Friday, October 22, 2021

Who Cooks for You? An Owl?

Stepping Stones

Photos by Bob McConville | With the morning sun shining on its right, a Barred Owl seeks respite on the branch of a cypress tree at the Big Bend boardwalk.

Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all? No, this is not a culinary column and, no, Master Chef is not coming to town. This is a sound that you might hear in a swamp or woodland area and, no, we’re not preparing gator tail and swamp cabbage.

Actually, this is what the call of a Barred Owl sounds like. Four hoots that seem like “who who who who” and four more that seem like “who who who yaw.” Eight notes from this creature has this distinctive call and separates it from its relative, the Great Horned Owl, that calls with only five notes. More easily heard than seen in the wild, they are a master of camouflage.

They get their name “barred” from the brown and white vertical feathers on their chest that blend so well with the native surroundings. But listen for that call, then follow your ears and you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one or two. The eight-note call is used by the owl to state its territory and also, to attract a mate. The male has a second call, a signal of aggression, that begins with a very deep-throated call that accelerates in volume and ends with a loud hoot.

The Barred Owl does not migrate so they can be found in habitats all year long here in South Florida. Since their primary locales are in woodland and swamps you won’t find them in the treetops. They will mostly be seen on branches closer to the ground because their source of food lives on the forest floor.

Their diet consists mainly of small mammals, but they have been known to take other birds and insects. Mostly hunting at night (nocturnal) they have been known to gather food during the day as well. This bird stands about 18-24 inches tall and its weight varies from 20-28 ounces, with the females being a bit larger than the males. It doesn’t require a lot of food, but the array of prey it gathers illustrates the ability of the Barred Owl to adapt to a variety of animals.

Tucked among the tree branches the Barred Owl can be very difficult to see; its brown and white feathers supply a great camouflage.

This species will normally breed in the early months of the year and will produce three eggs, on average. Incubation periods are about 30 days. The male will hunt for itself and bring food to the female while she is on the nest with eggs. When hatchlings reach six weeks of age, they are fully independent from the parents.

Their range throughout the United States is primarily east of the Mississippi River up to Canada and as far south as Mexico. Here in South Florida they are seen on a regular basis in the Picayune Strand, Big Cypress Swamp and the

Everglades. A pair of Barred Owls has been sighted regularly on the Big Cypress Boardwalk, back by the gator hole.

A Barred Owl Story: A few years ago, I was walking the western Everglades and happened to locate a Barred Owl on a tree branch, about 10 feet above the ground. The problem was that it was perched on the branch with the tree trunk between me and the owl. There was not much of a photo op at this point. I started to imitate an owl sound to get it to look my way but there was no success. I thought I might try singing to catch its attention. I was softly chanting songs from Elton John, Jimmy Buffet and the Beatles but, again, the owl did not move. As a last ditch effort, I started belting out “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and, alas, my Barred Owl peeked around the branch to stare at me! Who knew we had country-rock owls in this area. Click went the camera; I got my photo and bid my fine feathered friend a good day, chanting “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all?” as I happily walked away.

Bob is a naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books, “Beyond The Mangrove Trees” and “Beneath The Emerald Waves,” which are available locally, and is a member of the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism. Bob loves his wife very much!


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