Exploring The Last Green Valley – Barred owls are all around, but not easy to spot

Exploring The Last Green Valley – Barred owls are all around, but not easy to spot

“We know the old woods road in winter, when we sometimes see where foxes have trotted along the same path we are using and where, on occasion, we follow some line of blood spots on the snow until it ends at a tree where an owl in the night has alighted with its victim.” Edwin Way Teale, “A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm”

There is a secretive and silent hunter in the forest and lucky is the birder who spies one. I am fortunate to have seen a barred owl in the wild, and to also know of a nesting pair on property that my family owns in southern New Hampshire.

The first time I heard the call of a barred owl, I was convinced it was a person in the woods playing a practical joke and calling out to me. It wasn’t until I saw the owl fly that I realized the voice was avian, not human.

I heard the call then spotted the flash of a large brown and grey bird twisting through the trees. I slowly walked in the direction it flew until I saw it fly again, leading me deeper into the forest. One more flight to follow then there it was – perched next to a large nest cavity in a tall dead white pine. As soon as I saw the nest cavity, I left so as not to disturb the owls.

Sometimes late at night, or just before first light of morning, I’ll awaken to the forest call, “who cooks for you?” followed by “who cooks for you-all?” Every once in a while before heading off to bed at night I’ll step outside, face towards the woods and attempt to mimic the call of the barred owl. It is always a thrill to hear it echo back to me.

According to the November/December 2016 Connecticut Wildlife Magazine, a publication of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Wildlife Division, barred owls are one of our most common owls, but that doesn’t make them easy to observe:

“Barred owls typically inhabit deep woods. They are most common in mature hardwood and dense coniferous forests, often associated with some type of wetland. The best habitat has a sizable component of large snags and hollow trees. Barred owls are widely distributed in Connecticut, with the heaviest concentrations in the western and eastern portions of the state where extensive woodlands are present.”

The barred owl is one of our largest owl species with only the great horned owl being larger. With a length of between 17 and 24 inches and a wingspan of over 40 inches, it is thrill to see one though its secretive nature and preference for deep cover make that a rare occurrence.

Barred owls are rather stocky with a large, rounded head and noticeable facial disk. Unlike the larger great horned owls, barred owls do not have ear tufts. Barred owls are a mottled brown and white overall with dark brown eyes. They get their name from the brown vertical “barring” on the lower parts of their body with crossed horizontal bars on their upper chest.

Like most owl species, barred owls are predominantly nocturnal and prefer to do their hunting at night. They are silent predators with a varied diet of small animals such as squirrels, mice, voles, chipmunks, rabbits, and birds up to the size of a grouse. During warmer months they will eat amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates.

Owls are perch hunters and will sit and wait in a tree while looking for prey with sharp eyes and finely-tuned ears. While they are mostly nighttime hunters, they will also hunt during the day especially during the cold winter season. They are known to keep killed prey in their nest or in the crook of a branch near the nest. Smaller prey animals are swallowed whole and larger prey in pieces.

Like other raptors species, the eyes of the barred owl are a critical hunting tool. The owl’s eyes are huge in relation to the size of its head and are not spherical like human eyes but are tubed much like a pair of binoculars. These amazing eyes can gather light in the darkness. The eyes do not move in their sockets but the owl has made up for that by being able to rotate its neck 270 degrees!

Barred owls also have a keen sense of hearing. Their rounded and dished face helps pinpoint the faintest movement in the grass, and their amazing hearing can locate even a mouse that is tunneling under the snow. The owls’ ruffled, edged feathers muffle the sound of their wings, and like a butterfly they literally float, fly and glide on silent wings.

Barred owls do not migrate and will stay in their home territory throughout the year. Once they establish a nesting site they will keep within five or more miles of their territory. The nest that I saw was inside a large cavity of a dead tree. The barred owl may add fresh green conifer springs or lichen to the nest, and while they prefer tree cavities for nests, they are also know to take over hawk nests of twigs and branches.

The clutch size is usually one to five white eggs of 2.2 inches in length and 1.8 inches wide. The incubation period is approximately one month, with another month for a nesting period, and one brood per breeding season.

When next I hear the night call, “who cooks for you? who cooks for you–all?” I’ll venture outside and attempt to mimic the voice of the barred owl in hopes of hearing an echo response.

We live in a beautiful region called The Last Green Valley. Our natural and cultural resources are a wonder to behold. I hope you’ll join me in caring for, enjoying, and passing them on to the next generation.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.