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Barred owl in the rain. Archive Photo of the Day 12/19/12: Butch Bramhall, Croghan, NY
Barred owl in the rain. Archive Photo of the Day 12/19/12: Butch Bramhall, Croghan, NY

Natural Selections: Barred Owl

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The barred owl is often heard but seldom seen. Dr. Curt Stager and Martha Foley discuss the habits of this nocturnal hunter, and Curt demonstrates his own highly-regarded version of its distinctive call.

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Martha Foley: I have seen a few owls in my life, but mostly my contact with owls is hearing them in the night. I heard a Barred Owl the other night.

Curt Stager: That's the kind I usually hear, too. It's the most common to hear. In fact, you even hear them during the day sometimes.

MF: And then you hear them calling: one over here, and one way over there, and they call back and forth.

CS: It's neat, sometimes you can sort of guess what's going on when you hear that. Male and female Barred Owls have the same plumage, so just glancing at them you couldn't tell the sexes apart, it's like how do they tell, you know? Supposedly females are actually a bit bigger than the males. You'd think that maybe affects how their voice sounds. It does, but ironically the females have a higher pitched call even though you'd think the bigger body mass would give them a lower voice.

MF: So if you're hearing this conversation, if you're hearing it for a time you might be able to pick out where who is and who's saying what.

CS: Yeah, because sometimes it's a territorial display, too. You can maybe guess what's going on.

MF: I don't think I've ever seen a Barred Owl, at least not to get a good ID on, but I found a great horned owl dead one time, it had hit a power line. We had a pair of baby Screech Owls. The mother was killed and we sort of rescued them and eventually gave them to a biologist. They would do funny things. They were really messy, and…they would like pick at your hair? It was funny. Like they were grooming or something; like they were playing in your hair.

CS: I've heard of that actually. It's a pretty common interaction between owl couples, you could say. Or maybe siblings, too. They call it mutual preening, and it's basically nibbling away at the feathers like you would if you were just trying to fluff your feathers up or keep them clean or something.

MF: Well as I recall it would hurt just a little bit, the nibbling at my feathers. They were a lot of fun.

CS: I've heard that you can induce that, even with newly-captured owl that should be kind of nervous having you around. Supposedly, I don't know if I want to try this, but they say as long as you have hair on the top of your head, all you have to do is sort of tip your head in towards the owl and they are induced to do this almost automatically.

MF: You know when you find owl pellets…and you can see all the bones intact and see what they've been up to that way. Why don't you find hawk pellets?

CS: The best idea I've heard for that is the chemistry of owl stomachs for some reason is not nearly as acidic as it is in a lot of other predators. Somebody actually measured the stomach acids in owls versus hawks and they found out that the hawks are six times as acidic. So that could have something to do with preservation of the bones. Owls just take the stuff into their gizzard and accumulate some of the junk there, and then the stuff that goes down into their stomach doesn't dissolve as much.

MF: So they maybe just don't have as efficient a digestive system so they have more fecal matter to show for that?

CS: Better to come out the mouth, with the bones and stuff.

MF: It's not impossible to call an owl in, is it? You say you can actually call them in. Is this true?

CS: The owls you're most likely to hear in the Adirondacks are these…and if you keep repeating the call loudly, they'll get curious and come investigate… [hoots]. So just try that out in the woods some night, do it really loud, make sure no one's coming to get you or something for this, and oftentimes you'll hear them reply, and if you keep doing that oftentimes they'll come in and investigate and see who you are.


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