The Barred Owl: The Interrogator

This first time I saw a wild Barred Owl I thought it was going to kill me. Bushwacking alone through a nameless stretch of woods during a summer job with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, I followed a ruckus of squawks into a clearing to find a huge Barred Owl sitting on a low branch, staring directly at me.

Its big, black eyes were locked onto mine as it bobbed and swayed inside a roiling cloud of screeching birds. I was terrified. I didn’t know owls could be so big—Barred Owls can reach 20 inches tall—and what was it doing out in the middle of the day? “This thing’s going to kill me and eat me in this forest and no one will ever find me and my mom will never know what happened,” I thought. I backed away slowly, and survived.

I mean, of course I survived. Despite being a universal symbol of spookiness, owls aren’t dangerous to humans. In fact, encountering an owl in the wild is typically a treasured experience, the beauty of the bird enhanced by the luckiness of the observation. Barred Owls, like the one I saw, are actually fairly common residents of forests and swamps throughout the East and Pacific Northwest, but it’s finding them that’s the trick.

If you’re fortunate enough to see one in sunlight, they’re fairly straightforward to identify. The dark eyes are the best field mark—all other large eastern owls have light-colored eyes, except the distinct Barn Own—but also look for the bib of horizontal stripes that give the bird its “barred” name.

But these birds are nocturnal, and so you’re much more likely to hear a Barred Owl than to see one. (The bird I saw in the middle of the day had probably been chased out of its roost by a mob of songbirds who didn't want it around.) Luckily for you, its call is one of the easiest-to-remember of all American birds, classic owl hoots in a distinct pattern of alternating emphasis: hoot HOOT hoot HOOT hoot HOOT hoot HOOT AWW! Or, famously: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?

I love this mnemonic not just because it’s so close to the bird’s sounds but because of the images it conjures in my mind. I like to picture a poor Barred Owl, hunched over some cold, raw vole for the millionth time, trying in vain to light a fire with his flimsy wings and calling pathetically into the night: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?

Once the Barred Owl resigns itself to the fact that no, nobody is going to cook for it, it gets down to business. Like most owls, Barred Owls swallow their prey whole rather than pick it apart on the ground, where they might be vulnerable to predators.  As anyone who’s eaten a Thanksgiving dinner too quickly knows, indiscriminate mouthfuls can be tough on the digestive system. But owls have a novel way of dealing with all the extra fur and bones and junk they ingest when eating on the run: They pack it all together into pellets in their gut and then, uh, expel them through their mouths a couple times a day. 

So in retrospect, when I encountered my Barred Owl, instead of fearing that it would kill me, I should have been more concerned that it might barf on me. I’m not sure which scenario would have been worse.

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