Owls are so skilled at concealing themselves from sight that we might walk underneath one perched on a branch in the woods and never know it. Which is why each and every owl sighting is a treat to be savored.
Walking to the end of my backyard in late October to see what the crows were shrieking about, I was astonished to see a barred owl perched in an evergreen. This was exciting, because this large, brown-eyed species had never visited before.
Asking around for barred owl stories I hit the jackpot when Leanne Phinney shared her amazing tale of a barred owl pair that raised its family in a large hole in her backyard willow last summer. The Shore-view resident and her husband, Mark Schultz, had front-row seats from March through July, watching three small owlets grow up under the attentive care of their parents. This was a gift granted to few of us, and here is the story:
After frequent sightings of adult owls in their backyard in the spring, Schultz spotted one bird inside the hollow in their willow on April 30. By the middle of May they realized that there were also three owlets in that tree cavity, and were on hand to watch them progress from small balls of white fluff to big-eyed youngsters standing on the willow's branches, eventually learning to fly.
It's not easy to learn owl skills, and there were many heart-stopping moments in May (and a number of calls to the Raptor Center for advice). Practicing flight moves, the owlets would leap and flail, tumbling to lower branches, sometimes to the ground. In one case an owlet landed on the house's deck as four adults sat outside in the evening. And one of the youngsters fell into the shallow wetland surrounding the nest tree. Over the course of several hours it hopped from log to log, then eventually rowed through the water to clamber up the tree.
Almost miraculously, the owlets never suffered an injury as their watchful parents kept an eye on their activities.
Among Phinney's many amazing photos are images of an adult barred owl fishing in the backyard wetland and another of a parent feeding a large piece of fish to a youngster — yes, even fish can be on the menu for this species that'll eat almost anything.
By the first of June, "The owlets were nowhere to be seen. But in the evening we could hear their soft whistling sounds in the nearby woods," Phinney said.
Owl season was drawing to a close by the time two young owls flew in to sit on a wood duck house one evening in July. One caught a mouse and the siblings sparred over who would eat it. Phinney's final view came in late in July when a young barred owl came to perch in a tree overlooking the deck and stayed for hours.
And then it was over, the glorious summer spent living among owls.
Looking back, somewhat wistfully, Phinney summed it all up: "We were truly amazed by so many sights during our brief encounter with the barred owl family, and I was thrilled to be able to capture photos of their extraordinary daily routines. We really hope they come back to the same nesting site next year."
I asked Karla Bloem, executive director of the International Owl Center in Houston, Minn., if it was unusual for owls to nest so close to humans. She noted that some owls adapt to urban or suburban environments, especially those with a varied diet. A key factor seems to be the size of trees in the area, and Phinney's tree is big, with a large open cavity for nesting.
"The fun thing about urban owls is that they have made an informed decision and are thus far more likely to tolerate humans than country owls," Bloem said.
An owl family and a human family tolerated each other wonderfully well last summer. Let's hope those barred owls return to the willow tree early next year to call, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all," as they begin the nesting cycle again.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other barred owl tales
Julian Sellers, St. Paul: "At an outdoor wedding in a wooded area in Minnetonka, just as the bride and groom were about to exchange their vows, a voice in the distance asked the timely question: 'Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?' "
Linda Kellar, Lake Elmo: "I've seen many barred owls, but they've always been high up in trees. One day when I was birding in Sunfish Lake Park I rounded a bend and right at eye level was a gorgeous barred owl sitting on a stump. I couldn't believe how huge he was. We stared at each other for several minutes and I'll never forget his big chocolate-brown eyes."
Listen to the owls
To hear this highly vocal owl's sounds, search online for All About Birds, then key in "barred owl."