Friday, February 24, 2006


The Owl
by Dave Eastman

Twice now in the last few weeks, I have had a barred owl suddenly swoop by my vehicle as I have been driving. I suppose I think I will not witness this owl until the warmer months, but have to realize this is the beginning of their long breeding season, and they are of course, hunting for food. Courtship began in February, and March through August will see them raising young owlets. The big brown-streaked birds looked like great fluffy moths as they move by just in front of the Toyota, gliding by buoyantly, just a bit higher than the pick-up’s hood.

Barred owls fly with these heavy, slow, moth-like wing beats interspersed with glides. In flight, their rounded head appears large and the wings are broad and rounded, too. Soft brownish plumage and serrated edges on outer wing feathers minimize noise, enabling these and all other owls to fly quite silently, which enables them to surprise their prey.

Owls can be called now with hoots as one stands outside and mimics their territorial calls as night falls. This is always great fun and a good outing for our local naturalists to display their talents. You may have been lucky enough to have caught a presentation by Naturalists Mark and Marcia Wilson who do a regular "Eyes on Owls", live owl program with their owls; don’t miss one whenever they’re scheduled. They will often get youthful members of the audience to attempt various calls their species make.

Barred owls are very territorial in spring, being extremely vocal in February and March, and again during late summer and fall. This is probably the most outspoken of all owl species. They protect their chosen territory by their characteristic 8-hoots. The barred owl makes a host of other sounds too, including squirrel-like barking, monkey-like hoots and yells, and even blood curdling screams! This warns other owls that this year-round breeding domain is taken. If an intruding owl strays in the area after several warnings, the owl will fly to the intruder and try to use size and even more aggressive calling to scare them off. But, physical contact is usually the last resort, as their sharp yellow talons and beaks may be deadly to both fighters.

Barred owls prefer mature forests and heavily wooded swamps. Their need for a nesting cavity demands older trees, whether within a stub broken off by a windstorm, or excavated by a pileated woodpecker. Sometimes old hawk or crow nests are used because this owl is a lousy nest-builder, so most often the nest is found inside a large, deep hollow of a cavity. The barred owl commonly lives around shady, thickly wooded areas with water around it, or swampy areas. It is speculated that it likes to inhabit such wet wooded areas because these areas of dark retreat are less likely to be disturbed by timber actives so they can roost in larger, rotting trees. There is often nearby open acreage for foraging.

The female lays an average of 2-4 eggs; these are white, almost perfectly round, and which feel rough textured. The eggs are laid, one every 2-3 days. The incubation period, which begins when the first egg is laid like most owls, lasts 28-33 days. While the female is on the nest, the male brings her food. At first the young are covered with pure white down. A second longer downy coat--that is buffy at the base and white on the ends--replaces this look after a couple of weeks. The head, neck, and under parts are barred, at this point with light brown; wing coverts and scapulars are similarly barred but with broader bars of deeper brown and white tipped feathers. By the first winter this plumage will become more adult like.

The young exit the nest at about the age of 4 weeks. When any young barred owl first leaves this nest, it cannot fly, so instead crawls out of the nest by using its beak and talons to move onto nearby branches. The young barred owls climbs by grabbing the bark of the tree with beak and talons, flaps its wings, then let’s go, stretches its neck and grabs higher up with its beak once again. The young can fly around 35-40 days but the parents continue to care for the young for at least 4 months; this is much longer than other owl species. When barred owl young do move out, they may go as far as 6 miles before they settle down.

Barred owls are fairly sedentary, a behavior that may contribute to establishing long-term, monogamous pair bonds and nest territoriality. Pairs tend to mate for life and keep the same nests for many a year. The life span of captive barred owls has been documented as long as 23 years.

Dave Eastman is a syndicated columnist living in Center Sandwich NH.

Reprinted as an archive of Heart of New Hampshire Magazine

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