Creature Feature: Our Common but Elusive Owl

Who cooks for you? Who cooks for youuuaallll? 

You can hear the unmistakable call of the barred owl throughout the year, but they really get revved up in late winter as their mating season begins. 

Barred owls are big and chunky.

Barred Owls

NH’s most common owl, the barred owl (Strix varia) sports horizontal bars running across its chest, vertical stripes down its belly, and a smooth round head – no”ears”or tufts.

In addition to the familiar “Who cooks for you?”

call, barred owls engage in rather dramatic caterwauling during their courtship, which begins in February. Breeding starts in March and goes through the summer.

Barred owls tend toward monogomy. They like to nest in cavities in snags (large dead trees) within dense forests. Here at ACT we manage our land to keep and sometimes even create such trees for owls and other wildlife.

Two to four eggs are laid per clutch, and the female incubates the eggs for four weeks before they hatch. After another six weeks, most young successfully fledge. This venturing forth from the nest coincides with the emergence of the young and not so young of owls’ favorite foods, such as red squirrels, mice, voles, mink, and even rabbits or skunks. The oldest barred owl on record was 24 years old.

At about six weeks old, the young are ready to venture forth into the world on their own, and fledge. This coincides with the natural increase in populations of owls’ favorite prey, including red squirrels, mice, voles, mink, and even young hares, skunks, and other birds. Barred owls may even catch crayfish near the water’s edge.

We all grew up with the image of the “wise old owl.” Their steady, impenetrable gaze certainly gives the impression of deep thought. Biomechanically, owls are remarkable. A lot of the magic happens from their neck up. Imagine their heads as dish antennas that are specially engineered to let them hear and see where their prey may be lurking.

Their head feathers are arranged to magnify sounds, so they can easily hear the smallest prey rustling about. The extremely photosensitive eyes that give them excellent night vision take up half their skull. Because these huge eyes are actually tube shaped, owls can’t roll their eyes – instead they can swivel their necks an astounding 270-degrees. They lock their eyes on sounds of would-be prey. Then with speed and silence they swoop down to grab it. This winter, look carefully in the woods and open fields where there are rodent tracks, and you may well find the imprint of owl wings in the snow.

The barred owl is ranked as a species of “least concern” in NH, meaning the population is steady. They are a very adaptable species, but their greatest threat is the loss of forested landscapes and the open marshland where they like to hunt and nest.

Here’s a link to a live webcam of a Great Horned Owl nest with chicks in Georgia. Though uncommon up here (you’re more likely to find them in southern NH), the great horned is actually a predator of the barred owl.

The barred owl is a magnificent creature, and because they are non-migratory and maintain a territory, your chances of spotting one is quite good.