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Jan 21, 2019 1:51 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The Barred Owl

A barred owl residing on Fishers Island. Note its brown and white barred feather pattern, lack of “ear” tufts and dark eyes.  FISHERS ISLAND NATURALIST JUSTINE KIBBE FISHERS ISLAND NATURALIST JUSTINE KIBBE
Jan 21, 2019 1:51 PM

There are several wildlife distribution “mysteries” related to Long Island. Among them are the lack of coniferous-loving red squirrels in our pine barrens and a reasonably large number of great blue herons here year-round with nesting populations to the north in Westchester and Connecticut and to the west in New Jersey but none nesting here on Long Island. Ornithologist John Bull would add the barred owl to the list.In his classic book, “Birds of the New York Area,” published in 1964, he writes, “One of the mysteries of bird distribution is that of the barred owl on Long Island and in coastal Massachusetts. Although this species is common enough on the coastal plain from Florida to New Jersey, it has always been a very rare bird on Long Island, and is lacking on the coastal plain of Massachusetts.”

The barred owl (Strix varia) is slightly smaller than our largest nesting owl—the great horned owl—standing 17-20 inches tall with a wingspan of 39-40 inches. Unlike the great horned and screech owls, it lacks the feather ear tufts, making its head appear completely round in shape. Large dark brown, nearly black, eyes also distinguish it from the other two species.

The barred owl is named for its mottled brown and white feather pattern, with horizontal bars across its neck, back and tail, vertical bars across its breast, and concentric rings of bars around its face and head. Males and females have similar plumage; females are slightly larger than the males.

Their diet is quite varied, with rodents and other small mammals (e.g. cottontail rabbit) comprising the largest component, but they will also prey on birds, reptiles, amphibians and even fish! An online photo depicts a barred owl swooping over a small pond and snatching up a frog from the surface, obviously in daylight. I was surprised to see that it did not grab the frog in its talons, but caught it in its bill.

Well-known naturalist and author Donald Stokes writes that “The barred owl is an extremely vocal bird and it is not uncommon to hear it hooting away even in the middle of a summer day.” I first experienced its repertoire of vocalizations while the resident naturalist at New Hampshire Audubon’s Willard Pond Sanctuary. It was late February, and the beginning of the barred owl’s mating season. I was very familiar with the classic “hoo hoo hoohoo, hoo hoo hoo-awww” which has been translated into English as “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all?”

However, this night I heard a wild frenzy of calls from forest that I described to my ornithology professor, Meade Cadot, as sounding like a troop of excited and agitated monkeys. That elicited a laugh over the phone, and the explanation, “That’s a pair of barred owls doing their mating duet.” Wow ... nothing subtle about these lovers!

The more common “who cooks for you” call is thought to be a territorial vocalization. Both sexes vocalize, and barred owls maintain a territory throughout the year, not just during the breeding season. Some winters, when prey is scarce, the female will stay and maintain the territory while the male leaves to find better hunting grounds.

Their territories average a square mile, and comprise a habitat of unfragmented mature forest, often near water. Their nests might be a retrofit of a deserted hawk, crow or even squirrel nest, the latter’s leaf and twig roof flattened into a bowl shape but very little material added. More commonly, they choose a large tree cavity, at least 20 feet off the ground with an entrance hole six inches or greater in diameter.

In the early 1900s, 11 active barred owl nests were found on Staten Island. Urbanization since then has made that island unsuitable for the forest dweller. Five nests were recorded for Long Island up until 1942: Jericho in Nassau County, Heckscher State Park, East Patchogue, Sag Harbor and Shelter Island.

None were documented over the 40 years since until, in 1983, a nest was found on a part of Suffolk County that many county residents are unfamiliar with: Fishers Island. Although only four square miles in size, and fragmented by development, it apparently has enough mature forest and a suitable mix of wetlands in a protected greenbelt to support a nesting pair. Gardiners Island, at six square miles and with a sizeable mature forest, is another potential nesting area that might entice a pair in the future.

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