Sun. Feb 25th, 2024
Last night I heard a strange sound, what was it?

Today’s post is by Mark D. Read, Senior Interpreter at Murphys Point Provincial Park.

It’s a common question that park interpreters face almost daily during the summer and many people already think they know the answer:

“Well, I’m pretty sure it was an owl; “It was making strange chirps” or, on the contrary, “It was definitely not an owl. “It sounded more like a monkey or a weird dog or something.”

Most of the time, the sound our campers hear is actually a barred owla common resident of old-growth mixed forests of Ontario and eastern North America.

Barred Owl Photo Credit: Mark D. ReadPhoto: Mark D. Read

Can you hoot like a barred owl?

While some may be familiar with the traditional hooting of barred owls (“who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”), very few realize that these owls make a wide range of other calls, including whistles, coughing, barking and the aforementioned screeching.

Chirps and whistles are made by (and for) young birds. They are actually a type of contact call and often mean something as simple as “here I am, come feed me.”

I must admit: I didn’t have clue what I was hearing the first time I heard them. And yes, they may sound disturbingly creepy.

What’s on the menu?

Although its strange calls may conjure images of wild creatures slowly approaching the tent, the barred owl is not particularly adventurous and rarely strays further than its birthplace.

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Despite this, it has managed to spread across the Pacific Northwest over the last century and is now found in California, where it is moving and hybridizing with the endangered spotted owl. They have even been known to kill their smaller relatives and even hunt the tiny saw-whet owl. It is certainly strange to think that owls hunt each other, but that’s how it is.

However, with a wingspan of just over a meter and a weight of about a kilo, not even the barred owl is safe. A great horned owl won’t think twice about ruining your day (or night).

barred owl

The fact that the barred owl is fairly sedentary has implications for winter survival. Fortunately, they eat a wide variety of small animals, including squirrels, chipmunks and voles, as well as many types of birds, up to the size of a grouse.

How long do barred owls live?

If owls have a good breeding season followed by a harsh winter, the “surplus” owls will unfortunately fall victim to a food shortage and many birds will weaken and die. Without the option to fly south, an ice storm will produce similar results as many of the prey will be trapped beneath the snow.

However, if all goes well, barred owls have been known to live more than 20 years. The oldest known lived to be 24 years old. Its longevity, sedentary behavior and large size mean that of all the owls found in Ontario, the barred owl is definitely the easiest to locate.

How to Spot a Barred Owl

In spring and summer it is the so-called birds that tend to reveal their presence. With a little patience and a little searching, you may even see some of the young birds begging for food from their parents. Most chicks leave the nest during June and early July.

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If you’re lucky, you may find one while walking through the forest. When scared, they tend to fly away rather than rely on their camouflage, so getting too close is not a good idea. In winter, when the leaves are fallen, seeing a barred owl becomes much easier (as long as you can brave the weather yourself!).

owl balls

In fact, it is during the winter that you may be able to see another interesting aspect of the barred owl, something that all owls actually share.

In the photo below, you will see that the owl appears to be yawning. What’s really happening is that this bird has finished digesting its meal and is in the process of coughing up an “owl ball”: all the indigestible bones and fur from its last meal.

barred owlPhoto: Mark D. Read

These granules are stored in a structure called a proventriculus for up to 20 hours. Since this partially blocks entry to the digestive system, the pellets must be expelled before the owl can eat again.

Barred Owl Acrobatics

Another fascinating behavior that young barred owls are known to have is the ability to climb trees using their beak and talons to grip the bark and then “walk” along the trunk while flapping their wings to maintain balance. They only do this for a short period when learning to fly and it’s something I’ve personally never seen.

Next time you’re scared by strange calls at night?

Consider the incredible life story of the barred owl and its fight to survive and take a look outside your tent. With a little luck, you’ll see an owl.