Thursday, August 11, 2005

Barred Owl

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 Tennessee earlier in the summer, I had the opportunity to bird a small park near Nashville. Another birder headed in the opposite direction mentioned that there was an owl further up the trail. I expected to have to search carefully for this bird, but instead I saw a barred owl sitting out in the open a stone’s throw from the path. Now this park has very heavy foot traffic, and many people passed by the owl and stopped to look. Despite all the attention, the owl just sat there quietly, occasionally turning its head to look coolly at its admirers.

Last week’s sighting was a similar experience. I was at the Great Swamp in New Jersey with some family members when one found a barred owl sitting in a tree. It was trying to ignore the scolding robins that pestered it.We all stood very still while watching it at close range; it may have been closer than the bird in Tennessee. No binoculars were necessary at this range! When it finally flew to a more obscure perch, we left it alone.

The barred owl, which is native to eastern North America, occurs primarily in wooded swamps and river bottoms with dense thickets. It nests in hollow trees or on nests already built by other birds. It preys primarily on small mammals, and it may hunt either at night or during the day. It is common, if uncommonly seen, and it has been increasing its range in recent years.

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 California to consider shooting barred owls where the two species come into contact.

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.