Chapter Three: Neighborly Owls ~ The Barred Owl
In early March 1974, my wife, Sharon, and I made the acquaintance of a pair of barred owls (Strix varia), a sudden and quite unexpected relationship that in due course was to include four partially fledged owlets. During the next four years, the relationship continued with the paired couple and, though four breeding seasons, with four separate clutches of owlets that totaled twelve chicks, all of which left their home once they were old enough to fend for themselves.
Several weeks before we were to meet the adult owls, we had settled down in a lakeshore cabin in a wilderness region that lies about 140 miles north of Toronto, Ontario. The area was quite isolated and consisted of a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, including some large yellow birches. One of these grew within three feet of our home, was about seventy feet tall and somewhat more than two feet in diameter. It was obviously an old tree and part of its top hamper had rotted away, dropping some large branches but leaving several dead limbs at various levels.
At first I was somewhat concerned about having such an aging giant so close to our house, so I decided that I would have to take it down. However, as there were a large number of other chores to be done in the home as well as outside of it, for the place had been neglected for a number of years, I kept putting off the chore. In truth, I was nervous about sawing down the tree in case it fell toward the building instead of away from it and, additionally, I did not like the idea of killing a tree that had probably begun its seedling growth some time before I was born. So I procrastinated.
During the first three weeks of our occupation in our only partly refurbished home, I was too busy to pay much attention to the environment that surrounded us, but now and then, when I had to go out at night to visit the outhouse (we did not then have a flush toilet) I would hear the distinctive calls of a barred owl. Its song has been put to words by early ornithologists and sounds something like this: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? and often ends in a low, sharp hooo-aah.
The calls always came from within the shelter of the forest, but not very far from me. I could not, however, determine where the bird was perched, but having heard a number of barred owls over the years, I was not surprised, for although they are friendly once humans have won their trust, when calling in the vicinity of strangers they are shy and will not tolerate a close approach. Their favorite practice is to sit on a branch close to a tree’s trunk, a perch where the dark bars on the upper breast and the dark streaks lower down make them hard to detect when they stand quietly, watching the approach of a stranger with their brown eyes.
One moonlight night some ten days after I had heard the first calls, the owl uttered his chant very near me. He was evidently sitting in a nearby spruce, yet I was unable to see him, despite the fact that he was calling repeatedly. As I listened while trying to find the bird’s roost, another owl replied.
The pair called to each other alternately, and it seemed to me hat the second caller was near our home. Then, as I was about to return, the male owl flew over my head, almost brushing my hat as it swooped by. It disappeared just as the other bird’s calls were repeated, more rapidly now. As I retraced my steps to our home, the more distant calls became louder and, when I reached the cabin’s doorway, I realized that the owl, obviously a female, was calling from the big birch tree, from inside a hole in the trunk that was located about twenty-four feet from the ground.
“OWLS The Silent Fliers” (c) 1997 by RD Lawrence ISBN I-55209-I46-5
Cry Wild Editor’s Notes:
Barred Owl Feather Illustration (c) Shutterstock
Watch what follows for a comprehensive and utterly lovely compilation of North American owl calls.