Hoot Detective!

by | Aug 12, 2021 | birds, citizen science, owls | 4 comments

The low impressive whoo-hoo of the Powerful Owl, the cheerful boo-book boo-book of the aptly named Southern Boobook – and the strange screech of the Barn Owl are the calls I have been lucky enough to hear around me locally. Now, by listening to short clips from various locations around Australia, you can help researchers find these owls, as well as the woof-woof of the Barking Owl and repetitive screech of the Masked Owl.  This nationwide project is called Hoot Detective, and is produced by the ABC Science in collaboration with the Australian Acoustic Observatory for National Science Week.

For the past two years, scientists from the Australian Acoustic Observatory have placed hundreds of autonomous recording devices in 90 sites across forests, grasslands and other ecosystems across every state and territory except the ACT. Sound snippets that might – might – include noises made by owls have been identified and collated by an artificial intelligence system being built at the Observatory.

Last week I got to do a test run of the Hoot Detective website and it was fabulous! The snippets are ten seconds or so long – and are very different depending on the location of the recorders. The Five River site in Tasmania has trickling water and plenty of Crescent Honeyeaters, whereas Little Desert Nature Lodge has a very vocal possum, and even some sheep or lambs calling!
But don’t get scared off by me being able to ID the birdsong – all birds that are not owls are simply recorded as “other birds”. In that test run I listened to approximately 20 clips – I heard water, insects, other birds – but no owls! Just then I listened to 7 recordings mainly from Boyagin Nature Reserve in Western Australia and two of the recordings had boobooks calling. It was  very satisfying indeed to click Southern Boobook and submit!

Maximum floof engaged – a Barking Owl looking like an intense wizard! Courtesy of Dr Nick Hamilton ©,  who very kindly allowed us to use his incredible owl photos! If you are on Twitter: @DoktrNick

It is also interesting to see the spectrograms of the sounds you are hearing. The Australia Raven has an incredible rich detailed sound pattern, while the boobook’s call is a short staccato pattern.

The golden rule of citizen science is that the data collection needs to be meaningful. In this case, the results will provide important information about the range and numbers of these owl species. They will also help researchers at the A20 develop artificial intelligence (AI) systems to use in a new field of science, known as “eco-acoustics”.

Eco-acoustics is the study of sounds in our environment – from animal calls to rain to traffic. By setting up automated recorders, researchers can “keep an eye” on what is happening across our vast continent – and without disturbing the animals. The species of owl calling and the frequency of calling can help track owl population health before and after bushfires. Frogs, possums, owls, crickets, rain events, wind – all can be recorded and anaysed, and over long periods of time too. The applications are huge – and all the more important in these times of climate breakdown. The tricky thing is the analysis of all this data – which is where you come in! By identifying the sounds in each clip, you are helping the AI become better at recognising various sounds. For more on eco-acoustics and the project see this ABC article here.

Powerful Owl with ringtail possum meal by Dr Nick Hamilton ©. It has been estimated that a Powerful Owl may eat 250-300 possums a year!

I have had the great pleasure of being a part of the comms for this project – I prepared the text for the information on each of the owls, visit hootdetective.net.au/the-owls. And I found some of these wonderful owl photos!

Hoot Detective runs until February 2022, but people who take part before midnight on Sunday 29 August can go in the running to win a pair of Nikon 10×42 ProStaff 5 Binoculars – handy for more wildlife spotting. So get online today at the Hoot Detective website and have a go…



  1. Vanessa Craven

    Thanks Tania great photos and write up. I enjoy your nature writings.

    • Tanya

      Oh that is very kind! Thanks Vanessa 🙂

  2. Matt Toner

    I appreciate your work for our feathered friends. 👍

    Do you know of any planned or active research the Gippsland Lakes/Mitchell River region regarding the Powerful Owl?

    I am aware of corridor used in past years becoming active in the last 36hrs (1 female call heard) uncertain if alone.. ?
    Wood Ducks and Pluvers have abandoned the wetland adjacent to gather at my house seeking out the company of my cat* the last time I observed this weird behaviour a blood curdling scream echoed through the street followed moments later with that deep resonating Woo-Hoo and on the third set a varried tone reply.



    • Tanya

      Thanks for reading Matt! Hmm – I don’t think there is a Powerful Owl Project out that way ( the nearest to you would be the Melbourne one) – but your local BirdLife group would know more 🙂