Winter is a quiet time in the deciduous forest. Most songbirds have fled to the tropics, and reptiles and amphibians brumate (a type of dormancy). Though most mammals are active, the short days and long nights make finding them a challenge. Often snow allows us to see the unseen through their tracks. Despite the challenges, listening in winter can reveal one of the stars of the show: owls.
Winter is the time of courting and nesting for most owls. Our area has two species of owls that are regularly seen or heard, one that is occasionally observed, and one that is rare.
Our most common owl is the barred owl (Strix varia). I hear barred owls regularly around Pope Lick where they are likely drawn to mature sycamores along the Fork and ancient beech trees in the uplands. Their call is unmistakable: who cooks for you… who cooks for you all… Like most owls, they vocalize mainly at night, and they are particularly active in winter when courting in preparation for nesting. Often you will hear two barred owls calling back and fourth. I have heard three at one time around Pope Lick. You can also try calling out to them; they are likely to respond.
The great-horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is the other common owl, though they are less commonly observed than the barred. Great-horned owls have been seen in The Parklands. They are larger, and more aggressive than the barred, and are less likely to be seen during daytime. Great-horned owls are among the earliest egg-layers, often laying in January. Courting and calling peaks in early winter and is a series of low hoots sounding like whose awake, me too…
Less common than barred and great-horned owls is the much smaller eastern screech owl (Otus asio). The robin-sized bird lives in deciduous woods and groves of trees with open ground nearby. The screech owl also has a distinctive vocalization, though it is more of a soft eerie trill than a screech. These owls nest in May and though their vocalizations can be heard year-round, with fall being the most common.
Our rare owl is the barn owl (Tyto alba). This owl formerly nested in caves and in cavities of very large trees. But with the clearing of over 99% of the forest during European settlement, the barn owl lost much of its breeding habitat. Highly adaptable, the species readily took to nesting in settlers’ barns and outbuildings. Now, like the barns, the owls are in decline. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife is encouraging residents to construct barn owl nest boxes in appropriate locations. At The Parklands, we are currently identifying ideal barn owl nest box locations with hopes of encouraging the species to reside here. As one of the most widely distributed animals on Earth, the barn owl is found on all continents except Antarctica. The barn owl makes a variety of shrills, screams, and hisses and nests in late winter and early spring.
In addition to these breeding species, a handful of other owls over-winter in Kentucky. These additional species can be found in any bird field guide. The vocalizations of the above mentioned species can be found at www.allaboutbirds.org. You’ll definitely want to check out the vocalization of the barn owl! More importantly, go outside this winter and listen for live owls.
About the Author
Michael Gaige became involved with 21st Century Parks in 2007 on a recommendation from his graduate adviser, Tom Wessels, author of Reading the Forested Landscape. His first project was to groundtruth the nearly 4,000 acres around Floyds Fork to discover and document interesting places park users will experience and learn about. He then compiled a Natural Areas Plan to ensure that the parks’ forests and meadows are well-tended, and park infrastructure is designed in accordance with the landscape’s history and ecological detail. Michael now works as a freelance ecologist and educator and lives in upstate New York. He returns to Louisville periodically to share with others his favorite places in The Parklands, and to visit his cherished old trees.