THE BARRED OWL: WHO COOKS FOR YOU?
By Ben Long
The first Barred Owl I ever saw appeared when I was sitting along the edge of a meadow, waiting for an elk to appear.
No elk did. But I did watch a brown, medium-sized owl swoop silently from the timber shadows, chasing a chipmunk as it spiraled down a trunk of a Christmas tree sized fir.
The chipmunk got away. I kissed the back of my hand, making a squeaking sound. In a flash, the owl swooped back at me, silently landing on a branch a foot or two from my head, as if pondering whether my mop of hair was prey, or not.
Up close, I saw a handsome, brownish owl, about the size and shape of a football. Barred Owls are named for the “barring” or horizontal streaks of dark feathers on their breasts. (They are also called “crazy owls” and “laughing owls,” but more on that later.)
Barred Owls have no feathered tufts on their heads like the so-called “horned” owls. Barred Owls are midrange in size between Montana’s smallest owls, the Saw-whet and Northern Pygmy Owl, and Montana’s biggest owls, the Great Horned or Great Grey owls. Barred Owls also have distinctive brown eyes, while most other owls have yellow eyes. A yellow bill punctuates the middle of the Barred Owl’s facial disk.
Barred Owl behavior also sets them apart. More than any other Montana owl, Barred Owls are likely to hoot during broad daylight. I’ve heard them do that, for example, at Ross Creek Cedars south of Troy and Estes Lake near Bigfork. Even so, Barred Owls are primarily nocturnal.
The hoot of the Barred Owl is distinct from that of other owls. It is sometimes translated into “who cooks for you?” although, technically speaking, the owl does not care in the least.
Barred Owls also have a secondary call that I can only describe as the sound you would expect from a drunken monkey. The first time I heard this, in the woods near Creston, I would have thought it was some deranged primate, except I was on an Audubon field trip full of owl experts. This sound is probably why Barred Owls have also been called “crazy” or “laughing owls.”
Barred Owl pairs are loyal to each other and to a territory. Mated pairs often nest in a hollow tree and may return to that nest, year after year. Females lay 4-6 white eggs, and both take turns incubating them about 28 days. (Source Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, John K. Terres.)
People who are good at mimicking the “who cooks for you” sound can often lure a Barred Owl quite close during this nesting and rearing period. The call is bold and often repeated once.
Barred Owls are the same genus as the Spotted Owl and they look similar. (The dark markings on the front of a Spotted Owl are in a spotted, not barred, pattern.) Barred Owls live in Montana, whereas Spotted Owls don’t.
Barred Owls and Spotted Owls have markedly different choices in habitat. Barred Owls happily live in forests that have been logged, burned or are mixed with meadows or pastures. Spotted Owls are famously dependent on deep, dark old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. As those forests have disappeared, so has the Spotted Owl.
Conversely, the Barred Owl is doing quite well, expanding its range, in spite of chainsaws. Like skunks and coyotes, the meddling hand of man suits the Barred Owl just fine. This is one more piece of bad news for Spotted Owls, as Barred Owls have expanded their range to the point they are displacing their more sensitive cousins.
In Montana, Barred Owls are primarily found in the piney forests west of the Continental Divide.
Interestingly, Barred Owls are most often associated with eastern states. They are found from Florida to Maine, and in the forested Midwest States, as well as some parts of Mexico. The only western states to have Barred Owls are Montana and the Pacific Northwest. They are, however, found across the southern tier of Canadian provinces. (Source fieldguidemontana.gov)
Montana is an owl-rich environment, with 14 of the 19 owl species found in North America. (Source: Cornell University) They are all part of what makes Montana such a rich place to live. This is true of the curious and handsome Barred Owl.