See more of the story

A walk in one of the metro area’s big river parks can produce an eerie feeling, the sense that there’s another being in the woods, specifically, an owl.

A good stand of woods often harbors a great horned owl, but other owls might be lurking in the trees, too. I’m always on the lookout for a species that almost always eludes me, an owl few of us even know exists, the barred owl. Even fewer of us ever see one of these elusive owls, forest dwellers that roost within a crag or on a branch close to the tree trunk. This is a large owl, at 21 inches tall not quite as tall as a great horned owl (22 inches) or a great gray owl (27 inches).

Barred owls aren’t usually found in the same area where great horned owls roost, since it’s the rule of the forest that larger owls are a hazard to smaller owls.

It’s a bit odd that they’re so seldom seen, because this species is described as widespread and common over much of its range. The problem with owls — all owls — is that they’re so darned good at hiding themselves as they doze away the day. The barred owl’s streaked front and mottled back blend in perfectly as it sits motionless on a tree branch, waiting to hunt prey on the night shift.

Big brown eyes

Two things make barred owls stand out for me: They’re a brown-eyed owl in a family dominated by yellow-eyed species. And I love the feathering around their necks, which resembles a casually tossed thick winter scarf. Oh, and this owl lacks the vertical feathers on the head that we call ears, seen on great horned and screech owls.

Barred owls must watch innumerable humans, deer, raccoons and other forest creatures pass below their roost, as they wait for a night of hunting voles and other smallish prey. Many of us have learned that a barred owl’s hoots sound as if it was calling, “Who cooks for you?” Some people do a pretty good job of imitating this call and may be rewarded by an answer from deep in the woods made by an owl thinking it’s responding to its mate.

Ears may be more important than eyes in detecting a barred owl, because this is a very vocal raptor, issuing calls even in daylight and in every month of the year. Courtship season, in February and March, gets pretty intense as mates call to each other from different parts of the forest.

Karla Bloem, executive director of the International Owl Center in Houston, Minn., notes that most of us experience owls acoustically (since they’re so hard to see), and she calls barred owl calls “some of the wildest, craziest vocalizations you can hear” in the woods at night.

‘Rabid coyote’ sounds

“There’s the familiar ‘who cooks for you, who cooks for you all,’ but they also do a crazy caterwauling that would leave most people wondering if there are monkeys or rabid coyotes in the woods. My personal favorite call sounds like someone being murdered, a loud, high, rising pure-toned shriek.” (Hear barred owls here: allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/sounds)

This is an owl of the eastern half of the continental U.S., its range traditionally curtailed by the Great Plains. But for a variety of reasons including more trees growing in Plains states, the barred owl range has fairly recently spread to the Pacific Northwest old growth forests. Sadly, they’re now pushing out the spotted owl, a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Strangely, for such a common raptor, there hasn’t been much study of barred owls. It would be interesting to know a bit more about them and their needs. But for now, let’s keep our eyes on the canopy and hope the next owl we see is one of these chatty creatures with the soulful, brown-eyed stare.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.

City owls

A group of neighbors in the city of Tulsa, Okla., has been studying barred owls in their city and has found an astonishing eight to 10 pairs living right in their neighborhoods. Maintaining a project called Barred Owls of Midtown Tulsa (BOOMT), this group of citizen scientists has set up several webcams to monitor the owls’ activities and study their behavior. (Live cam: youtube.com/c/BarredOwlsofMidtownTulsa/live; Facebook page: facebook.com/midtownowls/)

BOOMT has garnered a great deal of attention in the local media for their education and conservation efforts with this population of urban owls, and the city even installed signs reading, “Warning, Low Flying Owls.”

The group’s founder, Jennifer Harmon, sees the pair of owls that lives on her street on a daily basis.

As Harmon says, “Having the owls nearby is a joy, a blessing and a huge responsibility that our neighborhood has happily taken on. This has built a wonderful fellowship amongst immediate neighbors and has given our neighborhood ‘cachet,’ in that three different families bought homes here because of the owls.”

Val Cunningham