Plants & Animals

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Barred Owl

The big eyes and big voice of this woodland bird delights Missourians across the state.

I stepped onto his back porch and scanned his yard. “Where are they?” I asked in a whisper, eager to meet his summer guests. “Oh, they’re around,” Art Tilley responded with confidence, “Let me try to call them up.” Expecting to hear a set of quadruple hoots, I listened as he spoke in a soft voice, “Hey, my friends, we have a visitor. Come and meet Danny.” As I began to congratulate myself for not unpacking my camera gear too soon, three barred owls, an adult and two juveniles with fuzzy heads, emerged from the shadows and lighted on tree limbs, close, right before my eyes. It was too good to be true. “Would you like a cup of French roast?” Tilley asked. I wondered if the morning could get any better!

Tilley had contacted me earlier in the week to ask if I was interested in photographing some owls. As I asked my standard questions regarding species identification, subject distance, sun direction, and so on, I determined that the owls in Tilley’s backyard were definitely worth a look. I accepted his gracious offer and made my way to his home in Chesterfield the following Saturday morning. Upon arrival, Tilley explained that the barred owls had nested nearby and had been visiting his yard every morning and afternoon to feed on the bountiful supply of cicadas emerging from the ground beneath his shade trees. He knew all of their favorite perches and gently suggested where to point my lens for best results.

The barred owl (Strix varia) is a large brown owl with dark eyes and dark brown streaks, or bars, which run horizontally across its neck and vertically down its chest. Barred owls are found along forested streams, lakes, rivers, and swamps, especially where large cavity trees are available for nesting. Although considered nocturnal, I’ve found barred owls to be quite active at dawn and dusk as they hunt from favorite perches along the wooded edges of the hayfields behind our house. Prey includes voles, mice, rabbits, snakes, frogs, crayfish and insects. Never too far from water, barred owls have even been known to capture fish in shallows.

Most people are familiar with the barred owl’s call which resembles the phrase, “Who cooks for you; who cooks for you all?” but their vocal repertoire also includes caterwauling that rivals the bawls of a love-crazed bobcat. Courtship begins in late winter and eggs are hatched by early spring. Fledging occurs about a month and a half later. As with Tilley’s barred owl visitors, the young may spend several months with their parents, learning the skills necessary for survival.

I visited Art Tilley several times last summer, even after the owls dispersed. As we sat on his back porch, enjoying his Saturday morning tradition of pancakes and coffee, we talked of hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits. I expect we’ll be friends for a long time. We can thank the barred owls for that.

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

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