Monday, February 11, 2019

Barred Owls Have Everybody Talking

By Beth Sullivan
Those of us who are linked in to all the nature sites on social media have been reading a lot about barred owls lately. If you are a nature watcher of any kind, it is very likely you have spotted one in the last couple of months. The news has been filled with reports of this most wonderful owl. Reports have been coming in of sightings and encounters in all sorts of places.
Most of the time, barred owls like to hide in evergreens. Photograph by Hank Golet.

Diurnal owl makes a showing

While very widespread in distribution, normally they are somewhat secretive and like most owls, are more active at night. Barred owls are the most likely to make an appearance during daylight hours or be spied in a somewhat more open location. I admit, they are my favorite. I think it’s because of their dark eyes which are situated in the front of their face, not off sides like other birds, and they appear calmer and more human, unlike the great horned owls and others, with their other-worldly yellow eyes. I walk in several areas where I keep my eyes open because I know they are residents. They usually like to sit deep in the shadows of a big evergreen to stay out of the way of the noisy and disruptive crows. On a recent, finally sunny warm day, I came upon “my” owl sitting out on a limb, exposed and seeming to be enjoying the sun as much as we were.
At this time of year they can be heard calling to one another. Actually they call almost any time of year. When I find my spot to sit, I can often hear several of them calling back and forth to one another. They often respond to a good imitation too. When my daughter was young, she and a barred owl engaged in a conversation during which the owl flew out of the woods to the yard edge to investigate more closely.
So why are there seemingly so many of them right now? I am not sure there is any one answer but I have read many good theories. One is that there is a lack of food in some more northern areas, pushing them south to find the small mammals they usually rely on. Another thought is that there is an abundance of food locally, and the birds are just happy to be out hunting over open fields taking their mice and voles more easily than in the forest. One beautiful bird was photographed by several people as it spent the day at Knox Preserve. The fields were newly mowed, providing less cover for small mammals. The owl moved from trees, to poles, to empty birdhouses, just watching and waiting. I have found mice nesting in those empty birdhouses during the winter; maybe it was waiting for a quick snack.
One other theory, that I find interesting, is based on the fact that it is now early mating season. The young from last year may have spent these many months still in the company of their parents, possibly still getting assistance and lessons. But now the parents have other things on their minds, and it is time for tough love. The kids are out on their own. They are a bit unrefined and not very discreet in their hunting techniques yet. Maybe that’s why one chose to sit on a “No Parking” sign in the Stonington Borough. Another, or maybe the same, was reported in the only tree on Dodge Paddock. A wonderful sight for many, but also probably an easy place to find meadow creatures in the newly cut field area.
Great horned owls and most other owls have quite startling yellow eyes.

They are very vocal and appear to enjoy themselves. Photograph by Dennis Main.

This one chose to sit in full view of homes and a busy trail. Photograph by Rick Newton.

This owl at Knox Preserve was apparently waiting for a snack. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Hike, and drive with your eyes open

Sadly though, their inexperience and hunger drive them to a bit of recklessness or carelessness, and as they hunt along open roadsides, they swoop low and too often end up casualties of collisions with cars. It is quite startling to find an owl on eye level with you, especially when you are behind the wheel.
So as you hike these next weeks, listen for the crows signaling they may have found one sleeping somewhere. Look up, especially into evergreens, and you may see one, or maybe even parked on a sign where you least expect it.
Whatever reason is behind their increased numbers, I am enchanted whenever I encounter one.
You can read more about this year's owl boom here
Glastonbury police rescued this one after a collision with a car. Glastonbury police photo. 

Many barred owls are unable to be released after injury. This pair was lucky enough to be able to have a family in captivity. Photograph by Ben Turner.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

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