One of my most pleasurable outdoor tasks is filling the variety of feeders I have scattered about my place. In addition to the usual array of peanut, seed and suet feeders, I also fill an old shallow box that sits on a tree stump with about eight pounds of sunflower seeds.
Every feathered and furred creature seems to like this homemade feeder -- birds, raccoons, squirrels, deer, weasels, crows, chipmunks and critters small and numerous all visit. Within seconds of filling it, chickadees and nuthatches wing to box.
One day a couple of red squirrels dashed to the seeds, with one climbing into the feeder to gorge. I noted the squandering squirrel filling itself as I moved on to scooping snow and plowing pathways with the snow blower.
Next, I ran my mouse trap line in the outbuildings and the basement. As my head emerged from the exterior basement entrance, I was startled by motion at my eye level. Massive wing beats filled the frame of my vision just a dozen feet in front of me.
Equally surprised by my appearance, the large bird skimmed inches above the ground for a short distance. I followed the movement, spotting a red squirrel clutched tightly in the raptor's talons. Clearly, it was the little critter that had been eating sunflower seeds.
Once the own landed with its back to me, the prey was hidden. I froze as the owl's head twirled in my direction -- its penetrating dark eyes stared.
Clearing my throat, I broke the silence by vocalizing the only owl call I have in my repertoire, that of the barred. No doubt in shock at my audacity, the owl gawked. After uttering a second rendition, the raptor gripped the limp body of the squirrel and lifted off to a low branch in a nearby jack pine.
From the safety of the tree, the bird continued to watch me. Done with my chores, I went inside. Fetching binoculars, I peered through the office window to take another peek. Focusing on the bird, I found it was still looking at me. To give it the privacy and peace it undoubtedly sought, I put the binoculars down. A short time later the owl took flight.
I had a few pangs about my role in what had taken place between the owl and the squirrel. Still, I was glad the owl had found food.
The barred is my favorite owl. Perhaps it is because I have seen and heard it more often than any other species of the 12 owls in Minnesota. For years a resident barred owl would break the silence of many a summer night as I sat in the darkened sunroom rocking in my old wicker chair. It's been years now since I've heard this hooting on a regular basis. I miss the sound -- somehow the night seems incomplete in its absence.
Speaking of the call, it usually consists of eight accented "hoo"s in groups of four, with a descending "aw" tacked on at the end. So distinct is this vocalization that the bird is also known by the nickname of "eight hooter."
While some common names of the barred owl, such as crazy owl, old-folks, or rain owl, seem not to correlate to anything in particular, other names refer to its appearance, habitat or voice. Respectively, these include black-eyed and round-headed; bottom, swamp and wood; and laughing and hoot owl.
This puffy "earless" owl is also easily identified by the streaking and barring on its chest (for which it is named) and by its large liquid chocolate eyes. All other owls in the United States, except the heart-faced barn own, have yellow eyes. At 18-22 inches in height with a four-foot wing span, it is close in size to the great horned owl.
A resident of wet woodlands, southern swamps and river bottoms the barred is found primarily east of the Rockies from Canada to the tip of Florida. It hunts at night and frequents the same habitat occupied by its diurnal (day) counterpart, the red-shouldered hawk.
Sharing space with the red-shouldered hawk has actually proven to be mutually beneficial. According to Hal H. Harrison's "The Field Guide to Western Birds' Nests," in alternate years the barred owl may use the same nest as the red-shouldered hawk. In fact, two nests found in different years, contained incubated eggs of both species at the same time -- in one nest, the owl incubating and in the other, the hawk incubating.
Typically, the barred builds a sparse open nest. In one research effort of 38 barred owls nests located 18 were in old hawk nests, 15 in hollow trees and five in squirrel nests. No lining is added, except for possibly a few green sprigs of pine. Pairs show a strong attachment to the same nest area from year to year.
Having only one brood per season, the female lays two or three pure white eggs. Oval or elliptical in shape, the non-glossy shell is slightly rough to the touch. The eggs are indistinguishable from those of the spotted owl, the barred owl's counterpart west of the Rockies.
The month-long incubation responsibilities are thought to be handled by both sexes, with the female taking primary responsibility. Approximately 42 days after hatching the young are ready for their first flight.
The feet and claws of the barred owl are weaker than those of other large owls and as a result it feeds on smaller prey. Having smaller prey, however, certainly has not limited the diet of this bird. It eats opossums, weasels, lizards, rabbits, insects, mice, mink, bats, birds, frogs, fish, crabs, chipmunks, crayfish, snakes, snails and as I well know, squirrels.
Look for these brown-eyed beauties now that the woods are filled with winter white.
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