Australians find owl hunting good for science and soul under lockdown

ABC projects, Exclude from Home Page, National Science Week

12,000 Powerful, Barking, Boobook, Barn, and Masked owl calls found so far

Media contacts: Ben Keirnan, or 0408 184 858; or Tanya Ha, or 0404 083 863.

Is that a dog barking? Or a Barking owl?

Hundreds of Australians have found thousands of owl calls by listening to short recordings made in nature reserves. 

They’re helping researchers identify and map native Australian owl species through the Hoot Detective project.

“People are mad about owls,” said ornithologist Tanya Loos. “Along with parrots and fairy wrens, everyone loves them, so it’s a lovely project to get involved with!”

“But it’s also a really valuable mental break from the news cycle,” said Tanya.

“People get to immerse themselves in the sounds of different nature reserves. Along with owl calls, they might hear sounds of curlews calling or a babbling stream in Five Rivers, Tasmania.”

So far, people have sat down for more than 3600 sessions of listening to wildlife at night and identified more than 12,000 owl calls. One enthusiastic volunteer has clocked up more than 16 hours of hoot detecting.

Hoot Detective is produced by ABC Science in collaboration with the Australian Acoustic Observatory (A2O) for National Science Week. It is on now at

360 audio recorders around the country have collected 263,000 hours of night-time sounds across forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems around Australia.

People can go to, listen to 10-second snippets from these audio recordings, compare them with sample animal sounds, and identify what they hear.

To take part, all people need is a computer, laptop or tablet and an internet connection. It’s a pandemic-proof way to get involved in National Science Week and take part in real scientific research.

Their efforts are also helping train artificial intelligence (AI) systems to automatically recognise the difference between the classic “hoo-hoo” of the Powerful owl, the scream of a Masked owl, and other creatures of the night.

“The volunteers who lend their ears are making an incredibly valuable contribution to the new field of eco-acoustics. This field brings ecologists and computer scientists together to use sound to understand and map the natural environment,” said Professor Paul Roe, who leads the Observatory, and is based at the Queensland University of Technology.

“Up until now, most AI research around the world has concentrated on either image or human speech recognition. Training AI to recognise owl and other animal calls will help scientists monitor wildlife populations much more efficiently in the future.”

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.

Hoot Detectiveis the online project for National Science Week 2021, undertaken by ABC Science in collaboration with A2O, Queensland University of Technology and the University of New England, with funding through the Australian Government’s Inspiring Australia strategy.

Tweet your thoughts and results with the hashtags #HootDetective and #ScienceWeek.

Media enquiries:

Images, audio and footage available here. Meet the owls here.

More about the Australian Acoustic Observatory:

Background information: How to be a Hoot Detective

Visit and choose a location you want to search. Alternatively, let the system choose one for you.

You’ll then be presented with a 10 second sound file, full of the noises of the night.

You’ll also have reference sound files: verified recordings of each owl species, plus the sounds of other things you might hear, including koalas, possums, frogs, and cars.

Make your best guess about the sounds on the file, click the relevant box or boxes, hit ‘submit’, and move on to the next one!

Locations: The recordings were taken in Tarcutta Hills (NSW), Little Llangothlin Reserve/Warra National Park (NSW), Newhaven (NT), Reedy Creek (QLD), Samford Valley (QLD), Arkaba (SA), Five Rivers (TAS), Little Desert Nature Lodge (VIC), Boyagin Nature Reserve (WA), and Charles Darwin Reserve (WA).

Talent available for interviews: contact Ben via or 0408 184 858

Professor Paul Roe is based at the Faculty of Science at Queensland University of Technology and leads the Australian Acoustic Observatory. His research is focused on smart tools which enable new forms and scales of research, particularly in the area of eco-acoustics.

Tanya Loos is an ornithologist, naturalist and writer, and is a full bottle on all sorts of owls.

Dr Ann Jones is an ABC Science journalist and presenter, with a history PhD and a love of nature and its noises. She presents Radio National’s Off Track, ABC Kids’ Noisy by Nature, and the short films How Deadly.

Callan Alexander is a Masters student at Queensland University of Technology and is an ornithologist at Birdlife Australia. He is working on Powerful owl acoustic monitoring.

Dr Beth Mott, Powerful Owl Project Officer, Birdlife Australia. Beth leads a troupe of volunteers monitoring Powerful owl populations around Sydney and the Illawarra region.