Owls at Sunset on the Towpath and Beyond
By: Kim High, Metroparks Master Interpreter
If you are someone who enjoys hiking the Towpath or other Metroparks trails at dusk, you might be fortunate enough to hear one of our resident owl species on your adventure this time of year. We have three species of owls that are year-round residents in Northwest Ohio, and just before sunset now through April is a great time to listen for them, as they are vocalizing to set territories and communicate with mates during breeding season.
The Great-horned Owl is usually the earliest breeder of our year-round owl species, and many have been hooting for quite some time now. They are the typical ‘hoot owl,’ with a low and relatively soft voice. They definitely can be heard along the Towpath, as they like river and creek communities. But this generalist species can live in most other natural areas as well, and even sometimes inhabits city neighborhoods—especially those with large trees. Typically nesting in tree cavities, they also sometimes have been known to repurpose the leafy dreys of Eastern Fox Squirrels. Great-horned owls are the largest of our three resident owl species, and they can prey on animals as large as skunk.
The smallest of the three-- not much bigger than a robin—is the Eastern Screech Owl. Its name is unfair: The song most often heard from this bird is a really beautiful, whistle-like trill, often descending in tone as the trill progresses. Once on one of my nature walks, a three year old girl with a big imagination announced to the group that the Screech Owl sounded just like a twinkling star. What a sweet way to think of this bird’s music! Listen for these little owls on the edges of woodlands and meadows and even edges of natural areas and suburbs, as they have adapted quite well to using the nonnative evergreens of our neighborhoods for roosting.
Finally, one of the most notable and wild calls of our Metroparks comes from the medium-sized, Northern Barred Owl. The Barred Owl’s hooting has a higher pitch than that of the Great-horned, and its call rings through the woods! Many books tell us that one of the Barred Owl’s favorite phrases sounds like “Who cooks for you… Who cooks for you-all?” Some folklore even suggests that this vocalization does not come from a bird at all, but rather from some restless, selfish human spirits that were cast forever into the woods because they wouldn’t feed a helpless beggar who was knocking at their door for food! While our Oak Openings Region Metroparks are strongholds for Northern Barred Owl populations, in recent years there has also been a pair vocalizing around Silver Lake and the maintenance area at Side Cut Metropark.
For your next Metroparks visit, consider a walk with family or friends about an hour before sunset. This is a great time to watch and listen for not only these owls, but may other kinds of wildlife known to be crepuscular, or active at twilight. You will also be treated to a beautiful sky. Just remember to respect regular Metroparks closing, which is ½ hour after official sunset time, so that our Ranger Operations team can get home to enjoy time with their loved ones, too!