Creature Feature

Barred Owl Songs 

By Wayne Bierbaum 

Several times a week, I take a walk through a local park. It keeps me calm and focused during work. Last week, I went for a walk with my wife through some woods in Odenton. It was pretty chilly and she was wearing mittens and a ski cap with a white pom-pom. We were about a half mile into the hike when a large bird silently flew right over her head and landed in a nearby tree. There it perched staring down at her. I think the pom-pom bouncing on top of her head attracted this barred owl.  

Even though I spend a lot of time outdoors, I only see maybe five owls a year. I hear them fairly often but they slip out of view before I can locate them. I find great horned owls regularly when crows loudly “mob” them. The large owls are a real threat to crows and are severely harassed by crows when found. Barred owls are only occasionally bothered by crows but chickadees and titmice will call out a barred’s location. 

I usually spot a barred owl on a cold day, perched at the edge of a field soaking up the sun. It’s fun to hear a mated pair talking to each other, usually in the early spring. I don’t see them but just listening to their crazy sounding vocalizations makes my day. The sound is described as caterwauling. It can start with their classic “who cooks for you” sounds and goes into an “oo0-ahH” that sounds like some chimpanzee vocalizations. They can be pretty loud and the noise can go on for several minutes.  

Barred owls are fairly large birds with a 3-foot wingspan, and weigh around two pounds. Like most owls, they have fringed feathers at the edge of their wings which makes their flight almost silent.  They eat a large variety of animals, such as the usual mice, frogs and snakes, but they have also been seen eating earthworms, cicadas, catfish, dragonflies and moths.  

They mate for life and usually nest in tree cavities; they will accept a nesting box placed above 8 feet on a tree. Three offspring are typical reared over the summer and sent away in the winter.  

Barred owls are widespread across the country and are fairly common. They also tolerate living close to people, the downside being that they frequently die by eating mice that have ingested rodent poison. Long-acting poisons are the major culprit and many people are trying to have them taken off the market. 

The caterwauling of the barred owl is quite unique. The All About Birds website by Cornell Ornithology Lab contains audio files of their vocalizations, along with that of hundreds of other birds ( Greg Kearns, a naturalist at Patuxent River Park, is known for his authentic imitation of the barred owl’s calls.  Take a listen to the files and try making the sounds yourself.