It’s a cold, crisp morning in early November. Robins call and sing in the sunlit treetops at the edge of First Field. As I head down our woodland road, first one and then a second common raven flies low and “bonks.”
Above Waterthrush Bench I hear the continual ticking of songbirds near or in a medium-sized hemlock tree across the stream. In the still sunless hollow, I look and look and still can’t see any little bird, yet the ticking continues.
Finally, I give up and am about to walk away, muttering about my aging eyes, when I notice what appears to be an odd-shaped piece of wood on a lower branch of the hemlock. Slowly, I raise my binoculars and peer at it. To my great delight and astonishment, a barred owl seems to be looking at me except that its eyes are closed. I speak to it and its eyes blink open. For long minutes we stare at each other. Then I move on, and the barred owl remains on its perch, seemingly unperturbed by the human who has interrupted its sleep.
Still marveling at its calm demeanor and superb camouflage, I wonder how many times I have not seen a barred owl in our forest. If not for the ticking birds, I would have continued on my walk, unaware that what I think of as the “ghost bird,” was nearby.
I remember our first year here back in 1971 when a barred owl sat in full view on a branch beside our road throughout the summer months. We didn’t realize then that the owl would be only a memory for years to come. We often saw or heard eastern screech-owls and great horned owls but never the “who cooks for you, who cooks for you’all” of barred owls. After all, great horned owls are major predators on the slightly smaller barred owls. So are raccoons, larger members of the weasel family, and large hawks, all of which live and hunt in our hollow.
Still, we do have ideal barred owl habitat — a mature mixed deciduous and coniferous forest on either side of a small stream along our hollow road. The barred owl’s favorite food items — small mammals and birds — are also plentiful, especially chipmunks, deer and white-footed mice, as well as birds up to and including ruffed grouse in size.
Knowing all this, I expected to see more barred owls in the hollow. Instead, my absolutely best sighting took place about 20 years ago in the ice-enshrouded woods of Sapsucker Ridge one January afternoon, well within the more than square mile of territory a barred owl pair needs to survive the winter. Two inch long icicles hung from every tree branch and vine that gray, cold, misty day.
This time an American crow was the messenger, cawing and flying up from the trees ahead. Scanning the area it had just vacated with my binoculars, I spotted a large, plump figure perched on a tree limb a hundred feet away. I thought it was a great horned owl because crows had often alerted me to them. Instead, I was surprised by a barred owl — a puffy vision decked out in white, gray, and brown feathers, its horizontal barring around its collared neck accounting for its common name.
It turned its head back and forth on its swivel neck, then bent and peered down at the ground, no doubt hoping to surprise a mouse. I knelt, one knee in the icy snow, and studied the owl for ten minutes, admiring its nearly rounded-off, soft-looking head framed with what looked like enormous fur muffs, and its dark brown eyes accentuated by large, oval facial disks.
At last it turned its back to me, and I could see some black mixed with brown on its stubby tail before it leaned out and slightly down and launched into silent flight, propelling itself out of my sight.
Standing upright at 18 inches, a barred owl weighs a mere 1.5 pounds and its rounded wings stretch 40 inches. Among the owl species, only great horned owls are larger than barred owls in the eastern United States.
Once barred owls (Strix varia) resided east of the Great Plains from the boreal forest of Canada to southern Florida, but recently they have expanded into portions of western North America, including the Pacific Northwest where sometimes they displace and hybridize with the closely related and much rarer spotted owls (Strix occidentalis).
They are supposed to prefer large trees in old forests for nesting, and here in Pennsylvania barred owls do inhabit wooded ravines and “nest in highest densities in old-growth forests of the High Plateau,” according to Gerald McWilliams and Daniel Brauning in The Birds of Pennsylvania. But they are also found in forested swamps, wet, mature woodlands, and even in cities and farmlands. Although they are less abundant than great horned owls and eastern screech-owls, they breed in every Pennsylvania County except Philadelphia.
Barred owls need large trees with cavities for nesting but will use old hawk, crow or squirrel nests too. They will even nest in nest boxes on occasion, such as the barred owl that nested in a box in Loyalville, Luzerne County, McWilliams and Brauning report. Even though they sometimes reuse the same nest for as long as ten years, they have been known to alternate occupancy one year or several years with red-shouldered, red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks and great horned owls in so-called “partnership” nests.
Barred owls also like to inhabit a forest with an open understory because it makes hunting easier for them. In addition, the closed canopy of an old-growth forest provides more regulated temperatures as well as protection from excessive mobbing by small birds. But often they remain attached to an area even as it changes around them, for instance, even staying in a woods while it’s being logged.
If there is enough food, both the larger female and the male of a pair will inhabit their 695-acre-or-more territory all year. They are presumed to be monogamous and even though they call throughout the year, they call more frequently prior to egg-laying in late winter and early spring. That’s when you are most likely to hear dueting between a pair lasting two minutes and consisting not only of their familiar hooting but “loud and prolonged outbursts of cackling, laughing, and whooping sounds delivered very rapidly and interspersed, as well as ending, with the familiar ‘ho-hoo-ah,’” Massachusetts ornithologist William Brewster once wrote, adding a reference to “a prolonged and cat-like scream.” It’s enough to frighten naïve campers into thinking a mountain lion is nearby.
Regarding their courtship rites, Edward Forbush, writing in Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, recounts how a pair of barred owls perched in low branches over his campfire and “nodded and bowed with half-spread wings, and wobbled and twisted their heads from side to side, meantime uttering the most weird and uncouth sounds imaginable.”
The female barred owl lays two to three white eggs as early as December in Florida and March and early April in Pennsylvania. She also incubates the eggs from 28 to 33 days while the male brings her food. After the eggs hatch, the female broods the altricial young for two weeks and the male delivers the food at the nest in a bill-to-bill exchange with the female. Then she tears up the food and feeds it to their nestlings. She also does a little hunting on her own, but after two weeks of brooding, she does a lot more hunting. Both parents then drop food into the nest and the nestlings are able to eat it by themselves.
When the nestlings are between four and five weeks old, they leave the nest but they can’t fly. They either perch on the nest rim or they climb trees or branches by using their beaks and talons, grasping the bark in their beaks and walking their feet up the trunk while flapping their wings. At ten weeks old, they can make short flights and gradually lengthen those flights.
The fledglings stay together and near the nest site for awhile and the adults continue to feed them. That’s when Tom Kuehl, president of the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology, first learned of a nesting pair near his Murrysville, Westmoreland County home. As he wrote in PSO Pileated, the excellent newsletter of the Society, “I walked out our side door at 6:00 a.m. [in late May]… as I made my way around the house, I started hearing loud hissing noises… I looked up and in spite of many leaves, I quickly found three fledgling Barred Owls… For the next two weeks we [his wife Janet and he] enjoyed the dawn and dusk hissing and antics of the fledgling Barred Owls. More active at dusk, they performed flights across the yard, tree to ground, then tree to tree as darkness approached.” The Kuehls never did see the parents, although Janet was scolded by an adult when she tried to walk on their woods’ trail.
Most documented young barred owls disperse a mile to 38 miles from their nest site, but one young barred owl that was banded in Nova Scotia in 1999 was recaptured in January 2000 960 miles away.
Unlike many bird species, Breeding Bird Surveys from 1966 to 1996 showed a slight increase in barred owl numbers. But that was 15 years ago. Since then the opening and fragmenting of forests has increased in Pennsylvania, providing habitat for the more aggressive great horned owls. In addition to too many roads that have fragmented our habitat for decades, we now must contend with industrial wind farms fragmenting our remaining intact mountaintops and natural gas well pads doing the same in our state forests and parks. Add to that the death of our state tree — the hemlock — from the hemlock wooly adelgids, which destroy the most common conifer in our mixed forest. All of these factors bode ill not only for barred owls but for all the creatures and plants that thrive in mixed coniferous/deciduous unfragmented forests.