top left top right
The Owl Pages
Follow Me on Pinterest

It's courting season for boreal owls, can you hear?

Article Date: 2009-03-26   Source:   Comments: 1

By Tim Mowry

Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.A. - As a passionate naturalist, it goes without saying that Mark Ross appreciates nature.

But even nature lovers have their breaking points and Ross is approaching his, courtesy of a male boreal owl that recently set up camp in the woods outside his house in hopes of attracting a female mate.

''I've got a box that's about 30 feet from my house, and I think he's hanging near that box,'' Ross, education coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said.

''It's seven to 12 little toots,'' Ross said of the owl's distinctive, high-pitched and repeated ''phoo, phoo, phoo, phoo, phoo'' mating call that awoke him from a sound sleep at about 2 a.m. Monday. ''He did one that must have been 30 straight toots.

''I was not happy,'' he said. ''I really needed to sleep.''

The bachelor boreal was back again the next night, tooting away at 10 p.m., midnight and 4 a.m., waking Ross each time. The 4 a.m. wake-up call was especially impressive.

''It must have been 100 consecutive toots,'' Ross said incredulously. ''It would go on 25 or 30 times and you could just barely hear him catch his breath, and he just kept going and going.''

It could be that a female boreal flew into the area, prompting what is known as a prolonged song that can last up to a minute, Ross said.

''Males sing that song when there's a female in the area,'' he said.

With longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures, courting season for boreal and other owls in the Interior has begun and there will soon be hoots echoing through the woods.

Looking for love

Boreal owls are the most vocal of the four owl species found in the Interior, at least during the breeding season. Late March and early April are the peak of the breeding season, and single males will keep singing until they find a mate or the breeding season ends.

Biologist Ted Swem, who has studied boreal owls for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, witnessed a scene similar to the one Ross experienced several years ago in his back yard. Swem had a boreal owl box hanging in his yard, and a male set up shop and started hooting to attract a female. As Swem was watching the male sing one night, a female boreal flew in and landed in a tree beside him.

''(The male) went into the box and stuck his head out and he literally did not stop (hooting) for hours without catching his breath,'' Swem said.

Even so, he didn't get the girl. The female flew off and didn't return, even though the male continued hooting for weeks.

''He didn't get the babe,'' Swem said sadly.

Unlike great horned owls, the other owl species most often heard in the Interior, the only reason male boreal owls hoot is to find a mate.

''He's saying, ‘Here I am. I'm a stud. Look at this place I've got set up. It's big enough for 18 eggs, and I'm a good provider, too, because look, I've already got three boreal red-backed voles, two shrews and a redpoll for you right now. I'll definitely be able to feed your kids,''' Swem said.

A boreal owl's song is similar to a winnowing snipe, a fast, staccato ''phoo, phoo, phoo, phoo, phoo'' that is repeated over and over with only a few seconds pause.

Local bird expert Nancy DeWitt learned long ago not to put a boreal nesting box close to a bedroom window.

''My first spring here up on Chena Ridge in 1992, I had a male outside the cabin singing his heart out all night long for days,'' DeWitt said. ''They can just be relentless out there.''

Still pretty quiet

When a male boreal does attract a mate, he does not advertise it.

''Once they find a female they generally shut up,'' said Travis Booms, the non-game biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Local reports of hooting boreal owls are just beginning to trickle in and Swem suspects the cold, windy weather may have something to do with what seems to be a late start to the boreal courting season. Wind drowns out a male's hoots, a phenomenon that boreal owls seem to recognize.

''If I was a boreal owl, I'd be thinking I'll leave it go for another week and see if this wind dies down,'' Swem said.

Deeper snow this winter may also be affecting the behavior of boreal owls, Swem said. Deep snow makes it harder for the owls to catch voles, their primary prey species, that are living under the snow. Studies in France have shown that both male and female boreal owls will leave areas of deep snow to find more favorable hunting areas. It could be that fewer owls overwintered in Fairbanks because of the deeper snow, and they are just beginning to return.

''It's certainly something I wait for, listen for and hope for, but you're not guaranteed every year to hear it,'' Swem said of a boreal owl's song.

Booms will be monitoring dozens of boreal owl boxes put up by his predecessor, retired biologist Jack Whitman, starting in the first week of June. The monitoring is part of a research project started by Whitman.

''We try to get three basic things,'' Booms said. ''We get the number of boxes occupied, the number eggs laid in each box and the number of nestlings that leave the box.''

Talking with owls

Great horned owls are also actively staking out their breeding territories and pairing up. Unlike boreal owls, both male and female great horned owls will hoot, and their hooting isn't tied solely to the mating ritual.

''Great horned owls are doing it for a variety of reasons,'' Booms said. ''They're looking for a mate and they're doing it for territorial reasons.''

A great horned owl's song is a slower and deeper than a boreal's. It typically consists of a five- to seven-noted ''whoo, whoo-whoo, whoo, whoo.'' The female's song is quicker and higher-pitched than the males, and great horned owls will readily respond to an imitation.

''If you're in an area between two or three great horned owl territories and you hoot, you can bring in multiple horned owls and get them to respond to you and each other,'' he said.

Disclaimer: This article has been reproduced from and placed here for comment. is not responsible for the accuracy of any information in this article, and does not necessarily agree with the author's opinions.

Related Articles:
2009-05-21 - Dead boreal owls were starving, not sickly by Tim Mowry - Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.A.
2009-04-16 - Boreal owl deaths a mystery to Fairbanks bird experts by Tim Mowry - Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.A.
2007-03-02 - Sounds of Spring Hooting owls are a sign that winter is waning by Tim Mowry - Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.A.
2006-06-15 - Boxes help biologist study baby boreal owls by Tim Mowry - Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.A.
2004-05-30 - Whoo's there? by Tim Mowry - Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.A.

< Previous News article   |   Next News Article >


On 2010-02-25, megan from wrote: "I am megan bussey and i go to St.Anthony elemantary.I have to look up info on the boreal owl and you have gave me all the info i need....Thank-you"

Comments are closed for this article.

Click for mobile friendly site
bottom left bottom right