Nature Nearby: Who cooks for you?

Bucking the owl stereotype of a night time hooter, the barred owl is frequently calling at two or three in the afternoon.

BY FRED SEITZ — Hyattsville’s most familiar and vocal owl has been up to his spring calls again this year as he reclaims his territory or summons a mate. The barred owl, which is the second largest in Maryland and quite common in treed suburbs, has been a regular caller for several years in our neighborhood. Bucking the owl stereotype of a night time hooter, the barred owl familiar call (“Who cooks for you”) is frequently heard around two or three in the afternoon, but also in evenings. He calls in the woods of Magruder Park at night.

The call can be to reclaim his roughly one-mile territory, to call his mate or to warn off other males. Females also call, but it generally is higher pitched than the male’s. The female is the larger of the two, but their coloration is identical. The barred owl’s call is probably most familiar as the larger horned owl (Maryland’s largest owl) has a softer “hoot” which is mostly heard at night and the tiny screech owl bellows a sometimes blood curdling sound that belies the little owl’s small stature. The barred owl also lacks the ear patches that the horned owl prominently displays.

Often observing us from a tall tree limb in the swamp or other areas in Magruder park, the barred owl does us all the favor of eating many of the local rodents and probably raising young in some of the older trees with holes in them. Generally, the nests would be at least 20 feet up and may be used repeatedly over multiple years. If there are no tree holes to be found, the owl may “occupy” former nests of hawks or crows, but do little in the way of nest building. Both parents will do some incubation early in the period after the brood of two to three eggs are laid, but most of the incubation falls to Mom. Both parents hunt and bring shredded rodents to the young.  Care of the youngins lasts for nearly 12 weeks (through the summer to early fall, when the young owls can fly).  The young owls have white down. By fall, their coloration is much the same as that of the adults. Barred owls live around 10 years in the wild, but have lived 20 years in captivity. Their most common predators are domestic cats and great horned owls.

The barred owl doesn’t migrate, but will stay all winter in the same general area, though it may leave its breeding area to another nearby area where food may be more plentiful during winter. While they are not typically aggressive towards humans, they do have the large talons common to many raptors; there has been occasional buzzing of campers sleeping in the open during the summer. Overall, their useful predation of our local rodents and melodious calls far outweigh any downside to having such an interesting neighbor.