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Dove Key Ranch Wildlife Rehabilitation - Animal of the Month

Barred Owl
(Strix varia)

by Bonnie Wroblewski

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

This hapless barred owl veered too close to on-coming traffic while fixated on a tasty meal scuttling in a roadside ditch. Luckily, some warm-hearted passersby rescued the shocked and banged up hoot owl from the side of the street and brought him to Dove Key Ranch, where he’s receiving much-needed cage rest and a plethora of mice-filled meals.
Barred Owl - Strix varia
The Barred Owl
Photo courtesy Dove Key Ranch Wildlife Rehabilitation

Barred Owls in Texas:

Standing 16-25 inches tall and with wingspans of up to 4ft, these large, ear-tuft-less raptors are commonly known as the eight hooter or rain, hoot, striped, or wood owl. The “hoot” of their colloquial names derives from their distinctive “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all” call. Although barred owls are nocturnal in their habits, they are easily flushed from leafy roosts during the sunlight hours and are more often heard than any other owl species during the day. If you are lucky enough to stumble upon one in your wanderings through the dense woods of eastern Texas, you may be most begrudgingly regarded with gruff barking followed by an agitated hoo-ah.

One glimpse into (huge) warm brown eyes and you’ll be even more certain who your feathered find is. Barred owls are the only owls in the eastern U.S. with chocolate-hued eyes. All other eastern hooters bear strikingly bright yellow gazes. Whether they come in shades of coffee or sparks of golden, owl eyes are so large that they leave almost no room for accompanying muscles in the orbit to help adjust their direction with respect to moving objects. Instead, owls are equipped with flexible necks and can swivel their heads up to 270 degrees to follow targets in motion. Owls’ sizeable eyes are packed with retinal rods, endowing them with ten times the light sensitivity that human eyes possess and providing them with excellent vision in the dimly lit conditions that define their nocturnal predilections as well as in the sunshine of the brightest day. However, you won’t be able to share the joys of a freshly picked bouquet of Texas wildflowers with your keen-eyed discovery: owls are nearly colorblind, having jammed light-sensitive rods into their retinas to the exclusion of color- receptive cones.

Barred owls combine their exceptional vision with excellent hearing and devastatingly powerful talons to proficiently slay a diverse array of prey: from ground-dwelling rats, mice, voles, shrews, moles, rabbits, weasels, young opossums, snakes, and lizards to arboreally-situated bats, woodpeckers, jays, and, on rare occasions, smaller owls. Aqua-philiacs that they are, eight hooters frequently wade into the water to dine on fish, small turtles, frogs, salamanders, and even crayfish. To top off the dusk or night’s foraging expedition, they may drop by the local street lamp buffet to collect the moths, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, scorpions, and other invertebrates that are inevitably drawn to these bright lights. Any indigestible material from the evening’s fare, such as feathers, fur, or beetle carapaces, are clumped together and regurgitated as hard pellets that litter the forest floor beneath favorite roosting sites.

With a lifespan of up to ten years in the wild and a tendency to be non-migratory, these long-lived homebodies may leave quite a pile of owl pellets under that favorite perch. In addition to territorial fidelity, barred owls will re-use the same productive tree cavity or recommissioned crow, squirrel, or red-shouldered hawk nest year after year to raise two to four awkward fuzzy puffs of chicks, which will hopefully fledge within four to five weeks after hatching. Reenacting the typical saga of many newly independent youth, the stripey-chested juveniles return to mom and dad to beg for handouts until they learn to be efficient hunters on their own.

Researchers have found that barred owl populations have been more rapidly expanding in suburbia-infused areas than in Old Growth forests, so unfortunate collisions between vehicles and eight-hooters, especially non-roadwise young, are on the rise. When you’re driving at dusk or after dark, keep an eye out for these hunters of the night. If an owl is focused on its prey, it won’t be watching for you. And, if you see one floundering by the side of the road, pull over and offer assistance. A few minutes of your time and a call to a wildlife rehabilitator may mean a second chance at a long life for the hooter and countless generations of rodent-and bug-exterminating barred owls to come.

© Bonnie Wroblewski
http://www.dovekeywildlife.org
April 6, 2011
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