What goes screeEEECH in the night?

By Emily Barry, Interpretive Ranger at Pawtuckaway State Park

As our twilight bike ride came to an end, my friend Andrew and I cruised back to Big Island at Pawtuckaway State Park. The campground was quiet, the weekend campers had come and gone.

There was a ruckus over my camp- swift aerial motion and bone-chilling shrieks. We dropped our bikes and grabbed the binoculars. Swoosh. One large owl swooped overhead, landing in the Red Oak over my campsite. Swishh. Another flew over, landing in a tree on the opposite side of my site. Rustle, rustle. A third owl flew about in the surrounding trees, claiming perch on a new branch.

We watched in awe, as these owls screamed and restlessly danced from tree to tree. My first suspicion was that three Eastern Screech Owls had moved into the area, based on the “screech” alone.

The owls we observed did not have ear tufts like these Eastern Screech Owls. Also, the screech owl is only 8.5″ in length. The owls visiting my campsite were much larger (Photo courtesy of National Geographic).

With my trusty Sibley guide in hand, I quickly ruled out the possibility of the Eastern Screech Owls. Based on appearance these were three Barred Owls, but the sounds were throwing me off. I had heard adult Barred Owls on Big Island previously (listen to the call here), but this shrieking was new to my ears. As we observed, we noticed the two owls screaming appeared to have more downy feathers than the third, non-vocal owl. Reading further into Sibley’s description I realized this “rising hiss kssssssshhip” is common of  the juvenile Barred Owl.

Adult Barred Owl (Photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology).barred_owl_juvenile_sydphillipsJuvenile Barred Owl. Two juveniles and one adult were responsible for the ruckus this midsummers evening.

Were these two fledglings exploring life outside of the nest for the first time? I will never know for sure what caused this peculiar behavior at my campsite on this midsummer evening, but surely it must have been a critical event in these young owls’ lives.


At least I hope it was a pivotal moment, because these owls did not stop screeching until mid-morning the next day. The following night they resumed their vocalizations, with no care in the world for the campground’s quiet hours. Fortunately, the next night they moved up the island to sing the other campers a goodnight lullaby.

Even though these young owls kept me awake for more hours than I would have liked, they completely captivated me. It was an amazing event to witness and it was a great reminder of the stunning things you can witness when you spend time outdoors.

If you would like to learn more about these owls and the special adaptations that allow them to be so active at night, come join me for Night Explorations one Friday night this summer.



Discover Power of Parks SCA Interpreters

Discover the Power of Parks is presented by New Hampshire State Parks in collaboration with the Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorps and made possible by generous financial support from Eversource. The program offers a look into the natural world through hands-on programming. Interpretive programs focus on connecting participants with nature and building appreciation for New Hampshire's unmatched natural heritage. Programs include guided hikes, interpretive tours, and imaginative environmental workshops for children and families. Programs are offered free to guests with paid park admission fee. No pre-registration is required.

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