Ask SIB: Why are owls calling?

Question: Tonight on Jenkins Point we can hear four owls stretched in a line from Seabrook Island Road-or thereabouts-to our oak and then on out Jenkins Point with the fourth owl at the very end-I think. All were calling, sometimes solo but sometimes overlapping each other. I assume from their calls they are Great Horned Owls. We hear owls frequently in Spring and Fall, even occasionally in Winter. But never in the summer. Do they migrate or just go inland to deeper woods?
With all the calling back and forth are they looking for mates this time of year or are they just telling each other they are here?
Thanks for enlightening me. – Andy Allen

Answer: What an exciting experience having four owls serenading you. While it is impossible to know exactly what is happening, one can make an educated guess. Owls generally mate for life and a mated pair stays on territory year round. Starting in September, the male owl starts calling as part of his courtship ritual. Owl nest early in January and February to time the heavy growth period for their young to coincide with the fresh production of prey species, i.e. the young and naive. The young hang around through the summer, but come September, just like any good parent, the young get kicked out of the area and need to disburse. This happens most heavily in September. Understanding this, I suspect you encountered a situation where the local owls called to inform the intruders that the territory is full. The intruders called to test the strength and fidelity of the local pair. As you listen, the male sings with a deeper voice than the female. When you hear two mated birds performing a duet, the male and female alternate singing. In a territory dispute, that rigid pattern of male/female may not hold true.

– Bob Mercer, SIB’s “Resident Naturalist”

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