I have encountered Barred Owls at various places – in Washington, DC when I led bird walks in Rock Creek Park; in Heron Pond in southern Illinois where one haunted the cypress swamp with its booming “Who-cooks-for-you-Who-cooks-for-you-aaalll?”; on a telephone wire, staring at me quizzically and unafraid, in a wooded subdivision in Portland, Oregon. But I had never heard nor seen one in Barrington.
That changed a couple years ago when my husband and I were hiking in Cook County’s Spring Creek Forest Preserve in what’s known as the 160 tract (for the approximately 160 acres it encompasses). We were both startled by hoots that pierced the stillness, and both knew immediately what creature had made them. So incredulous was I at the time that I wondered aloud if someone nearby might be playing a recording. But there was no one around, probably for miles.
A season earlier a photographer friend who, at the time, was en route to search with me for a Long-eared Owl near Galloping Hill, another part of Spring Creek Forest Preserve, spotted an owl perching on a roadside tree. He stopped long enough to identify (and photograph) it as a Barred Owl. I was envious.
The situation changed drastically last September.
One very early morning before dawn I was awakened to the unmistakable hoots of a Barred Owl. I woke my husband so that he could listen, too. Later that morning I learned that our neighbor also had heard the owl. We continued to monitor its vocal presence – it caught our attention with its hoots on an unpredictable but regular basis and it became clear that there were at least two – and wondered if the pair might select our woodland to raise a brood.
I don’t know the answer to that question yet but I suspect that it’s yes. Several times in the ensuing months I’ve encountered one of the owls in broad daylight – perched on a low branch outside a large entryway window (the unusual shape caught my eye as I passed by and it took me several seconds to realize its identity), standing on the rock wall just outside our back door, flying casually through the woodland when I’ve taken a walk there. Both birds continue to startle us with their sudden, silence-shattering hoots at odd moments, often in broad daylight.
Unlike most owls, the Barred Owl (Strix varia) does not restrict its activity nor its calling to nighttime. It’s one of the easier species of owl, other than the Short-eared Owl, to spot during the day. On a Citizens for Conservation bird walk this spring at Beverly Lake Forest Preserve, one of the participants spotted an owl gliding silently along the slope of a glacial ridge; a bit later, we all got to watch a pair of Barred Owls as they flew through the trees.
While my local experience had been devoid of Barred Owls until recently, Robert Ridgway wrote in his 1889 Birds of Illinois that it was “by far the most numerous species of owl in wooded portions of the State.” He goes on to describe their “nocturnal concerts”, sometimes involving several birds: “One appears to tell some joke or do something funny, at which the rest set up a hearty though demoniacal he-he-he-he, hi-hi-hi-hi, ha-ha-ha-ha, – and the uncanny company is boisterously hilarious for a few moments, when the solitude of night again reigns supreme.”
Perhaps with the influx of more of its kind, the Barred Owl will become a regular Barrington resident and its concert will be a spontaneous event that more and more of us can enjoy.
About Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands.
She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.