Birds That Sound Like Owls: Exploring the Barn Owl and Other Species

What Is the Bird That Sounds Like an Owl?

When walking through a wooded area or sitting outside on a quiet evening, you may have heard a distinctive call that resembles the haunting hoot of an owl. This mysterious sound often sparks curiosity and raises questions about the bird responsible for producing it. While owls are well-known for their distinctive vocalizations, it’s not always an owl that you’re hearing.

The bird most commonly associated with the owl-like call is the barn owl (Tyto alba). Widely distributed across the world, the barn owl is one of the most common owl species and known for its unique vocalizations. Its call is a loud, long, drawn-out screech that can be quite eerie to the untrained ear. Typically heard at night, this sound has led many people to believe they are in the presence of an actual owl.

The Barn Owl: A Closer Look

The barn owl, also known as Tyto alba, is a fascinating species that captivates both bird enthusiasts and casual observers alike. With its unique appearance and distinctive screeching call, the barn owl stands out among its avian counterparts.


One of the most striking features of the barn owl is its heart-shaped face. This facial disc serves a practical purpose, allowing the owl to capture and focus sound waves more effectively. The owl’s large, dark eyes are situated on this facial disc, enabling it to see clearly even in low-light conditions. Additionally, the barn owl exhibits long, slender wings that aid in silent flight, an essential trait for its nocturnal hunting expeditions. Its overall plumage is pale and mottled, providing excellent camouflage against the backdrop of its natural habitat.

Range and Habitat

The barn owl’s adaptability is evident in its widespread distribution across different continents. This species can be found in various regions worldwide, including Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Within these regions, barn owls typically inhabit open grasslands, farmlands, marshes, and agricultural areas. These diverse habitats offer an abundant supply of small mammals, which constitute the owl’s primary prey.

Nocturnal Nature

As a nocturnal bird, the barn owl has evolved specialized adaptations to thrive in the darkness of the night. Its keen sense of hearing allows it to detect even the faintest sounds produced by prey scurrying through the undergrowth. The owl’s ears are asymmetrically placed on its head, with one ear positioned higher than the other. This arrangement enables it to pinpoint the exact location of a sound, aiding in precise hunting. Furthermore, the barn owl possesses exceptionally soft feathers that reduce turbulence and minimize noise during flight, allowing it to approach its prey undetected.

Hunting Behavior

Barn owls are highly skilled hunters, primarily preying on small mammals such as mice, voles, and rats. Their hunting strategy relies heavily on their acute sense of hearing. From a perch or during flight, the owl listens intently for the rustling or squeaking sounds made by potential prey. Once detected, the barn owl swoops down silently, utilizing its sharp talons to capture its quarry. Interestingly, during the hunting process, barn owls emit a screeching sound that is often mistaken for another bird’s call. This vocalization serves as a means of communication between mates and territorial markers.


The barn owl’s screeching call is one of its most distinctive features. It is a high-pitched, raspy screech that can vary in intensity and duration. This sound is often described as a combination of hissing and screaming, carrying across the night air and serving as a territorial declaration or a means of attracting a mate. The barn owl’s vocal repertoire extends beyond its screech, encompassing a range of hisses, shrieks, and bill clapping sounds that contribute to its overall communication system.

By understanding the characteristics of the barn owl, from its appearance to its hunting behavior and vocalizations, we can gain a deeper appreciation for this remarkable avian species. In the subsequent sections, we will explore other species that imitate the barn owl’s call, delve into the fascinating anatomy and behavior of owls, and learn how to identify these enigmatic creatures.

Other Species That Imitate the Barn Owl’s Call

Several bird species imitate the barn owl’s distinctive screech, either as mimicry or to establish territory. While the barn owl is commonly associated with owl-like calls, other birds also imitate its screech in different regions of the world.

Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio)

The Eastern Screech-Owl, despite its name, is not closely related to the barn owl. However, it produces a call that resembles the barn owl’s screech, particularly the descending whinny. This small owl, found in eastern North America, is known for its ability to imitate various bird species, including the barn owl, to communicate and establish territory.

Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)

The Common Nighthawk, although not an owl, often gets mistaken for one due to its similar call. This nocturnal bird produces a nasal “peent” sound that can resemble the barn owl’s screech. Despite their differences, the Common Nighthawk’s call shares characteristics with the barn owl’s call, adding to the confusion. Found across the Americas, the Common Nighthawk’s call is most commonly heard during courtship displays.

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

The Northern Saw-whet Owl, a small owl native to North America, has a unique call. However, it can also mimic the calls of other birds, including the barn owl. This mimicry ability makes it challenging to distinguish its calls from the barn owl’s screech. The Northern Saw-whet Owl’s imitative skills serve various purposes, such as attracting mates and establishing territorial boundaries.

Australian Boobook Owl (Ninox boobook)

The Australian Boobook Owl, found in Australia and surrounding regions, imitates the barn owl’s call. While it has its own distinctive call, it can sound similar to the barn owl’s screech, especially during the male’s territorial hooting. The Australian Boobook Owl’s ability to mimic the barn owl’s call adds complexity to the soundscape of the region and can sometimes lead to misidentification.

In conclusion, besides the barn owl, several bird species imitate its distinctive screech. The Eastern Screech-Owl, Common Nighthawk, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Australian Boobook Owl all have calls that resemble the barn owl’s screech to varying degrees. Understanding these imitative capabilities contributes to a broader appreciation of avian vocalizations and the fascinating world of bird communication.

Anatomy and Behavior of Owls

Owls, belonging to the order Strigiformes, possess unique anatomy and behavior that contribute to their remarkable hunting abilities and nocturnal lifestyle.


Owls have physical attributes that enhance their hunting abilities and adapt them to a nocturnal lifestyle:

  1. Large Forward-Facing Eyes: Owls have large eyes positioned at the front of their face, providing excellent binocular vision and depth perception. This adaptation allows them to accurately judge distances, especially in low light conditions.

  2. Facial Disk: Owls have a flat facial disk consisting of specialized feathers that funnel sound towards their ears. This aids their exceptional hearing abilities, allowing them to locate prey with precision.

  3. Round Head and Short Neck: Most owl species have a characteristic round head with a short neck, enhancing their ability to focus sound and rotate their head for a wide field of view.

  4. Specialized Feathers: Owls possess feathers adapted for silent flight, with fringed edges and a soft texture that reduces noise during flight. This silent approach enables them to surprise their prey.

  5. Sharp and Curved Beak: Owls have sharp, curved beaks designed for tearing and consuming prey. The shape of their beak varies depending on their diet.

  6. Strong Talons and Claws: Owls have powerful talons with sharp claws that enable them to capture and grip prey effectively, adapting to different sizes and types of prey.


Owls’ behavior contributes to their success as nocturnal predators:

  1. Nocturnal Adaptations: Owls are primarily active at night and possess adaptations for low light conditions, including large eyes, specialized retinas, and a high number of light-sensitive cells called rods, providing exceptional night vision.

  2. Silent Flight: Owls are renowned for their silent flight, facilitated by specialized feathers that reduce noise and provide precise control during flight, allowing them to surprise prey undetected.

  3. Predatory Nature: Owls are opportunistic hunters with a diverse diet, preying on various small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects based on availability and suitability.

  4. Excellent Hunting Abilities: Owls’ exceptional hearing and eyesight enable them to locate and capture prey with remarkable precision, even in complete darkness, by detecting subtle sounds and movements.

  5. Solitary Lifestyle: Most owl species are solitary, preferring to hunt and live alone. However, some species form monogamous pairs during the breeding season. Solitude allows owls to establish and maintain territories for a sufficient food supply.

  6. Nesting and Reproduction: Owls typically build nests in tree cavities, abandoned nests of other birds, or on ledges. They lay eggs and engage in incubation to hatch their young. Adult owls provide parental care, with both parents contributing to feeding and protecting their offspring.

Understanding the intricate anatomy and fascinating behavior of owls sheds light on their adaptability and success as nocturnal hunters. These remarkable creatures continue to captivate and inspire with their unique traits and silent presence in the night sky.

How to Identify an Owl

Owls are captivating creatures with unique physical characteristics and behaviors that aid in their identification. Here are guidelines to help you accurately identify an owl:

Physical Characteristics

Owls possess distinct physical features that set them apart from other birds:

  1. Large, round head with forward-facing eyes: Owls have large heads with flat faces and forward-facing eyes, providing them with binocular vision and enhanced depth perception.

  2. Facial disc: A circular arrangement of feathers called a facial disc focuses sound and directs it toward their ears, contributing to their exceptional hearing abilities.

  3. Sharp, curved beak: Owls have a sharp, curved beak designed for tearing and consuming prey, with variations based on the owl species and diet.

  4. Nocturnal adaptations: Soft feathers enable silent flight, while large, low-light-adapted eyes provide excellent night vision, reflecting their primarily nocturnal lifestyle.


Owls display varied plumage among species:

  1. Mottled or streaked feathers: Many owl species have mottled or streaked patterns, providing effective camouflage against tree bark or leafy environments for hunting and roosting.

  2. Distinctive facial patterns: Some owls have facial patterns like “ear” tufts or “horns,” feather tufts that can be raised or lowered based on mood or alertness.

Size and Shape

Owls exhibit diverse sizes and body shapes:

  1. Size: Owls range from small species measuring around 6-7 inches to larger ones standing up to 2 feet tall, offering valuable clues for identification.

  2. Body shape: Different owl species have varying body shapes associated with their hunting strategies and preferred habitats, from slender and elongated to stocky and compact.

Flight Characteristics

Flight patterns and abilities aid in owl identification:

  1. Silent flight: Specialized feather structures enable nearly silent flight by reducing turbulence and noise during flight.

  2. Maneuverability: Owls are strong and maneuverable flyers, capable of precise aerial movements with broad wings and rounded tips for slow and controlled flight.

  3. Hovering capabilities: Some owl species can hover, useful for hunting small prey like insects or small rodents.


Owls are known for their unique vocalizations:

  1. Distinctive hooting sounds: Each owl species has its own distinct hooting sound, serving as a significant clue for identification and used for communication, territorial defense, and attracting mates.

  2. Mimicry by other bird species: Certain bird species, like common mimics, can imitate owl hooting sounds, occasionally causing confusion during identification.

By considering these physical characteristics, plumage patterns, size and shape variations, flight characteristics, and vocalizations, you can enhance your ability to identify different owl species and appreciate the diversity and beauty of these remarkable birds.


In conclusion, the barn owl is often mistaken as the bird that sounds like an owl due to its distinctive call. Its loud, long, and drawn-out screech is commonly associated with owls and frequently heard at night. However, it’s important to note that other species can imitate the barn owl’s call, adding to the confusion.

Understanding the anatomy and behavior of owls aids in identifying these fascinating creatures. Owls possess unique features such as facial disks that enhance their hearing abilities and nocturnal nature, along with vocalizations serving various purposes.

When hearing a bird call resembling an owl, it’s essential to consider other possibilities beyond the barn owl. Birds like the common nighthawk, black-crowned night heron, certain species of thrushes, and doves can imitate owl vocalizations for defense or territorial establishment.

To accurately identify an owl, observe its physical characteristics, behavior, and vocalizations. Owls exhibit traits like silent flight, specialized feathers for noise reduction, and unique hunting adaptations. Learning about these features and studying field guides can help correctly identify different owl species.

In conclusion, the bird that sounds like an owl is often the barn owl, but other species can imitate its call. Understanding the distinct features and behaviors of owls helps differentiate them from other birds. So, next time you hear a bird call resembling an owl, take a closer look and appreciate the remarkable world of these nocturnal creatures.

Frequently Asked Questions

What other birds sound like an owl?

Several bird species can produce calls that resemble the sound of an owl. Some examples include the Eastern Screech-Owl, Common Nighthawk, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Australian Boobook Owl. These birds imitate the barn owl’s distinctive screech to varying degrees, either for communication or territorial purposes.

Can owls mimic other bird sounds?

While owls are not known for mimicking other bird sounds, there are certain bird species that can imitate owl calls. Mimicry of owl vocalizations is more commonly observed in birds such as common mimics, black-crowned night herons, certain species of thrushes, and doves. These birds may imitate owl vocalizations for defense or to establish territorial boundaries.

Why do birds imitate the barn owl’s call?

Birds may imitate the barn owl’s call for various reasons. One main purpose is territorial establishment. By imitating the barn owl’s call, birds can create the impression that the area is already occupied by an owl, deterring potential competitors. Additionally, some bird species imitate owl calls as a defensive strategy to scare away predators or perceived threats.

How can I identify an owl by its call?

Identifying an owl by its call can be challenging but not impossible. Each owl species has its own unique vocalization, often referred to as hooting. To identify an owl by its call, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the distinct hooting sounds of different owl species. Field guides and online resources can provide audio samples and descriptions to help you match the call to the corresponding owl species.

What are the physical characteristics of owls?

Owls have distinct physical characteristics that set them apart from other birds. Some key features include a large, round head with forward-facing eyes for enhanced binocular vision, a facial disc that funnels sound towards their ears, a sharp and curved beak for tearing prey,






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