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Washburn: Nighttime crooner has expanded its range
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Washburn: Nighttime crooner has expanded its range

From the Our environment: Winter 2020-2021 series
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A barred owl - Clayton County, Iowa

In addition to the trademark “who cooks for you,” the barred owl also adds many additional sounds to its repertoire – especially during the early spring nesting season. When an enthusiastic crooner goes into full "Monkey Mode," the sound will raise the hair on the back of your neck.

 The barred owl’s signature greeting -- “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” – would be hard to mistake for any other sound. That distinctive call is currently echoing through winter woodlands statewide. Although once a rare sound across much of Iowa, the baritone hooting is becoming increasingly familiar to both rural and urban residents.

Slightly smaller than its great horned cousin, the barred owl is characterized by dark eyes, vertically striped breast plumage, rounded head, and a complete lack of ear tufts. Like most of their kind, barred owls are largely nocturnal, are equipped with silky feathers enabling totally silent flight, have excellent hearing, and poses extraordinary night vision. Less aggressive than the horned owl, barred owls are premier mousers and subsist largely on a rodent diet. They prefer to nest in natural tree cavities but will also utilize specially constructed wooden nest boxes.

Curious barred owl

A barred owl occupies a winter woodland. Easily distinguished by its large size, dark eyes, rounded head and lack of ear tufts, barred owls are becoming an increasingly common resident across most of Iowa. 

Historically, barred owls were common inhabitants of the heavily timbered blufflands bordering the Mississippi River, and in southern Iowa’s extensive forest lands. But times have changed. Today, the species can be found wherever mature, cavity producing trees exist. And although no one can say for certain why the barred owl has recently expanded its range, there is no arguing that the species has proven to be extremely successful at that endeavor. No longer confined to the quiet seclusion of Iowa’s larger forests, barred owls are currently staking territories in farmstead windbreaks, along interior tributary streams, and in city parks across the state. During recent years, they have even become increasingly common residents of our most densely populated, residential neighborhoods.

Squinty eyed barred owl

Some barred owls, especially those living in urban areas, may exhibit an uncommon tameness, showing mild curiosity instead of fear when cautiously approached. Instead of taking wing, others will go “squinty-eyed” when spotting potential danger. The owls apparently think the behavior will aid in becoming invisible to intruders.

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Of the half dozen owl species that inhabit our Iowa woodlands, none produce more volume or generate a greater variety of calls than the barred owl. In addition to the trademark “who cooks for you,” the barred owl adds many additional sounds to its repertoire – especially during the early spring nesting season. I won’t (and can’t) attempt to describe the species’ maniacal caterwauling. Let’s just say that when an enthusiastic crooner goes into full "Monkey Mode," the sound will raise the hair on the back of your neck.

But don’t take my word for it. Instead, don an extra layer of winter clothing, pull on your insulated boots, and go hear the sounds for yourself. You’ll find the excursion to be well worth the effort. Few landscapes are more beautiful than a snow-covered winter woodland bathed in full moonlight. Add the vocalizations of resident owls, fox and coyotes, and you’ll treasure the memory for a long time to come.

Eyes on you

A closer look at the barred owl.

Included on my list of top areas for conducting your owl hike are The Nature Conservancy’s Clausen’s Cove Area located on Clear Lake’s south shore, Pilot Knob State Park near Forest City, and the Lime Creek Nature Center located at the north edge of Mason City. All three areas offer low impact trails that make nighttime navigation a piece of cake.