Brad Ross: Listen for the mating call of Ohio’s barred owls


Brad Ross - Contributing columnist



It may seem as though winter is the quiet season, but all kinds of activities are going on right under our noses. Some are even X-rated!

This is the breeding season for the opossum, barred owl, red fox, wood duck and the wonderfully odoriferous striped skunk, just to name a few wildlife species common in Ohio.

One of my colleagues has been hearing the distinctive “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” call of the barred owl (not to be confused with the barn owl) and has been lucky enough to see one perched on her bird feeder these past couple of weeks. I am so jealous. I miss the one that was in my backyard at my previous home near Alum Creek.

These owls are nocturnal, which is why my colleague is seeing one late at night. It is perched on top of the highest bird feeder to get a good view of any ground dwelling mice, shrews and voles that would make a tasty meal. These brown-gray hornless (meaning no ear tufts) owls have white spots on the back, white streaks on the belly that run lengthwise, and white bars (from which their name is derived) on the neck and breast, running crosswise. They are about 18 to 22 inches in size and weigh only 1.2 to 1.7 pounds, with females slightly larger and heavier than males.

These beautiful birds have brown eyes and a yellow bill, and are silent killing machines. They find a perch and swoop down on their prey, snatching it in their powerful talons. Their specialized feathers greatly reduce sound caused by air passing over the feathers, a great advantage when ambushing their prey. This to me is quite amazing since a barred owl’s wing span is about 42 inches, twice its body length!

In addition to their favorite food of mice, they will also consume birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and insects. Barred owls, like all birds, cannot chew their food so small prey is swallowed whole and larger prey is ripped into manageable pieces. This means that indigestible parts of the prey are also consumed, so owls regurgitate through the mouth an “owl pellet” comprised of these waste parts. These owls typically do not migrate, as long as there are adequate food supplies available.

This time of year barred owls begin breeding, with peak activity in late February through mid-March. Their preferred habitat is mature forests, particularly swampy woods and forested ravines, as these offer a suitable number of mature trees capable of providing perching and nesting sites and nesting cover. The clutch of two to three eggs generally hatches in mid-April and it takes the young birds about six months to fully molt into adult plumage.

The unmistakable “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you now?” is the song most associated with barred owls and is used to announce territories. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife: “a pair will often engage in duets with this song, occasionally veering off into caterwauling hoots and screams. Both sexes give a two-note ‘Hoo-aww’ call that serves as a contact call between the pair. Fledglings give a high-pitched ascending squeal, often trailing off at the end, which is used as a begging call when seeking food from the adults.” Some of these sounds are worthy of inclusion in a horror movie.

Ohio is home to a variety of owls and the Division of Wildlife’s website provides fascinating information about all of them at www.wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/stay-informed/publications. Jim McCormac, with the division, has a blog titled “Ohio Birds and Biodiversity” which can be viewed at jimmccormac.blogspot.com. Beginning birders can learn all about birds including bird identification through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at www.birds.cornell.edu.

Take a walk at one of our local Preservation Parks or Delaware city parks, and you might get lucky enough to hear the barred owls this mating season.

Visit www.delawareswcd.org for the latest in conservation news and upcoming special events.

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Brad Ross

Contributing columnist

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