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The date is April 2, 2006.  I am in the deep south, USA.  I have been hearing hoots from what I think are owls for about a month now.  Down here it's nice out early in the year and I have looked up many times to try to catch a glimpse of the owls, but no sightings.  This day, I am up at 7 a.m. and I do my usual walk out the door to the deck to enjoy the morning quiet.  Immediately, I notice an unfamiliar blob with a face.  It's an Owl sitting on a nearby branch!  I could knock him off the branch with a broomstick if I wanted - he's that close!  He watches me, but doesn't move.

I stand out there for 30 minutes at least, but he still doesn't move. In fact, he gets bored with me and turns his head the other way when he hears a sound.  He's 15 feet up a tree and I am of no significance, apparently.  I have to get on with my day, so I go about my business, but am back at 9:30 a.m.  He's still there. 

This is going to go on for a while, so I get on the internet and brush up on Barred Owl behavior.  More on that later.

10:30 - he's still there.

12:30 - he's still there.

3:00 - he's still there.

4:00 - I hear owl hoots.  I rush out the door to see, and sure enough, there's a BIG owl in the tree above the house.  I realize after all day that I have been watching a baby.  He never makes a peep.  He can't even fly apparently. My research tells me that he is called a "brancher".  Branchers are too big to fit in the nest anymore, but are still too young to fly on their own, so they sit in a tree branch with their parents' guidance for days while they make the transition.   We had a wild storm the night before and no telling how he got there, but he's stuck for now. 

Evening finally comes.  By now, both parents are evident.  They are perching nearby but really high up.  We have 100+ foot trees around here and they stay well out of reach.  The squirrels know something is amiss and are chattering loudly.  Right at dusk, one runs up a branch about 10 feet from my deck and out of nowhere and silently, a big owl swoops down and tries to pluck him off the branch.  He survives that attack, but I heard squirrel screams later and I think they finally got him.  I know he knew they were there and I wonder if there's such a thing as an idiot in the squirrel world. 

It's 10:00 p.m. and I have two big dogs that do their thing in the back yard.  I have kept them pretty much inside all day, but it is getting to the point.  The owl is still in the tree. I let them out and they stay for about long enough to take care of business and then are scratching at the door like the devil is after them.  I go out on the deck and it takes me a minute to adjust.  It strikes me that there are no insect or bird sounds.  I look up at a U in a nearby branch, and there he is - a big owl.  I freeze and he stares at me for a while.  I put my hand up to brush hair out of my eye, and he "clicks"  twice.  Pictures don't do justice.  In the dark of night, these birds look like the devil incarnate.  No wonder there is so much scary folklore related to them.  I make a hasty retreat back into the house to watch from behind the safety of the window glass.

The next morning, the baby owl is gone.  I go out back accompanied by my two dogs and we slowly walk the yard.  We get to the back of the yard (that admittedly needs attention), and suddenly I see two big owls fly out of a bramble thicket in the corner of the yard.  As I move forward through fairly thick brush, I hear a "click, click".  I turn to see the little guy about 2 feet from my face.  That's his picture above.  It's the best I could do without spooking him.   The dogs don't see him so we retreat and they get food to make them forget to want out.  Works every time.

Unfortunately, I have to go out for the day and I leave my daughter at the house.  She leaves both dogs out, and when I return, they are both grinning at me from out back. I rush out with them in hot pursuit and the baby owl is gone.  Apparently,  he learned to fly in a hurry or his parents whisked him away.  There are no signs of struggle in the yard or feathers scattered anywhere, so I assume he made it out alive. The dogs generally like their food cooked anyway.

So here's what I have learned in the last couple of days about Barred Owls:

As with all owls, the Barred Owls are mostly nocturnal animals, although this particular type of owl is evident on and off all through the day.  Their call is unmistakable - hoo hoo, hoo hooooo.  They "roost" (sit in branches) much of the day, usually pretty high up, and start to hunt near the time of dusk.  Their feathers are made for quiet flight and they catch their food by swooping in silently and picking it up with their talons.  They eat small animals, such as squirrels, lizards, insects, and small birds.  They are obviously feared by small animals and you can tell if one is in the area by the screeching of the squirrels, who are always on the lookout and have a communication system in place to warn of avian predators.

Barred owls are the least fearful of all the owls when it comes to interacting with people, and will pretty much sit right in your face and stare you down.  They may attack to protect their young, and I think the ones here may have dive-bombed my dogs.  I was actually a bit worried I was going to be attacked too at one point.  The rule of thumb seems to be keep your distance, especially from their young,  and they will do the same. 

Barred owls apparently mate for life, though they don't live together except when raising young.  They are territorial birds and often mates will occupy adjacent territories during non-breeding seasons.  They don't build nests like other birds, but take advantage of hollows in trees or old nests from other big birds. The nest in my yard was maybe 25 feet off the ground, which is low for a barred owl nest.  You won't see barred owls unless there are high, old growth trees and water of some sort in the area (I have a backyard garden pond). Their young are helpless and sightless at birth and don't learn to fly for quite a long time.  Baby barred owls are about as cute as babies get.  They are fat and fuzzy and they sit on their butts with their feet out like Big Bird.  They stay in the brancher stage for a few weeks, and although they can't fly, they can run and climb trees.  If you find one in the yard, just leave it alone - you can be sure mom and pop are well aware of where he is and are watching from somewhere high above.  The parents won't make their presence widely known until later in the day for fear that they will attract the attention of their arch enemy, the crow, and give away the baby's whereabouts.  However, as soon as dusk settles in, they will become very apparent in the area of the baby, flying low and landing on nearby branches. They are majestic, beautiful birds in flight. 

All owls are protected by law and it is illegal to harm them or own them. Particularly with barred owls, if you take them in and try to make pets out of them, you will ruin them for life and they will never be able to go back into the wild because they won't identify with their own kind anymore.  If you run across an injured owl, call the local animal control and they should be able to put you in touch with someone certified to work with protected wildlife. 



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