Nature Notes

Barred Owl

Here’s to the barred owls that entertain and distract us from the chaos of the day.

This month's Nature Notes was written by Alyssa Nyberg. Alyssa has been managing the Kankakee Sands Native Plant Nursery for the past 15 years.

In the evening, when my head feels like it is still spinning from the adventures of the day, sitting outside and enjoying the night helps me to unwind. Even during this cold time of year, bundling up and sitting outside sends waves of relaxation through me when I see the all the stars and hear the sounds of the barred owls.

The barred owl (Strix varia) is a relatively small, stocky owl. Adults are typically 21” in length with a wingspan of 42”. They are mottled brown above, and white with brown streaks below. They lack the upward ear tufts of the great horned owl and the long eared owl.

Barred owls are nocturnal, resting quietly, camouflaged perfectly in wooded area. They are a common bird in our area as they prefer woodlots and wet woods that have mature trees and a variety of deciduous and evergreen trees. At night they hunt for small mammals--such as squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles, and rabbits—as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects.

Because they are not active during the day and are so well camouflaged, you may never see a barred owl. But because Newton County has many wooded areas, the chances are good you’ll hear them. Barred owls have a variety of entertaining calls that, if you practice, you can become quite good at yourself.

Adult barred owls have the well-known call, a series of hoots with a slow and steady cadence in the rhythm of “Who-cooks-for-you-who-cooks-for-youuuuuu?” (Round your mouth and try making the call come out of the back of your throat.)

Males and females will call back and forth with a quick and lively, “Hoo hoo ho-ho hooooo-hooooooawwrr” Their voices rocking back and forth across the dark night like a rocking chair. (Try this call too. If there is someone else in the room with you, have them call back to you until you are both laughing too hard to continue.) 

Believe it or not, barred owls have active nests in February. The owls make their nest in the mature trees, either in a cavities of the mature trees or on an abandoned stick nest of a squirrel or other bird. Little is done to amend the nest site; they might add a bit or moss, a few sticks or feathers, or nothing at all. The female lays one to five eggs in the nest, and the eggs take approximately 30 days to incubate. Once the chicks hatch, they will be in the nest for another month. They are born extremely helpless, blind and covered with a soft white downy plumage.

Barred owl eggs will be hatching anytime now, and once they do, you’ll be able hear the hatchlings calling with a clear, harsh “Kssssssship, ksssssssship”. They are hungry and they are letting their hunting parents, soaring silently wings outstretched in the night sky, know all about it.

Newton County certainly isn’t the only place you can hear barred owls. They are found in the eastern half of the United States, and in Canada, primarily on the west coast. Barred owls are a species whose numbers have been increasing in recent years. This is a sharp contrast to songbird species who populations, unfortunately, have been declining over the past ten years.

So this winter, when the days are still short and the nights seem long, take a drive out to a wooded area to see if you can hear the beauty of the barred owls calling. If you live in or are visiting Newton County, try parking in a parking lot near The Nature Conservancy’s Conrad Station Savanna, Conrad Savanna Nature Preserve, Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, or Holley Savanna owned by NICHES Land Trust.

Sit and listen for a while, then try out your calls. With some practice and some luck, you might just have the good fortune of having an owl call back to you. Feeling self-conscious about making the owl calls? You needn’t feel that way--nature doesn’t judge.

Here’s to the barred owls that entertain and distract us from the chaos of the day. And here’s to living and working in a county where nature surrounds us. Twenty thousand plus acres of nature. The very nature upon which all life depends. Surely that fact, coupled with the calls of the barred owls, will allow you to sit back, relax and put your feet up. Ahhhh...


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