Joan Carson: The owls have come out

Barred owls will eat just about anything they can catch, including not-so-small mammals like foxes and opossums.
Barred owls will eat just about anything they can catch, including not-so-small mammals like foxes and opossums. Staff file, 2015

Halloween is still three months away, but the owls are out and about.

I discovered this when a friend called to report a family of barred owls in her yard. It consisted of one adult and two youngsters. This was a new event and is one more illustration of how this owl’s territory has been expanding for many years now. Charlotte was excited about the owls’ visit, but I played the part of a killjoy. She described the young as “cute” and kind of “cuddly-looking.” They are anything but cuddly, but of course they are cute. All young animals are. Just the same, these are raptors and fierce hunters.

Barred owls will eat just about anything they can catch, including not-so-small mammals like foxes and opossums. When it comes to humans, it’s a little different. They aren’t particularly afraid of people. I saw my first barred owl in West Virginia, at a campground in a mountain forest. One of these owls took up a perch in a medium-size tree behind our cabin. You could watch it during the day and also often hear it. Instead of the well-known, “who-cooks-for-you?” it gave out a screeching cry that made your hair stand on end. I’ve heard that same call in the Cascade foothills this side of Ellensburg

While this owl may not look upon people as prey, they will attack a person who gets too close to their nesting territory or young. When Charlotte said she could probably walk right up to the fledglings and get a photograph, I was anything but enthusiastic. The late Eric Hosking, a well-known wildlife photographer, lost his eye to a tawny owl. He didn’t blame the bird. He was too close to its nest and young.

Charlotte knows all of this, and I know she won’t try to get too involved with these creatures. She was wanting only to share what was a special experience and make me understand how charming the young ones were. I would probably react in the same way. How could you not be charmed by two fluffy teenage owlets? Just the way they sat on the branch where their parent had parked them was special. They were snuggled tightly against one another, but one sat facing in one direction and the other faced the opposite way. Add to this the way owls swivel their heads almost all the way around and you know they are seeing everything.

Historically speaking, barred owls were inhabitants in the eastern forests of North America. They began moving westward in the late 20th century, and the move was dramatic. “Birds of Washington: Status and Distribution,” by Wahl, Tweit and Mlodinow, contains some interesting statistics on this owl. They were first recorded in Washington in 1965, but there is the suggestion that they were here even before then. This record was from Pend Oreille County in the eastern part of the state. The first recorded sighting for Western Washington was in 1972. The first confirmed nesting was in 1975 in Skagit County. They reached our coast and the San Juan Islands in the 80s.

Even though this westward expansion of barred owls meant they had crossed the country from Maine to Washington, there were plenty of areas that hadn’t heard or seen them. That doesn’t seem the case today. Most of us, whether we live in rural and forested areas or near urban and suburban parks and other wooded areas, stand a good chance of seeing and/or hearing this owl in our neighborhood. Charlotte’s yard will probably continue to be home to a barred owl family. It’s going to be interesting to see how things progress, and we don’t have to wait until Halloween.

Write to Joan Carson at P.O. Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Or email joanpcarson@comcast.net.