The Demands of Parenthood: Observations of a Barred Owl Family in The Preserve
A family of Barred Owls, Strix varia, are living in a large natural cavity in a dead oak tree snag in the UW Lakeshore Nature Preserve. The first time that I saw the Barred Owl family, there were three owlets in the nest cavity. One parent was keeping watch in a nearby tree, while the other parent was out hunting for food. Within the next few days, the owls had “branched”. The owlets were able to climb the trees using their beaks and talons. In branching, the owlet grabs the bark with its beak and walks with it’s feet up the trunk while flapping it’s wings. The owlets practiced branching in the nest by holding on to the sides of the cavity with their beaks and talons, flapping their wings vigorously. The larger and stronger of the owlets went several trees away from the nest, while the smallest owl with the most down stayed closer to home. Yesterday when I observed them again I discovered there are four Barred Owlets!!!
Here is the link to my pictures
When the owlets were awake, they would make frequent begging sounds which can be described as a squeaky hiss. The guardian parent would periodically reply with hissing sound. Click on this link and go to Juvenile Sound to hear the begging. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/sounds
I lucky enough to see about a dozen feedings. Prey that was captured were voles and fish. The hunting parent would bring the prey to the guardian parent. Next the parent would bring the whole feeding to the owlet, present it and rub the prey on the owlet’s face. I wonder what was the reason for this behavior? Owls locate their prey by their their highly advanced vision and superb hearing, so it was not to teach the owlet about smell. The parent brought the prey to another branch for shredding into little pieces that an owlet could easily gulp down. One time, the parent decided to eat the whole vole in a few gulps. After eating, the owls would clean their bills by rubbing them on a tree branch. My husband Jeff and I watched a parent owl fly down to the University Bay Marsh, bringing back fish to feed the young. Jeff saw the parent perched on a tree about 8 feet above the ground overlooking the marsh. I have alway thought of Ospreys and wading birds catching fish in University Bay, not owls!
The vigilant parent guardian also has the job of protecting the owlets against other animals and predators. I saw songbirds, woodpeckers and squirrels mob them, which is called non-predatory interspecific interaction. When the squirrels were attacking an owlet, the baby flapped it’s wings and hissed. The parent dive bombed the squirrels until they retreated. The Barred Owl’s main predators are other owls and hawks, as well as raccoons and weasels.
Another behavior observed was the parent preening an owlet. I do not know if the parent was caring for the feathers an/or removing parasites.
Barred Owls are crepuscular and nocturnal hunters, so they sleep a lot during the day. They are beautifully camouflaged while they remaining motionless perched or laying down on the branches.
Barred Owls are opportunistic predators that like to live in large, mature forests with both evergreen and deciduous trees near water. This habitat supports a diversity of prey and has large trees for nesting cavities. The UW Lakeshore Preserve provides just the perfect habitat for Barred Owls. The conservation of the UW Lakeshore Nature Preserve and Yahara Lakes watershed in these times is more important than ever,
Thanks to Alenka Weinhold and Glenda Denniston for sharing the Barred Owl family with me.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of North America, Barred Owl, Kurt M. Mazur and Paul C. James
Gisela Kutzbach and contributors