There’s nothing more exciting than going outside and listening to a bird alarm 200 yards away, then finding an animal that you would have otherwise missed.
In this article I’m going to share exactly what I do when I want to use bird language to find an owl.
I’ll go over how to look at the landscape from a big picture perspective so that you can figure out in which areas you’re most likely to have success.
I’ll describe the special time of the day when I can always find an owl as long as their alarms are within earshot of where I’m standing.
I’ll also explain specifically what I listen for to tell me that there’s an owl nearby and you’ll hear an audio recording of what bird alarms near an owl sound like.
Owls are super cool animals and if you set aside a bit of practice with listening they are one of the easiest animals to find by using bird language. Let’s Go!
Step 1: Position yourself for success
My experience has been that one of the most important factors that determines whether or not I have success when I go out searching for owls is how I position myself in the landscape.
You could have amazing ears for bird language but it’s not going to help you if you can’t actually investigate the alarms. There have been so many times when I’ve heard mobbing behavior but doubted what I was hearing because the alarms were happening across the street in someone’s backyard that I don’t have access to.
Owls occupy a huge variety of ecosystems. They can survive in deep forests, in meadows and farmlands, even in rural subdivisions.
Their range can be quite big so when I go out to see if I can find an owl the first thing I do is go to an area where I’ll really be able to move and investigate things if I have to. If I want to be able to uncover the source of the disturbance I need to have free range to bushwhack and go anywhere I need to go.
My prime starting location will be in the middle of a large natural zone where there’s lots of forest and space to roam in every direction.
Maybe it’s a wilderness area where you can go off trail or a big park somewhere. I like going out on forest roads because they’re easily accessible and there’s lots of natural space all around me.
If you look at a few maps you should be able to narrow the most likely places where you’ll have both owls and the ability to explore a large area.
Step 2: Go at the optimal time of day
Once I’ve found a place where I’ll be able to do the necessary scouting I’ve also found that strategically timing my explorations makes it a lot more likely that I’ll find owls.
This is because a sleeping owl gets much less of an alarmed response from the birds as one that is active and potentially hunting. It can be helpful to time your field experience for that time right before sunset when heightened songbird activity overlaps with heightened Owl activity.
I always aim to be in my starting location just as darkness starts to set in. If it’s too late then I won’t have enough much time to follow the alarms. If it’s too early then the owls won’t necessarily be active.
It’s not that you can’t find owls getting mobbed in the middle of the day. I’ve done that many times but it can be much more hit or miss in my experience.
Even in the evening you’ll still have to put in some time to actually track down your first owl but it’s worth the effort for the amazing feeling of knowing that you can do it.
Step 3: Know what to listen for
A couple years ago I lived near a large and dense Douglas fir forest. It wasn’t a particularly diverse forest but it did have barred owls and a small robin population.
I would make the 20-minute walk into the thick of the forest and aim to be there right around the time when the owls would be starting to get more active. Then I would walk the forest roads listening for the distinct alarms of the American robin.
The Robin is the one bird that almost always tells me about large owls like a barred owl or a barn owl. I think the reason I’ve had the most success with them is because they’re just so loud and consistent. Other common birds like chickadees will definitely alarm at owls but you have to be much closer to begin with in order to hear them.
If the robins are up three quarters of the tree height and alarming at the top of their lungs you can hear it from an incredibly long distance. The distance their voice travels is the thing that’s going to give you a greatly increased chance of being able to find the alarms in a massive forest.
Below is an audio recording I made of some robins that were alarming at a barn owl. The sound quality is quite poor but the key 'owl alarm' features are still very audible.
Notice that in this recording there are two birds alarming together.
When they're both alarming it almost sounds like they're trying to talk over each other. I've observed this to be a pretty consistent feature of the alarms that are given for owls.
When I hear more than one robin alarming in that syncopated rhythm, I'm much more likely to find something than if it's just a single robin making some noise.
Keep going till you figure it out
So there you have my strategy for tracking down owls using bird language. I’d simply walk the forest roads listening and when I would hear the distant alarms I’d move towards them and not always, but frequently would be successful in finding the owl.
One last thing I would say in closing is that it took me a really long time to find my first owl this way. I didn't have anyone to guide me or tell me how to approach my goal so I ended up wasting a lot of time trying things that would have never produced the result I wanted.
Don't get discouraged if it doesn't work the first time you get out there. The most important thing is to take the next step and have fun. On the quest to find an owl there is incredible potential for unexpected learning to take place, and that's really what it's all about.
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Hi, my name is Brian and I created this website to share my love for nature. I’m here to show you step-by-step how you can learn cool and practical skills like bird language, animal tracking and nature observation.