January 17, 2012

Solstice Owls

By Dave Erler

On the evening of the winter solstice, one of my daughters joined me to celebrate the first official day of winter by building a camp fire in the woods behind our house. We got a good blazing fire going and settled in to watch the dancing flames and absorb the fire’s warmth. After sitting quietly for about 10 minutes enjoying the quiet of the night we were startled by the call of a Barred Owl roosting not more than 200 feet away. He repeated his “who who who who, who who who whooo” call about every 30 seconds. After a couple of minutes of listening I decided to answer his inquiry and called back, doing my best to mimic a female barred owl. I hoped he might be curious enough to come closer to find out what weird female was trying to get his attention. That didn’t happen, but he continued to call sporadically from the same perch for the next half hour. We never did see him but his serenade for such a long time was the highlight of our evening.

Now you might wonder why I figured the barred owl in question was a male. It turns out that people more patient than me have listened to this most common of our owls and learned quite a bit. What researchers found is that with about 91 percent accuracy someone with a trained ear can pick out the slightly lower pitch of a male’s call (“who cooks for you, who for you all”), from a female’s slightly higher pitch, which also includes a longer end note with a bit of vibrato added. The owl we listened to stuck to the classic eight-hoot call, but barred owls are capable of at least 13 call variations. They include barking, cackling, shrieking, and gurgling notes. The barred owl also goes by a number of different names. The common name comes from the light and dark barring of the plumage covering the upper part of the chest. The scientific name Strix varia comes from Latin. The genus name Strix meaning to screech and the species name varia referring to the light and dark variegated plumage. Barred owls have other common names including; hoot owls, eight hooters, laughing owls, crazy owls, swamp owls, bottom owls, wood owls, striped owls, round-headed owls, black-eyed owls, and rain owls. All the alternate names refer to their vocalizations, habitat, physical appearance, or in the case of rain owls, from the fact they will actively hunt in the rain. In fact. it is not uncommon to see them in warmer months hunting along roads on rainy, “froggy” nights. Catching frogs on rainy nights is easy pickings for them, although somewhat dangerous as they sometimes end up getting hit by cars.

Right now during winter is the best time of year to listen for barred owls because they are actively establishing territories and recruiting or renewing pair bonds in preparation for their late winter nesting, which typically begins in March. Winter is also the best time to view them. Deep snow conditions may drive them to extend their hunting into daytime. It’s not too unusual to see a barred owl on utility wires next to roads or at bird feeding stations hoping to catch a squirrel or mouse also taking advantage of “free” food.

If you get a chance to go outside after dusk in the coming weeks and barred owls are in your neighborhood you might hear their calls. If you want to learn more about owls and other winter wildlife, make reservations for an upcoming naturalist-led Wild Winter Walk. These guided tours (offered on various dates from January to March) give you a chance to walk our exhibit trail and see owls and other native wildlife, all in their winter glory.

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