Barred Owls: Ghostly Voice of the Swamp


“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” That’s the classic ghostly call of the Barred Owl, an owl very much at home in Oakland County. The rising and falling melody with a hint of a southern drawl in the last few syllables reminds naturalists that the owl’s breeding season is here. Yet, others less admiring of the raucous chorus of barred owls hooting back and forth may describe the sounds as the music of a troop of rowdy monkeys. That description  is very close to the truth.

Follow the Cornell Lab of Ornithology link to hear the calls of barred owls: 

Every now and then, a hiker might hear or even see a barred owl perched on a tree limb in daylight. Oakland County Parks, Huron-Clinton Metroparks and the State Recreation Areas of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (located in Oakland County) all host these beautiful raptors of the night. Barred owls favor wooded wetlands with nearby open areas for hunting; that means trailside swaths of Addison Oaks, Highland Oaks, Independence Oaks, Lyon Oaks, Rose Oaks and Springfield Oaks county parks are perfect barred owl habitats.img_9847

These large-sized owls usually nest in hollow trees close to swamps or creeks, but sometimes they take over and remodel the old nest of a crow or a hawk found in the uplands. Northern Oakland County is premier barred owl territory. All the photos are from the edge of my woods in Brandon Township. However, I have had also had daylight encounters with barred owls at the Ortonville State Recreation Area, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and way down south at Congaree National Park in the swamp lands of South Carolina. All three locations include wooded wetlands.

In winter, barred owls turn their attention to the movements of mice and voles and the occasional careless squirrel or rabbit, but their diet is a cornucopia of critters. They are still hunters and find a tree limb to perch on that overlooks a likely place for prey. The slightest movement or sound under the snow draws attention; in silent flight they glide to the ground and make the kill with sharp talons. Unfortunately, sometimes their hunt ends poorly and they become prey of the larger Great Horned Owl.

A ruffed grouse drumming on a log in spring is easy prey for a Barred Owl.

A ruffed grouse drumming on a log in spring is easy prey for a Barred Owl.

When warmer weather returns, some barred owls fish for their food at the water’s edge and take frogs, salamanders and even fish. Chipmunks, opossums and birds as big as grouse all fall prey to this opportunist hunter. Sometimes ruffed grouse mistakenly draw the attention of hungry barred owls when the strut and drum their wings on  moss covered logs in an attempt to attract a mate.

Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks.

Visit Oakland County Parks for details on the trails of all 13 Oakland County Parks.

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