Much of the time, birding consists of looking over familiar species in familiar circumstances. But there are a few moments that make one say “Wow!” These moments are the reason why we bird. Coming face-to-face with a barred owl is one of those moments.
I have had the good fortune to have this happen twice during the last summer. Now before this summer I had never seen a barred owl before. On a couple field trips other people had seen or heard one, but it was always a matter of not recognizing the call before it stopped, or a bird flushing and then disappearing into the woods. Owls are among the most difficult birds to find; perhaps only rails are more elusive.
Those frustrating experiences changed this summer. When I was in
Last week’s sighting was a similar experience. I was at the
The barred owl, which is native to eastern
The barred owl’s success has brought it into conflict with the endangered spotted owl, its close relative. Barred owls have expanded their breeding territory into western states, where they outcompete spotted owls. This has led some officials in
Barred owls have personality. Their call, which may be heard during night or day, is distinctive (“who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all?”). Their eye disks make them appear alternately somewhat clownish, somewhat friendy, or somewhat sleepy. The neck ruff looks like a scarf wound about the bird’s shoulders. The streaks on their belly give the appearance of a pinstriped suit. (See Owl Pages for pictures and a recording.) What really stands out, though, are the eyes. Unlike most birds, owls have both eyes facing forward, an adaptation to help it find prey. This facial feature makes it much easier to anthropomorphize owls than other birds. Looking into a barred owl's deep brown eyes, one can imagine seeing a person looking back.
It is easy to forget when looking at the barred owl that it is a carefully tuned killing machine. The feathers on the leading edge of its wings are adapted to make no sound in flight so that its prey will be caught unaware. Like all owls, it has asymmetrical ear openings to pinpoint the location of any sound. Its talons and bill are sharp and merciless. But in the presence of a barred owl, these adaptations are not on my mind. Perched on a branch a stone’s throw away, it stares back like one of us.