Evening owl

The other evening, I was standing at the kitchen sink washing vegetables for our supper and looking out the window, when a movement in the woods caught my eye. A large bird swooped low through the trees, and then glided up and landed on a branch. It was big enough to be a hawk, so I dropped the vegetables and grabbed my binoculars with wet hands.

The early evening light was growing dim, and at first all I could see was a tangle of bare branches, but soon I found where it had perched. The bird was large and stocky, with dark vertical streaks on the breast and a large round head that appeared to sit directly on the shoulders. It was a barred owl, and it seemed to be staring directly at me. I turned out the kitchen light to make myself less visible, and continued to watch until the evening light faded to dark.

Barred owls are fairly common here year round, and their call, who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allll, is a familiar sound in local woods. In spring, they form pair bonds, and when they call to one another the male’s voice is lower, the female’s is slightly higher. The male also defends his territory with a variety of calls, including cackling, shrieking, whistling, and screeching. Barred owls hunt small rodents, especially mice, but will take larger prey such as birds, pheasants, and rabbits. In warmer weather, they catch small invertebrates, insects, amphibians, and reptiles. It is not unusual for barred owls to be active at dusk, or even during the day. Owls see as well in daylight as we do, but they can also see very well in dim light, about 10 to a hundred times better than we can. Their large eyes, like those of many predators, are located in the front of the head, giving them two overlapping fields of vision known as binocular vision, and greater depth perception.

In addition to being able to see well in dim light, owls’ exceptional hearing allows them to navigate in total darkness. The feathers on the face are arranged in a round disc like a satellite dish, to reflect sound toward the ears, which are hidden under feathers on the side of the head. One ear is placed slightly higher than the other, making it possible for the owl to triangulate on prey by moving its head up and down, or from side to side. Although owls cannot turn their head all the way around, they have extra vertebrae in the neck and can turn their head up to two hundred seventy degrees. They rely on silent flight, and stealth, to surprise prey. Their feathers have a soft surface with serrated edges that muffle the sound of air as it rushes past the feather. This allows the owl to fly soundlessly.

A bird who can fly silently, navigate in the dark, and hear approaching danger is not an easy bird to find. Patricia and Clay Sutton, authors of How To Spot An Owl, explain that one way to find owls is to look for trees marked with their excrement, or whitewash, which accumulates under their favorite perches, on the branches and bark, and on the ground. Another sign that an owl might be in the vicinity is the presence of pellets under a tree. Owls swallow their prey whole then regurgitate neat little pellets containing the parts they can not digest, such as fur, feathers, and bones. The morning after I saw the barred owl, I went out to the woods to see if I could find where it had perched, but I did not find any whitewash on the trees or pellets on the snow-covered ground.

Owls are usually heard more often than they are seen. Over the next couple of months, when I stand on our porch in the evening listening for the sounds of spring, the duck-like sounds of wood frogs and the high shrill calls of spring peepers, I’ll also be listening for owls. If I’m lucky, I might hear who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allll coming from the woods.

Jean Preis resides in Bridgton.

Please follow and like us: