Plexus, Bruce Marcot claims to have a recording of a female tawny's hoot (go down to the Recordings of Owl Calls section) on the grounds of its "higher pitch" than the previous clip, which is correctly identified as a male's hoot. As you'll hear, there's no reason to think the second clip is not a male. The pitch of male hoots can vary quite a lot between individuals. The "cree-ick", or kewick, clip that follows is indeed a female.

Gérard Olivier's site Chant d'oiseaux en Bourgogne has the only other recording I've found so far of the female hoot. Go to the Non-passerine page, find the "Strigidés" and play "Chouette hulotte". The hoot comes 44 seconds into the clip, and there's another partial one at about 58 sec. The female's hoots alternate with a male hooting. (If the play symbol doesn't show up, place your cursor over the left side of the "Ecoutez" column, which should make it appear.)


The female's main call -- the kewick and its variants













Female on eggs calling 600 kb 30 s


Female mew 240 kb 12 s


Urgent calling (588.79 K) 600 kb 30 s

Many of the calls a female makes are variants of the kewick, or u-wee call. Basically it's a simple two-part sound, rising to a higher pitch in the second, longer part. Calls range from almost inaudible mewings and little sounds she makes on her daytime perch, through medium-volume comments, to sharp, full-blooded kewicks which she may make at longer intervals or more rapidly, depending on the urgency she feels. My impression is that the louder calls are almost always made to communicate with her mate. Out of nesting season she may be looking for him, and in nesting season she may call from the nest to encourage him in his hunting, or sometimes she'll leave the nest and make more urgent calls insisting that he turn up!

So the female's basic vocabulary may be limited, but she varies the way she uses it so much and so expressively that it seems otherwise.


Female on eggs calling: Our nestbox female about 10 days into brooding letting hubby know she'd like to see him despite the rain.

Female mew: Mews made by same female in nestbox during visit by mate days before eggs hatched.

Urgent calling: Our local "house" female trying to contact hubby. First you hear a tiny mew she made 40 seconds before launching into a series of sharp kewick calls. Here I've only included the first three of seven sets of these calls, and the calling interval has been shortened by five seconds. The tiny mew is amplified 10 times, the kewicks are as recorded. She was probably standing just 30-40 feet from the mics, possibly closer.

Does the male make kewick calls, or only the female?

Since doing this section I've become aware that it's quite widely stated that males as well as females make the kewick call. And when the claim is made by an authority like Heimo Mikkola in his Owls of Europe you have to take note! When contacted, another leading academic working with tawnies said he was pretty sure that males can make the kewick call.

This came as a bit of a surprise as in hours of listening and recording I've not heard a tawny I know to be a male make the full-blooded call, or indeed anything approaching it. On top of that, to me the kewick "voice" is such a female one and so different from the male's. But there it is, and for the time being I shall have to keep an open mind and defer to the experts! Though if my experience is anything to go by you're very unlikely to hear a male kewicking.

The best chance of settling the matter is of course by monitoring a captive male. This has the advantage that tawnies can get very vocal in response to recordings. If the owl didn't kewick the monitoring could take a long time as it's difficult to prove a negative. And in that case one would have to repeat the experiment with another owl, and so on.

This is something I'd like to try. Not least because it's quite surprising that there's uncertainty over a main contact call made by a very familiar bird.


The third main call -- the warble (both sexes)











Worried warbles

Warble (female) 285 kb 14 s

Warble (male) 1.3 Mb 1.1 min







Excited warbles

Male feeding young 310 kb 15 s

Male excited warble 1 640 kb 32 s

Male excited warble 2 280 kb 14 s

This is quite a different sound from any other made by either sex. It is so rarely heard in the wild that it doesn't even have a name, despite being so distinctive. I'd settle for "warble", but on a French CD of European owl calls it is referred to as en ocarina. It's a quiet sound, so difficult to hear or record. As mentioned in the introduction, it seems to be used when an owl is feeling unsettled, anxious or excited for some reason. Both sexes make the call, but whether the sexes make it differently I don't know. My female makes it frequently when listening to recordings of wild tawnies. It's generally her first response, followed by female-type hoots and sometimes kewicks. She'll also do it out of the blue for no apparent reason.

Worried warbles

The first clip, Warble (female), is of my young owl. She quite often warbles when she hears recordings of male owls, especially when they are doing aggressive territorial hooting. The second, Warble (male), recorded by Allan Haighton, is of a wild male. First he does a single, slightly wobbly hoot, then a full hoot, the second part of which is also wavery and a prelude to the series of warble calls he started 20 seconds later (the interval has been edited down). The reason he made these calls is not known. Towards the end of the clip (55 s) there's a wail, apparently made by another male. See "The wail", next page, for more examples.

Excited warbles

This quavery sound is quite often made by males when they visit the female on the nest. Here, though of briefer duration, it's clearly made in a state of pleasure and excitement, either as a response to the female's greetings or just at the pleasure of successfully delivering food to the young. The first clip, Male feeding young, from a recording made in Cornwall by Allan Haighton, is of a male doing just that. Clips 2 and 3 are of male warbles induced by the high jinks that sometimes happen when he arrives at the nest with a catch. In clip 2 it's pretty clear that the female gets a thrill from winding up her mate. (Clip 2 is from another Cornish recording by A. Haighton; clip 3 is our own nestbox owls plus chicks in Kent.)

Pics of a tawny doing the warble

This is my female doing four consecutive warble calls. The photos show how the gular pouch (with its cover of white feathers) fills with air. She made the calls because she'd shut herself in a room by kicking the door to. Normally when this happens she kewicks -- the contact call -- but this time she decided to do the "anxious" call. She obligingly restarted when I returned with a camera, only needing one of my unconvincing hoot-like whistles to start her off again. She got a mouse as a reward. (Photo taken 9 Jan 2008)

Close examination suggests the beak is closed or almost so. When kewicking the beak opens a little. When making these calls there's little change in posture, unlike for the hoot. I'll try to get a hoot posture pic some time as it's quite characteristic.

Page 3: More calls: wails and yelps


Back to Tawny Owl calls page 1

powered by owls