Crazy monkey love or amorous owls?

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barred owlhrA barred owl peers from its winter hideaway.   Rob Hunter/Hellbender Press

February kicks off the season of love for region's barred owls

The frosty woods may be relatively quiet today, but soon the hilltops and hollers will echo with deep, resonant voices.

Barred owls (Strix varia) are our second-largest resident owl here in the Southeast, second only to the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus).  With their fluffier plumage, doe-eyed countenance and round profiles lacking ear tufts, barred owls don’t have quite the fierce appearance of their more formidable neighbors. They’re also generally easier to observe. Often active in the daytime and fond of low perches, barred owls occasionally make themselves visible to lucky woodland wanderers. More often, though, they are heard rather than seen. Their breeding season may extend into summer, but courtship generally fires up in February and peaks in March. This is my favorite time to seek them out on the woodland slopes, usually near water, that they call home.

Barred owls are not easy to find per se, but they definitely make themselves more conspicuous when looking for love. Their best-known call is an eight-beat hoot often verbalized as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all?” with the final “y’all” drawn out in a dramatically descending, tremulous wail. They sometimes give the wail alone or as crescendo following a series of ascending hoots.

To hear any of these sounds echoing through a twilight woods can fill one with awe, but they give another vocal performance that is generally only heard when an amorous pair of owls meets up. This call, for lack of a better term, is often referred to simply as the “monkey call.”

A caterwauling cacophony of simian sounds explodes from a dense grove of hemlocks. Have chimpanzees escaped from the local zoo? Nope, just a couple of night birds seeking romance. People who hear these calls without knowing the caller are often understandably perturbed. More than once I’ve been awakened suddenly in my tent when such a liaison takes place in a tree over my campsite, and I can say it’s a bit unsettling, even knowing the avian source.

So when you’re walking in the woods over the next few weeks, keep an eye and an ear out for these lovebirds as they’re at their most vocal. And if you hear what sounds like a troop of monkeys hailing the setting sun, just remember that, more likely than not, you’re just hearing the music of owls in love.

Audubon has a 2-minute podcast for you to
'Hear the Many Different Hoots of the Barred Owl'

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Published in Creature Features