Owl Prowls – Missouri’s Winter Night Life

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A Barred Owl perches on a tree while keeping its eyes on prey in Nashville, MO
Credit: © Missouri Department of Conservation, Noppadol Paothong
Saw-whet owl in scotch pine.
Credit: © Missouri Department of Conservation, Jim Rathert

Winter nights in Missouri are a time to hunker down, maybe in front of a roaring fire, and wait for spring to arrive – right? But it’s also the perfect time to bundle up and get out to experience the wild night life going on all around you.

Who’s out raising a ruckus in the dark and cold? Missouri’s owls, that’s whooooo.

Figures of mystery and legend, owls love the Show-Me State. Our abundant and varied outdoor habitats are perfectly suited to their tastes. They’re hard to spot but easy to find this time of year when they’re very vocal about claiming their territories. So basically, you’ll know them by what you hear. Just head out for a fascinating night hike in one of our conservation areas, greenways or well – almost anywhere – and keep your ears open.

The classic “who-who” call is the great horned owl, the biggest and best known Missouri owl. They like pretty much any wooded area and you can even find them in places like Forest Park in St. Louis.

The barred owl is known for the questioning call “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” but they also have something birders refer to as a “monkey call,” and if you hear a scream up in the trees that sounds like someone being murdered – that’s him, too.

Contrary to the name, the screech owl sounds more like a horse. Seriously. The call is described as a whinny. They also bark, trill, peep and hiss. They come in gray, brown and red – red is most common in Missouri – but spotting one is a rare treat.

Barn owls like to hunt open spaces, including cemeteries. Like all owls, the large white barn owl flies silently, and her call is a long harsh scream. They may be the real cause of many a ghost story.

Long-eared and short-eared owls are also year-round Missouri residents, although less familiar. And some years, we get winter visitors from north: the majestic snowy owl and tiny saw-whet owl (the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree hitchhiker).

A great alternative to venturing out on your own is to take an owl prowl.

Most winters, many of the Missouri Department of Conservation Nature Centers (located in St. Louis, Kansas City, Jefferson City, Springfield and Cape Girardeau) offer guided owl prowl programs to the public. Like many activities during this unusual year, owl prowls may become victims of COVID-19 restrictions, so check out the center nearest you to see what’s available.

If you want to see as well as hear these remarkable birds, the World Bird Sanctuary near St. Louis sells out their owl prowls every year. They take place select evenings November through March. Their naturalists will introduce you to their owl ambassadors, some of whom will fly right before your eyes. Then comes an easy night hike where you’ll learn to properly hoot, in several owl languages.

This winter, come over to the dark side – book a moonlight date with some of Missouri’s most fascinating residents.

Written by Barb Brueggeman