For the Birds: The Winter of the Barred Owl

Photo by Bob Sullivan
This barred owl perched on a bird feeding pole and took several dives at a vole under the snow in Westmoreland, N.H.

In recent memory we’ve had the winter of the junco, the winter of the snowy owl, and the winter of the robin.

This seems to be the winter of the barred owl. Throughout New England, barred owls are being seen in greater-than-usual numbers.

I received an email and terrific photos from Bob of Westmoreland. On Super Bowl Sunday, he noticed a barred owl perched on the bird feeder pole in his yard. But the thrills didn’t stop there. Bob watched as the owl took a few attempts at snagging a vole in the snow beneath the feeder. Alas, the owl never got its prey.

“I kept pausing the Super Bowl every so often to check,” he wrote. “I have plenty of barred owls in the neighborhood, but this was the first time I ever saw one hunting at the feeder.”

Bob noted that smaller birds such as chickadees kept right on using the feeders and the owl paid them no mind.

People think of owls as nocturnal, but they can be active during the day. This is especially true of barred owls, which often call their eerie “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” hoots during the day.

The spike in sightings has been so pronounced that The Connecticut Audubon Society called on several bird experts to try to explain the phenomenon. The responses have been interesting, to say the least.

The experts at Connecticut Audubon think the wet spring and summer produced ideal growing conditions for critters such as mice, squirrels and frogs. That, of course, makes for lots of food for the owls to thrive and results in a low mortality rate among first-year birds. These young birds are now spreading out looking for territory of their own.

The organization, however, heard conflicting viewpoints from others. In fact, many feel the opposite may be true and that a lack of food is bringing the birds of prey to areas of higher visibility. This includes along roadside; similar to hawks, owls look there for easy prey, too.

Unfortunately, as Connecticut Audubon Society reported, this has led to an increase in owls being hit by cars. One wildlife rehabilitation center in southern Connecticut had already treated 45 barred owls by early February.

The barred owl (Strix varia) is one of the most common owl species in New England. Great horned, eastern screech, barn, and saw-whet are among the other more common species in our region. Sightings of long-eared and short-eared, as well as snowy owls, spike in the winter in New England. Also, who could forget the great gray owl that graced Newport, N.H., two winters ago?

At about 20 inches tall, Barred owls are relatively large owls, dwarfing screech (10 inches) and saw-whet (7 inches) owls, but bowing to great horned owls (25 inches).

Barred owls lack ear tufts, which gives their head a rounded appearance. They get their name from the barred plumage on their chest, belly and sides.

If you see a barred owl this winter, you’re not alone. They are giving birders and nonbirders alike plenty of thrills this winter. Of course, if you do come across one, let me know about it.

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3 thoughts on “For the Birds: The Winter of the Barred Owl

  1. Winter of the Barred Owl indeed. A friend of mine here in western MA has seen 27 at last count, and I had three along a one-mile stretch of a single road in Hadley. There’s also a rehabber in our area who’s treated somewhere around 50 of them. Quite a winter!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just last week 1 landed on top of my deck
    I am in Seymour Ct
    I was alerted by 4or 5 crows swooping around the trees
    He sat there for a few minutes, enough time for me to get my phone He was a clear view from my bathroom window ,about 5 feet away. Unfortunately as I got my camera ready he turned and saw me and In an instant flew away with the flick of crows following
    It was the 1st time I’ve ever seen an owl in nature and the flight with the crows to the top of the trees was just awesome
    Just sad I didn’t get a pic

    Liked by 1 person

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