Photo Courtesy of: Kathy Malone
In the evening, when my head feels like it is still spinning from the adventures of the day, sitting outside and enjoying the night helps me to unwind. Even during this cold time of year, bundling up and sitting outside sends waves of relaxation through me when I see the stars and hear the calls of the barred owls.
The barred owl (Strix varia) is a relatively large, stocky owl. Adults are typically 21" in length with a wingspan of 42". Their plumage is mottled brown above (back, tops of wings and tail) and white with brown streaks below (breast, undersides of wings and tail).
Barred owls are active at night, but by day they are resting quietly and camouflaged perfectly in wooded areas. They prefer woodlots and wet woods that have a variety of mature deciduous and evergreen trees. At night, barred owls hunt for small mammals--such as squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles, and rabbits-as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects.
Because they are not active during the day and are so well camouflaged, you may never see a barred owl. But because Newton County has many wooded areas, the chances are good that you'll hear them. Barred owls have a variety of entertaining calls that, if you practice, you can become quite good at yourself.
Adult barred owls have a well-known call. It is a series of hoots with a slow and steady cadence in the rhythm of "Who-cooks-for-you-who-cooks-for-youuuuuu?" (Round your mouth and try making the call come out of the back of your throat.)
Males and females will call back and forth with a quick and lively, "Hoo hoo ho-ho hooooo-hooooooawwrr," their voices rocking back and forth across the night like a rocking chair. (Try this call too. If there is someone else in the room with you, have them call back to you until you are both laughing too hard to continue.)
Believe it or not, barred owls have active nests in February. The owls make their nest high up in a large tree. For their nest site, they will select a tree cavity or an abandoned stick nest that is twenty to forty feet above the ground. The female lays one to five eggs in the nest, and the eggs are incubated for approximately thirty days. Once the chicks hatch, they will stay in the nest for another month until they are mature enough to take to their first flight.
Barred owl eggs will be hatching anytime now, and once they do, you'll be able hear the hatchlings calling with a clear, harsh "Kssssssship, ksssssssship." They are hungry and they are letting their hunting parents, soaring silently in the night sky, know all about it.
Newton County certainly isn't the only place you can hear barred owls. They are found all throughout the eastern half of the United States, and in Canada, primarily in the western provinces. Barred owls are a species whose numbers have been increasing in recent years. This is a sharp contrast to songbird species whose populations, unfortunately, have been declining over the past ten years.
So this winter, when the days are still short and the nights seem long, take a drive out to a wooded area to see if you can hear the relaxing sounds of the barred owls calling. If you live in or are visiting Newton County, try stopping and listening at a parking lot near The Nature Conservancy's Conrad Station Savanna, Conrad Savanna Nature Preserve, Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, or Holley Savanna owned by NICHES Land Trust.
Sit and listen for a while, then try out your calls. With some practice and some luck, you might just have the good fortune of having an owl call back to you. Feeling self-conscious about making the owl calls? You needn't feel that way--nature doesn't judge.
Here's to the barred owls that entertain and distract us from the chaos of the day. And here's to living and working in a county where nature surrounds us. Twenty thousand plus acres of nature; the very nature upon which all life depends. Surely that fact, coupled with the calls of the barred owls, will allow you to sit back and relax and say, "Ahhhh..."
The Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.