Who is Making All of that Racket?!… Now THAT is the Question!


Shakespeare the Barred ~ photo by Doug Howe

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


Shakespeare ~ photo by Doug Howe


Shakespeare ~ photo by Doug Howe
My coworker took these photos of a barred owl that hangs out in his mother’s backyard. He and his family named it “Shakespeare the Barred”. I love the play on words! A very clever name indeed! Named after the legendary bard from the 14th century.

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.

This Harbinger of Spring… May Not Be What You Think!

I was laying in bed a few weeks ago, trying to fall asleep as the wind drove the rain against the side of my house, when I suddenly heard something. A sound I had been waiting for weeks to hear. I sat up in bed listening, not sure that I actually heard it, when suddenly, I heard it again. The clear, high-pitched “PEEP!” coming from a male treefrog known as the Spring Peeper singing by my pond just outside my window. Despite the cold front that was moving in, I knew that winter had finally lost its grip. How did I know this? Because these little frogs are the harbingers of Spring!

Spring Peepers start singing during the first warm rains of the season.

Spring Peepers start singing during the first warm rains of the season.

Here in Missouri, and in much of the northern part of their range, Spring Peepers are the first frogs to emerge from hibernation, and they start singing during the first warm rains of the season. On warm nights (I’m not a fan of being cold), I like to go out and look for them! I’m sure my neighbors have wondered, on more than one occasion, what the heck I was doing as I hovered by my pond armed with my camera and a headlamp strapped to my forehead! These little guys are hard to spot though and I usually have to stand really still until one of them starts singing again and betrays his location. Even then, I’ve spent many nights hearing them but not being able to find them.

I found this little guy hiding under one of my pond plants.

I found this little guy hiding under one of my pond plants.

Can you see the "X" on his back?

Can you see the “X” on his back?

Just to give you a little perspective as to how big they are.

Just to give you a little perspective as to how big they are.

Spring Peepers prefer shallow pools of water (or in my case, my 4×6-foot prefabricated pond) surrounded by lots of low-growing vegetation so they can hide from any predators. They are small frogs, only 3/4 – 1 1/4 inches, which may surprise you given the loud volume of their calls. As the nights get warmer, their calls get louder, to the point where they can often be deafening. They are different shades of brown, gray or olive and are identified by the dark cross on their back resembling an “X”. This coloring allows them to blend in easily with the dead plant debris leftover from the previous season, making them a challenge to find.

Whether I see them or not, I enjoy listening to these little amphibians. To me, they’re announcing that winter is finally over and warmer days are on the way!

What signs of Spring do you look for each year?