For the last few weeks we have noticed a Barred Owl perched in a small grove of trees at the back edge of our property.
Seeing it there, on more than one occasion, peaked my curiosity. What did I really know about these birds of prey? I have seen them regularly over the years. Usually in a winter of heavy snow cover, around dusk, flying noiselessly through the bare woods, a shadow out of the corner of my eye. We have seen them over the years in the exact same grove of trees, sleepy eyed, taking me in as I wandered closer, it's head spinning around to keep track of my movements. It was not easily startled and tried patiently to ignore the crows who pestered it relentlessly, once discovered.
Having some time on my hands, I decided to discover what I could about this beautiful bird.
One reason it caught my eye, was it's beautiful markings and it's size. The female is the larger of the two birds. I had seen a pair a few years ago, the size difference was quite evident. The female, (I now know) was almost twice the size of the smaller male. The owls will pair for life, and this particular pair had been seen at this location for at least two years in a row. The Barred Owls begin their courtship in the cold winter month of February, defending their nesting site and hunting territory from intruders. Their nest sites consist of old crows or squirrels nests, along with abandoned woodpecker cavities. They can start laying eggs in March and will continue to lay up through August to ensure that a nest survives.
The eggs hatch in about a month, 2-4 chicks will emerge to be fed by Papa and warmed by Mama. At four weeks the fuzzy nestlings will crawl, using their beaks and talons, out of the nest and perch on nearby branches. They will be unable to fly until they grow their adult feathers and at this stage are called "Branchers".
Once their down is replaced by their feathers, there is little difference in size or appearance from their parents. They all have facial discs (for their acute hearing), along with the distinctive barring pattern across their chest and the streaking lengthwise on their bellies( see photos!). This patterning is what gives them their name. They are also the only owl in Maine that has brown eyes. Their habitat is wide spread across the U.S. and they can be seen in most states.
The young owlets stay with their parents for at least four months. They must learn how to catch rodents, amphibians, small mammals, the occasional fish and small birds, as well as insects. The pair that I had seen were busy catching moths, and mice underneath an outdoor light, creating quite a show for our family gathering below! They perched above us in a giant oak tree and dove to ground below to catch it's prey, ignoring us completely!
When the young ones have learned how to be a proper owl, they are chased off to begin their life. They tend to stay within 6 miles of the original nest site. They too, will hunt from perches, mainly at dusk, dawn or the occasional gray, over cast day. In winter, during times of deep snow, they can be seen at the sides of roads, waiting for mice and other small mammals to emerge. In bad winters they are also known to kill domestic fowl, only taking their heads to feast upon, full of minerals and other essential elements, ( the bird's body weight being too heavy to carry off), farmer's beware!
Barred Owls are longed lived and devoted to their mates. Owl's in captivity have been known to live to over 30 years, wild birds to 10 years or more. I suppose that is one reason an owl is considered "wise"...
Their distinctive call is the one that sounds like: "Who cooks for you?, who cooks for you all?" This has also given rise to their being called "Hoot Owls". I have heard them many nights as they call from our old spruce tree in the back yard and the woods at our family farm. Their main predator is another owl, the Great Horned Owl, that also inhabits the woods and swamps that the Barred Owls frequent.
I have come to regard them as a friend of the farmer(one has to keep in mind that their hens, ducks and turkeys need to be penned safely) and gardener alike. They help to keep rodents, small mammals and insects in balance. They are to be admired for their beauty, as well as their devotion to mate and offspring
along with the wisdom that age and a long live bring to bear. Let's keep that in mind the next time we see or hear one, perched upon a tree branch or gliding silently through the trees.