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There's a reason the barred owl is called the 'hoot owl'

Last week's column was devoted to the great gray owl. This week I will give center stage to the great gray's cousin. One of my favorite Minnesota owls -- indeed, one of the most common in our state -- is the barred owl. This owl, which resembles its great gray owl relative, is smaller than both the great horned and great gray. Its head has no feathered "ear" tufts, while its underside is streaked with a barring pattern.

The distinctive call of the barred owl is a familiar call of the woods: "Hoo, hoo, too-HOO; hoo, hoo, too-HOO, ahh." Its call is even better described, remembered and written as, "Who, cooks, for-you? Who, cooks, for-you, all?" No other owl gives a hoot like this owl's hoot.

In fact, the barred owl's hoot is the reason for another of its many common names -- hoot owl. Other not-so-common names include rain owl, wood owl, eight hooter, black-eyed owl, striped owl, swamp owl, and laughing owl.

The barred owl's common name stems from the horizontal barring of the upper breast and the vertically streaked plumage pattern of its belly and flank.

As well, the barred owl's Latin name, strix varia, has relevant meaning too. Strix is derived from the Latin word strizo, which means scream, whereas varia means variegated, which refers to the barred owl's plumage.

Here's an owl with perhaps the widest variety of vocalizations of any owl. Those of you unfamiliar with the nighttime language of barred owls are either in for a real treat, a real scare, or both. Barred owls are known to screech, scream, hiss, squeak, whisper, whistle, cry, bark, buzz, growl, and even laugh. These other, more bizarre sounds are produced anytime during the year, day or night. Yet it is during the late winter/early spring breeding season when barred owl couples become especially raucous.

Courtship calls are hard to describe, but Edward H. Forbush's quote within the pages of Arthur Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey illustrates it best. He wrote, "At one of my lonely wilderness camps in the month of March a pair of barred owls came to the trees over my campfire and made (the) night hideous with their grotesque love-making, banishing sleep during the evening hours. Their courting antics, as imperfectly seen by moonlight and firelight, were ludicrous in the extreme.

"Perched in rather low branches over the fire they nodded and bowed with half-spread wings, and wobbled and twisted their heads from side to side, meantime uttering the most weird and uncouth sounds imaginable. Many of them were given with the full power of their lungs, without any regard to the sleepers, while others were soft and cooing and more expressive of the tender emotions; sounds resembling maniacal laughter and others like mere chuckles were interspersed here and there between loud wha whas and hoo-hoo-aws."

Bent himself described one memorable experience of his own, relating, "Once while fire-lighting for deer in the Adirondacks, our canoe floated under an overhanging tree; the peaceful silence of our noiseless motion was rudely broken by a series of unearthly yells over our heads; fully expecting to see a panther, or at least a wildcat, jump into our canoe, we were greatly relieved to see a pair of barred owls fly away."

Such descriptiveness from these outdoorsmen about their experiences is admirable, as they fully and accurately capture the vocal essence of the barred owl. It's also telling why I receive at least one telephone call or e-mail each year from someone uncertain about what they had heard deep in the woods behind their homes. Frequently enough the cries of the dark forest are answerable to a pair of barred owls, not of the mountain lion so oft blamed and described as sounding like a "screaming woman" or "crying baby."

Of owls, barred owls are quite tolerant of people. On many occasions, I have delighted in eliciting their inquisitive callbacks and luring them to within mere yards by simply imitating the "who-cooks-for-you" call. It's a remarkable experience to not only observe barred owls up close, but to hear their vocalizations so near.

Another unforgettable experience occurred this past November as I sat in a tree. While scanning the woods for deer in the closing minutes of evening light, I heard a strange sound. Turning to face the direction of the noise, I was startled by the sight of a barred owl glaring at me from only three feet away. The bird, having just landed,perched on a limb for a few seconds, then blinked, squawked and flew off.

It won't be long before barred owls will commence courting and nesting again. Usually choosing a cavity inside a tree or, sometimes, an abandoned nest, a barred owl hen will lay two to four eggs, but usually just two. After an incubation period of about 21-28 days, the youngsters hatch.

Feeding them beak-to-beak tiny bits of flesh they tear from prey items, both parents tend to the nestlings until the young birds fledge about four to five weeks later. There's some evidence that barred owl parents continue feeding their offspring for as long as four months.

The barred owl, one of a dozen species of Minnesota owls, might not be the most recognizable of our inhabiting owls, but I would say this pleasing sounding owl has one of the most recognizable hoots as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife.