Barred owl a piece of work

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Listen. Hear that? These evenings when it’s cool enough to have a window open, around midnight, take a moment and listen for an owl.

Traffic is light and humans are mostly indoors at this time of day, so one may surmise that an owl feels safe enough to come out and vocalize in the quiet darkness. Step outside and listen.

What a piece of work an owl is.

Let me introduce to you one of the really interesting members of the bird family, Strix varia, or the barred owl. Colloquially he is called a hoot owl; I call him a hootie owl.

He and his bride no doubt have raised this year’s twins and may be training them to hunt or to stake out nesting territory. The couple wants about one square mile to themselves. This will require plenty of hoots to keep others out. But since barred owls don’t migrate, and they tend to mate for life, they can count on living pretty much wherever they want to live.

Strix varia is well adapted to his habitat, with the exception of one enigmatic characteristic. Why does he need his loud strident call when everything else about him is so secretive?

This owl is as barred as his name implies. From the neck up, he makes me think of a Muslim woman wearing a feathery hijab, a scarf pulled smoothly over the head, draped on the shoulders.

The owl’s hijab has horizontal bars, but from the shoulders down, the feathers are striped vertically. Sitting still on a branch from which he hunts, he looks more like a clump of leaves or a squirrel’s nest. Even his yellow legs and feet hide under feathers.

He peers down intently from what appear to be two disks around his brown eyes. He’s the only eastern owl, by the way, with dark eyes. Most owls’ eyes are yellow.

And his ears are really just holes in the side of his head, hidden by feathers, but one is higher than the other. This allows him to triangulate with the slightest sounds to pinpoint their hapless source.

I guess you can’t have it all. For incredible night vision and hearing, the tradeoff is strong flight feathers. Ol’ Hootie’s primaries are muffled by soft plumage which renders his flight soundless, but do nothing to enhance his flying, and won’t allow him to soar or glide between fast beats.

Likewise, if you caught a profile glimpse of strix varia in flight, you’ll note that his face is blunt and not the slightest bit streamlined. Those circles of eye rings gather whatever tiny bit of light filters through the forest branches.

We looked up some owl lore on the Internet, but none of the sources answered our question: Why does an animal with built-in sound mufflers and camouflage emit a cry that can be heard a mile away? And repeatedly?

Some nights it sounds like choir practice with multiple calls and cries from multiple birds, but for the most part, it’s a pair calling to each other from a distance. I’m sure you’re familiar with the mnemonic attached to the most common barred owl cry: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-aaall?” The “aaall” descends in a fearful scream.

Sometimes that scream is given without the “cook” phrases, and at other times gets stretched out like a monkey’s shout of “Aaaaaaagh-ka-ka-ka-ka.” I have a hunch that what we as kids thought sounded like a mountain lion was simply a barred owl ruling the woods.

The same apparent contradiction shows up elsewhere in the bird world. The gaudier the red of a male cardinal’s feathers, the better chance he has of seducing a mate. Hiding on a branch is futile. Yet the survival of nondescript sparrows is tied to their ability to conceal themselves.

Male peacocks are hard to miss, when mating season begins. But the peahen protects her eggs from predators by being drab enough to hide in the grasses.

For the owls, maybe silence and sensory acuity won out over bright colors and soaring wings. Maybe the screams simply paralyze Hootie’s prey for easy picking off the forest floor.

I was not on the design review committee, so don’t blame me. Maybe next time.