Barred Owl, Strix varia
A good friend recently sent me the link to an article entitled Birds are ‘winged words’. She knew I would love this read and I think Karrie will enjoy my article (and thoughts) on the Barred Owl, a bird that brings great enjoyment every time I hear them “talk”.
Like most owls, Barred Owls are mostly nocturnal; night creatures that spend the daylight hours resting and hiding, and therefore the best way to experience them is to listen for them at night. They also tend to forage and feed at dusk and dawn, the “ten-dollar-word” for this behavior is “crepuscular”. They are a medium-sized owl with a wingspan of up to 49 inches and an average height of 24 inches. They have a large round head without “ear” tufts and have concentric brown and white rings on the face centered by dark brown eyes that distinguish them from other local owls as they all have yellow eyes. The upperparts of their body is brown with white spots and bars; and the underparts are buff to white with brown streaks. The short, broad tail is trimmed with wide brown and white bars. They were created with the standard predator weaponry of long, sharp claws and a curved, sharp beak. The sexes are similar in color with females slightly larger in size and pairs are monogamous with observations indicating that they mate for life.
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Barred Owls are perfectly designed for night-time hunting with their large eyes that have a large number of rod cells (light sensors) and a very sensitive retina for sending signals to the brain. Like most owls, they fly silently due to their wing and feather design and they are successful since they can surprise even the most wary prey. The feather covered ears are offset from each other giving them the ability to accurately triangulate their preys’ position and they hunt from a perch that allows them to use their high weight to wing-span ratio to their advantage.
Barred Owls are year-round residents of the eastern United States, most of Canada, the extreme north-western United States and portions of central and southern Mexico. Their preferred habitats include wet forests, wooded swamps and mature woodlands near abundant water where the nest in cavities or use abandoned hawk, crow, or squirrel nests. They feed on a large variety of animals including small fish, many small mammals up to the size of squirrels, young rabbits, and opossums; reptiles, amphibians, large insects, scorpions, and finally crayfish which when eaten in large quantities cause belly feathers to show a pink flush!
And now, my favorite characteristic of the Barred Owl, their wonderful, unique, and entertaining “talk”. They have a large repertoire of vocalizations with the best known a series of eight accented hoots with a downward pitch at the end that is described most commonly with the mnemonic method using the human phrase “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.” The “you all” has the pitch drop reminiscent of a Southern lady or gentleman using these two words at the end of a sentence! If you are fortunate enough to hear two or more of these owls communicating, you will be treated to a variety of cackles, hoots, caws, screams, and crackles that has best been described as “sudden demonic laughter”. When I’ve had occasion to witness this activity it sounds at the same time human and cat-like with a pitch suggestive of a crazed group of women (sorry ladies) enjoying a raucous celebration in a foreign language.
So I close by recommending that you find a nice quite, wet woodland area and sit a while from early evening until midnight and listen to who and what shows up to entertain you. The disclaimer…best enjoyed in early spring or late fall unless accompanied by warm clothing or mosquito netting depending on the season. I hope you get to hear one or better yet a “parliament” of these wise creatures.
If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot. Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, for meeting details and be sure to friend us.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, and naturalist.