The first sounds of spring......
I was returning from my daily walk along a trail through my woods. It was a path I knew well in all seasons, and the critters knew me even better than I knew them. I might catch the fleeting glimpse of a bobcat moving in advance of my progress, and there was the forever present red squirrel who never tired of scolding me for daring to venture onto his turf.
This day was a little different than the preceding days, in that the first coating of snow blanketed the world, sparkling in the dying light of the afternoon. I was moving a little more quickly than normal since dusk was approaching, but still was surprised at the sudden alarm calls of the Blue Jays. Surely, they still knew and recognized me, even though I had picked up my pace. I stopped and looked up and around to try and localize the upset flock.
I hadn’t stopped but for a few seconds when I heard it – “Who Cooks for YOU? Who Cooks for YOU AAAAALLLLLLLL?”. The delightful call of the Barred Owl ringing through the woods. Now it made more sense. The jays had spotted the owl well before I had heard the call, and were making sure everyone else in the woods knew that there was a predator afoot. Likely with good reason, too – since Barred Owls are adept predators of birds, which may comprise up to 50% of their diet! They are such good hunters that they are able to take prey up to about half their size, such as Long-eared owls.
The Barred Owl is well known for dramatic vocalizations. The very familiar Who Cooks for YOU? Call is one of 13 studied vocalizations from this species. Both males and females will call, but the female tends to be higher pitched, slower in tempo, and she drags out the “aaaallllllll” longer and with more vibrato than the male tends to.
The purpose of the call is not completely understood, but it is thought that there is a territorial component, as well contact between mated adults. The calls I heard were a little early, as the peak calling period usually begins after dusk and lasts for about 2 hours, and then restarting again just before dawn.
Typically breeding season for these owls will start late winter, with egg laying dates being in March and April in this region of New England (earlier to our south and later to our north). Since I was hearing the call in what I would consider mid-winter, this made me suspect that perhaps the bird I heard calling was trying to get a jump on claiming his territory, and also stating his presence to any existing or potential mate. Optimism abounds and late winter is just around the corner!
That one familiar sound introduced into my afternoon just brightened my day, and reminded me with a warm glow of all of the workings of nature that go on invisibly in winter, and that indeed, spring really is right around the corner.