It was a cold night, around 3 a.m., in the middle of March back in 2009. I was curled up under my blankets, sound asleep, when suddenly a horrible sound, like creepy, maniacal laughter, startled me awake! My heart pounded and I looked around wide-eyed, trying to locate and identify the source of the sound.
“Awgh-awgh-awgh-awgh-oo-WHOO!” called a deep voice from my backyard, followed by a similar answer nearby.
What IS that?!
My brain, still not fully awake, was conjuring up all kinds of images, none of which were even remotely accurate. After a moment, the fog of sleep cleared from my head, and I realized what was actually making all of that racket…
It’s just an owl.
Well, actually two owls courting each other. I breathed a sigh of relief and began to relax. I never actually saw them. It was still too dark and much too chilly (I was nice and toasty warm in my bed) to go looking for them. I lay there listening to them for a while until they finally quieted down… or I drifted back to sleep. I’m not sure which happened first.
“The clamorous owl, that nightly hoots and wonders
At our quaint spirits.”
~ William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The next day when I got a chance, I hopped on the internet, determined to identify the species of owl that I had heard during the night. It had a deep, boisterous voice. It sounded big, but it didn’t sound like the great horned owls I was more familiar with.
I listened to various audio recordings of owls in the Missouri area until I finally found a recording that sounded like my bird. It was a Barred Owl!
The barred owl, at around 20″ tall and weighing about 1.6 lbs, is Missouri’s 2nd largest owl (the great horned owl being slightly bigger and much more aggressive). It has a wingspan of about 3.5 feet. As is typical with other raptors, the females are larger than the males. It is gray-brown with white barring above, pale with dark horizontal barring on its upper chest and has dark vertical streaking below. The barred owl has big brown eyes (unlike the yellow eyes of most owls) and a yellow bill.
Barred owls are common throughout the eastern United States and usually live in mature coniferous or mixed woods, often near water. They are very vocal, using a series of hoots, screams, barks and what sounds like laughter. Although they are active at night, they may hunt by night or day, but mostly at dusk and dawn. In fact, barred owls are more likely to be heard during the day than other owls. Its trademark call sounds like “Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you-all?”
Late winter to early spring is the start of the breeding season. 3-4 eggs are laid in February or March in abandoned bird or squirrel nests, tree cavities or stumps. The eggs are incubated mainly by the female for 4 weeks. The chicks leave the nest at 4 weeks, but they don’t fledge until 6 weeks, so they climb on and hang out on the branches next to the nest before they’re able to fly. This is called “branching”. After they fledge, young barred owls will typically stay with their parents for about 6 months so they can learn how to hunt. Their diet consists mainly of mice, small mammals, birds, frogs and snakes.
To learn more about the barred owl or hear some calls, visit the National Audubon Society’s Audubon Field Guide. I particularly enjoy the “pair hootin-it-up” sound byte! 🙂
Did you know…
- Barred owls are sometimes called the Laughing Owl or Hoot Owl.
- The great horned owl is a predator of the barred owl.
- Barred owls sometimes wade knee-deep into water to catch fish or crayfish with their feet.