The old tulip tree in my backyard is one of many, but this one has a knothole, maybe four inches in diameter and twenty feet up the trunk. One day the knothole seemed to attract a lot of attention. A blue jay screamed from an adjacent branch while half a dozen crows dashed past, hurling insults at the entrance of the cavity.
A courageous chickadee approached close enough to peer inside, then darted away, clearly shaken by what it saw inside.
After a frenzied 5 minutes, the swarm of birds dispersed and quiet returned.
Hours later, the sun had set, and a different voice spoke to the neighborhood: hu-hu-hu-hu; HU-HU-HUwaaa. The tell-tale sound of a barred owl solved the mystery of what was hiding in the knothole. This common barred owl vocalization is often characterized as “who cooks for you; who cooks for you-all.”
Barred owls are the most urban of three owl species that are fairly common to the North Carolina Piedmont, while great horned owls and screech-owls are less inclined to live close to people. Barn owls live in this part of the state, too, but grow scarcer all the time as farmlands give way to urban sprawl.
I’ve seen or heard barred owls in all parts of the city and county, from Historic Bethabara Park to Tanglewood Park, from Salem Lake to Miller Park, to Reynolda Gardens ... and my own backyard.
Barred owls average half the size by weight of great horned owls and are four times the size of the screech-owls.
Many owl species have yellow irises which lend an air of intensity to their appearance, that and eyebrows give them a menacing look. This is so not only of the truly fierce great horned owl, but the diminutive screech-but owl, as well.
But many others have dark brown irises, and this gives the barred owl a soulful expression.
At the peak of mating season, a pair of barred owls will let loose with a vocal performance that is anything but soulful. This caterwauling is quite maniacal and if heard from close proximity can scare the bejeebers out of you. But this vocal harangue is aimed not at humans so much as at keeping other owls at a distance.
While small mammals such as mice and voles make up most of their diet, barred owls are not picky eaters and will take any prey from grouse and squirrels to something as small as earthworms. They’re not as piscivorous as the fish owls of Africa and Asia, but barred owls will nonetheless catch and eat small fish, sometimes even wading ankle deep in order to get at them.
They’re semi-diurnal, as apt to be out hunting in daytime as at night. But night or day, their hunting techniques are the same. They’ll perch quietly, watching the forest floor for any sign of movement. Once it’s detected, the bird will launch from its vantage point and sail in on silent wings to snare the unsuspecting prey.
While great horned owls nest mainly in old crow or hawk stick nests, and screech-owls nest in tree cavities, even nest boxes, barred owls will nest in either stick nests or cavities, like the one in my tuliptree.
They will look for prospective nest sites and territories weeks before egg-laying begins and perhaps that’s what one was doing when I heard it vocalizing at 5:10 a.m. recently.
Like great horned owls, barred owls are early nesters, usually on eggs by mid-February. Incubation is carried out solely by the female and takes about a month, after which chicks remain in the nest for four or five weeks.
During that nestling phase, the male is not a total slacker. He’ll deliver food a couple of times a day to the female who will pick it apart and feed the nestlings. Meanwhile, the female will capture and deliver at least as many feedings as the male while the babies are very young but will steadily increase the number of feedings until they are nearly ready to leave the nest.
To hear the barred owl’s dramatic call, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5zc-NHIipw
But be prepared to hang onto your bejeebers.