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Silhouetted against the mature white birch, the large bird reminded me of a giant, snow-tipped pine cone. I approached as quietly as I could, but nothing escapes an owl's notice. It turned its head and stared down at me with soulful chocolate eyes. For several moments, the barred owl gazed at me as I watched him. Then on broad, silent wings, he disappeared back into the forest, skillfully avoiding a tangle of horizontal branches. Our meeting was much too brief.
Barred owls, Strix varia,are a treat to see because they spend most of their lives hidden from view in deep shadowy forests. Although we seldom see them, we hear them often. Barreds are fairly vocal with a repertoire of barks, hoots, yells, shrieks, moans and groans that penetrate the darkness. Their most familiar call is a low, mournful rhythmic eight-hoot often transcribed as "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y'all" with the final drawled-out note sliding down the scale. On a still night, the haunting owl talk can travel a mile or more.
Barred owls are big, averaging 21 inches long. The females are larger than the males. Under the fluff of gray-brown feathers, the females weigh just over a pound and the males, just under that amount. In coloration and markings, the sexes are identical.
Though their size is impressive, barreds are only the fourth largest owls found in Wisconsin. The winter-visiting snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca), great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) and the resident great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) are all bigger.
Barred owls are distinctive in their own right and are easily identified. Rich, dark brown eyes are their most distinguishing characteristic. Only the rare endangered barn owl (Tyco alba) also has brown eyes; all others found here have yellow eyes, or more accurately, yellow irises with black pupils. Bright lemon-yelllow eyes give the great horned owl its soul-piercing, aggressive look. The softness in the barred's eyes project a nonthreatening, quiet and retiring demeanor. don't be fooled. Barred owls are very effective hunters preying on rabbits, squirrels, mice, snakes and smaller birds.
These owls are heavily feathered and look chunky. The absence of ear tufts gives their heads a smooth puffiness. Concentric circles of darker feathers in the facial disks accentuate their dark eyes and rounded look. Fluffy, horizontally-barred feathers under the facial disks make the neck region appear swollen. Dark vertical streaking highlights the creamy belly. Squarish brown and white spots on some of the back feathers give the barred owls their snowy pine cone look, good camouflage for hiding in the forest.
Barred owls establish territories in February, court in March and lay eggs in April. Their clutches of typically two white unmarked eggs are laid in an unlined cavity, usually well hidden in a big, old tree or perhaps an abandoned hawk or crow's nest. Good nesting sites may be used for several years. Incubation, usually by the female, lasts about 28 days. The attentive parents remain with the young owls well into late summer or longer.
Although barred owls are essentially nonmigratory, some individuals wander during late fall and early winter. They may show up in backyards, even in the city, to quietly perch and rest for the day. If you see one, pause a few minutes to gaze into its soft, beautiful eyes until the barred owl slips away.
Anita Carpenter writes from Oshkosh.