Familiar, Mysterious Barred Owl Produces "Caterwauling"

By Don Jordan

"Did you hear that? It was a hissing sound? What is that?" asked a house guest one spring evening.

Yes, I heard it, but the only thing I could think of that makes a sound like that is a Barn Owl. But I had never seen a Barn Owl anywhere close in the neighborhood, and the sound we heard wasn’t all that close to a Barn Owl’s peculiar and instantly recognizable, hissing vocalization.

We listened to every call I could find in my bird call recording library and checked a score of internet recordings to no avail. Nothing matched our mystery call. This is a phenomenon I have found often when trying to match a bird song or call with a recording. The many excellent recordings on the market seldom give you any bird’s total repertoire.

In the case of owls, where nobody really seems to know the extent of their vocalization repertoire, many calls are not on any commercial recordings. I did suspect an owl was the source of the hissing call we heard that night, however, and that suspicion was verified a few days later.

I heard the hissing call during daylight and stepped outside to find a Barred Owl perched on an oak limb just outside the screen. It produced the hissing calling as I watched, and another, similar but higher reply came from a nearby tree. There perched another, larger owl, and according to every guide book I have read, the female is larger than the male.

The smaller bird, the one within 15 feet of the upstairs porch, hissed again, this time accompanying the call with some odd, very owl-like head movements. The female hissed back, and the male opened its wings, revealing its impressive wings and body. The mystery of the hissing call was solved, but I discovered more mystery than fact in Barred Owl biology sources.

It is odd that so little is known about the behavior of this large, widespread species. Barred owls live in the entire eastern U.S. and into Canada. The species has spread across Canada and now resides in most of British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest and Montana and even as far south as northern California. Chances are that if you see a large owl, it is probably a Barred Owl, as they are more active in daylight hours than other owls are thought to be.

It is the Barred Owl’s other, more familiar calls that make it so well-known to humans. Various guide books describe it as: "Who Cooks For You? Who Cooks For You-all?" The description hardly covers the startling nature of a Barred Owl, or a group of them, outside your window at 3 a.m.

"Groups of two or more often make a loud, excited caterwauling," says Smithsonian’s Birds of North America. While a good description, it doesn’t come close to the experience. The racket can bolt you upright in the bed, raise the hair on the nape of your neck and send chills up and down your spine.

"My" pair of owls has been hanging around the house for a couple of years, making plenty of caterwauling, but the hissing and head bobbing and wing-flapping is a first. It is a sign this pair is probably going to nest.

Barred Owls are cavity nesters, but they are very adaptive and are known to occupy vacated crow nests and hawk nests. They are said to be particularly fond of abandoned Red-shouldered Hawk nests, and there is one of those in a huge pine near the house. They also said to be monogamous, at least for the duration of a nesting season.

Owls in general are peculiar. Their eyes face forward instead of being arranged on the side of their heads like most birds—all the better to see their prey during nocturnal hunting. While owls cannot rotate their heads 360 degrees, they can turn it almost all the way around to look over their shoulders. Their ear openings are staggered, probably to provide better sound location at night. And, their feathers are "fluffy" on the edges, a feature which baffles the sound of their wings. Owls also have exceptional eyes, and the Barred Owl's eyes are black and its bill is yellow. This is an identifying field mark, as most other owls have yellow eyes.

One source notes that for humans to be able to see as well as owls can, we would have to have eyes the size of tennis balls! Owls are stealth hunters, and you can see how these adaptations must benefit them.

Barred owls will nest in nesting boxes provided by humans, and there is a wealth of information, and even nestbox cams, on the internet.

Birders and hunters alike find owl recordings useful in eliciting responses from owls and other birds. Turkey hunters know a Barred Owl call with stimulate a vocal response from gobblers, and birders can bring owls closer by playing recordings in the field.

Although owls look somewhat like hawks, DNA analysis reported in Sibley’s Guide to Bird Life and Behavior links them most closely to the nightjars. That means owls are most closely related to nighthawks and whip-poor-wills. Their hawk-like appearance is said to be due to "parallel" evolution where two unrelated species develop similar adaptations to perform similar jobs as in bats vs. birds.

Click here for Barred Owl links, sounds, pictures.


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