In Bared Trees and Barred Owls I wrote about seeing barred owls on three separate occasions during my November rambles. I first heard one of these owls while camping out on the newly-purchased land with my son and his lady back in 2003. The loud hoots startled we three humans but put the fear of hellfire into our husky-cross, Tundra. That dog would pick a fight with a dog twice her size just for kicks, but a series of eerie hoots in the night and she launched herself into the cab of my pickup and would not come out for the rest of the night.
If Tundra thought that night noise was scary, it’s nothing compared to the screams and cackles and hoots and screeches these birds make in mating season. It’s as if a troop of monkeys are sounding the alarm in a tropical jungle. Except … it’s February in Cape Breton: Cold and snowy and nary a monkey for miles. I was still living in my yurt when an owl launched into a monkey call right outside one night (and trust me, there was virtually no sound barrier between me and that crazy cackling). Another owl responded from nearby. ‘Eek! I’m in an avian asylum!’ My journal entry for February 8, 2008, reads: ‘9 pm. Owls barking and shrieking and howling like banshees.’
After many years of hearing these owls vocalize I finally saw one while wandering through a mature spruce forest. A large brown and white bird flew by, maneuvering easily through the dense trees. What struck me, then and now, is how this bird, with a 42″ wingspan, flies in absolute silence, not a whisper of air from those large flapping wings. As silent as a stealth fighter and just as deadly to its rodent prey. I followed after the bird and then stopped. ‘Where’d he go?’ I looked up. A barred owl was staring back down at me with enormous brown eyes.
Most sources refer to these owls, like other owl species, as nocturnal, but I’ve seen them hunting during the day. Along with rodents, they hunt birds, amphibians, and even fish. I once saw one perched in a young maple above the pond. The next time I looked he was in the shallow water, flapping his way back to shore. There aren’t any fish in my pond, but he may have spotted a snake or a frog – although I think the prey got away.
In March 2019 I had a much closer encounter with a barred owl. I’ll call him (or her?) Ollie. (Not very original, I know.) I first spotted Ollie in the morning, hanging about in maple trees near the house. Cool. Then he landed on my deck railing, 6′ from the window. Wow! But suddenly his eyes widened, he reared up, exposing his yellow legs, jutted his head forward and hooted. Uh oh. He’d seen his reflection in the window – a rival owl in his territory! Alarmed, I opened the casement window slightly, hoping to erase the reflection. But Ollie launched himself at the window, talons first. Whoa! I yelled and covered my eyes. By the time I looked, Ollie was safely back in the maple tree, unharmed, though perhaps a bit muddled.
He stayed on his maple branch, watching and listening with the remarkable patience of predators. The squirrels that are usually tearing around here like furry speed freaks laid low, as did the voles and mice that inhabit the scattered piles of firewood and brush. Eventually a daring red squirrel emerged from a snow tunnel beside a tree and bolted towards the house. Ollie swooped down in swift pursuit. Both disappeared below the deck. I ran downstairs and looked out the basement window. There was Ollie, perched on a discarded canvas. His lunch had vanished into the maze of leftover lumber and other junk stored down there. Ollie stayed on the canvas frame, just outside the window, waiting for lunch to re-emerge.
Squirrel finally made a break for the trees and ran for his life, not in a straight line, but zigging and zagging. Ollie pursued, breaking and swerving, zig for zig and zag for zag. But owl didn’t have quite as much maneuverability as squirrel, and the intended prey zipped into a tree well, escaping into a snow tunnel just ahead of the outstretched talons.
I must say, I felt badly for Ollie. It’s a tough life, being a predator. He’d come so close twice, only to fail twice and go hungry. Nature isn’t all flowers and rainbows. In the predator/prey dynamic, someone has to die. Predators who don’t kill will eventually starve to death. I kept spotting Ollie, always on a nearby tree, always on the lookout for lunch. Even when I went to pee, there he was, on another tree just outside the bathroom window. Hmm …
Later, I sat out on my deck and Ollie settled on a nearby maple tree branch, right at eye level. He was so close I could’ve touched him with a ten-foot pole. I kept a wary eye out in case he assumed the attack stance, but he seemed unthreatened by my proximity. He was mostly focused on the ground below us, but occasionally he’d do that owly head-twisty thing and look over at me. For Ollie, that nearby perch was probably just the best place to watch over the last place he’d spotted his elusive lunch. But for me? Sitting on my deck with an owl sitting in a tree just spitting distance away? It felt … almost companionable. Just me and my neighbour hanging out. Just another day in the Holler.
Sue McKay Miller
January 29, 2021
Note: To hear a barred owl, check out https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/sounds. The second ‘song’ in the list is what I typically hear, and the ‘duet’ is a (somewhat mild) sample of mating mayhem. I’ve limited this blog to my own personal observations, so if you want more information about this fascinating owl (or any other bird for that matter) that site is an excellent resource.