You’re more likely to hear an owl before you see it, but do you know how to identify owl calls?

The five UK owl species can be difficult to track down. Most of them are out and about when the rest of us are tucked up inside, they’re all incredibly well camouflaged, and some make their homes in remote reaches. Thankfully, our guide to owl calls should help you tell your tawny owl from your barn owl without even having to lay eyes on them.

What does a tawny owl sound like?

A tawny owl call is the classic hooting we most associate with owls, but all isn't what it seems. The famous 'twit twoo' sound isn't made by one bird – it's made by two. A male and a female, to be exact.

The female tawny owl makes the sharp 'ke-wick' (twit) sound, while the male responds with a wavering 'hoo-hoo' (twoo). The male tawny owl uses his call to stake claim to his territory, while the female users hers as a contact call, dueting with the male or keeping in touch with her chicks.

Best time to hear

Tawny owls call most on autumn evenings when pairs begin courting, ready for nesting as early as February.

Where to see

Prime tawny owl habitat is broadleaved woodland, but you can also find them in churchyards, parks and towns with mature trees.

Audio: Dominic Garcia-Hall /

What does a barn owl sound like?

A barn owl call is a shrill screeching sound, which has earned the owl the nickname 'screech owl'.

Best time to hear

The best time to hear barn owls calling is at the beginning of the spring breeding season, when males screech to attract females to nest. Females also produce contact calls to beg males for food.

Where to see

Barn owls like hunting in scrubby grassland habitats in the open countryside and farmland, particularly at dawn and dusk.

Audio: Patrik Åberg /

What does a little owl sound like?

A little owl call is a short, repetitive 'woop' or a sharper 'kiew kiew'. Both male and female little owls may also use a soft contact call.

Best time to hear

During the breeding season – from April – when males advertise territories.

Where to see

Little owls live in tree-rich farmland and pasture across England. You're most likely to spot them in the daytime, perched on tree branches or rocks, or flying to cover if startled.

Audio: Patrik Åberg /

What does a long-eared owl sound like?

The male long-eared owl uses a soft 'hoo' call, a little like blowing across the top of a milk bottle, to stake claim to his territory. The female's call is a higher pitched 'hoo'.

Displaying long-eared owls have been known to bring their wings together in flight, making a soft clapping sound.

Best time to hear

This is perhaps the UK's most secretive owl and is rarely heard. You're most likely to hear one during the breeding season, in early spring.

Where to see

Long-eared owls are seldom seen during daylight hours. They like roosting in thickets and dense trees in well-wooded countryside, and seem to prefer coniferous woodland and tall, scrubby habitats.

Audio: Peter Boesman /

What does a short-eared owl sound like?

The male short-eared owl has a 'song' that usually consists of 10 or more fast, repetitive hoots. It sometimes uses this during display flights lasting for up to an hour, coupled with bursts of wing clapping.

Both male and female short-eared owls also use other vocalisations, including hoarse screeches and harsh barks.

Best time to hear

Short-eared owls breed in remote moorland areas, so the male's song is rarely heard. You may hear these owls calling to one another when gathered at winter hunting grounds.

Where to see

Short-eared owl habitat includes rough grassland and open moors, where they breed on the ground. In winter, populations tend to move towards the coast, where you're more likely to spot them at marshes and sand dunes. They can often be seen hunting in the daytime, but mostly at dawn or dusk.

Audio: Simon Elliott /

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