Birding Thursday: Barred Owl (Audio Edition!)

I remember after I first moved to the country, in 1998, being awoken at dawn by an unearthly sound.

“My god!” I thought. “What the hell is that? And will it ever shut up so I can go back to sleep?”

The answers turned out to be

  1. A pair of barred owls, calling back and forth to each other, and
  2. No, they will keep you awake for hours.

Eventually I discerned, amongst the sometimes chimpanzee-like shrieking, a hooting suggestive of an owl, and I looked up their call in my bird books and discovered it was a pair (or more) of barred owls. Over time, I became used to them. Even though they still sometimes woke me up, I was able to go back to sleep, despite the screeching and calling and hooting.

People think the country is so peaceful. Yes, sometimes it is. And sometimes you are trying to help make a documentary in your driveway and a pileated woodpecker keeps hammering during what is supposed to be your deeply meaningful parting line. But that’s a story for another time. Rather, it’s two posts for the future: one on pileated woodpeckers, and one about participating in a video to educate the public about health care access for people with disabilities.

Back to barred owls!

So, I was familiar with their calls. In fact, about three years ago, we even had a barred owl living near our house. We saw her during the day, because barred owls are sometimes active during the day, as well as night. She’d be in a tree nearby, or sitting on the bird-feeder pole, just hanging out, presumably waiting for some rodents to come looking for the seed spilled on the ground. (Barred owls don’t eat other birds, according to my bird books. Yet, the song birds stayed away while she was around.) We called her “Hedwig.” We were very fond of her.

We didn’t see her after that year, but at night I often hear barred owls calling to each other when I take Barnum out to toilet. The calls seem to be coming from my neighbors’ yard across the street. Indeed, my neighbor recently sent me this photo, saying, “We’ve been seeing this pair all summer.”

(Yes, they are as big as they look. As you’ll read in the Audubon description of them, they are almost two feet tall, with a wing span close to four feet!)

Night-time picture of two barred owls sitting right next to each other on a large, horizontal tree limb. Around them are leaves. They are highlighted in the center in light, and all around them is increasing darkness. One is looking down. The other is looking slightly down and to the side. They are clearly "a couple."

Aren't they adorable?

For the description, I’ll turn to my Audubon guide: “Length, 21 inches. Wingspan, three-feet-eight inches. Dark brownish gray with black spots above; heavily striped underparts; dark bars on upper chest; facial disk gray, ringed in black. Eyes brown; no ear tufts.”

The description my Audubon guide gives of their calls is pathetically inadequate. Here are some calls (and also some images) of adult barred owls from a youtube video. (I’m not providing a transcript or closed captioning because it’s really not possible to get across the sound.)

Okay, so I’m used to that.

Then, several weeks ago, I started to hear a strange, repetitive, loud, annoying animal call at night, all night. I could mimic it when I heard it, but by the next morning, I’d forgotten how it sounded, and couldn’t reproduce it. Finally, I posted to my town’s list-serv, describing it as sounding sort of like a slide-whistle, or someone sucking in an incredibly deep, long breath until they were about to gasp. I said it was repeated all night.

Someone on the list suggested that it was the call of one or more baby barred owls. Someone else in town called me to play me a recording of a barred owl pup juvenile, and yes, ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! They win the prize! That’s what it was.

Apparently, the baby owls call very persistently whenever the parents fly off to hunt, to let them know, “Hey! I’m over here! And I’m hungry! . . . Hey! I’m over here! I’m hungry! . . . Hey! . . .”

You get the idea.

One night, recently, it occurred to me to take my camera outside when I took Barnum out to pee to try to get a recording of the call. It is below. There’s no video — you just see black. I was only trying to capture the sound.

I believe I made the young owl nervous, rumbling toward it on the ramp, so it only called four times in these 37 seconds, which is not as frequent as usual. Also, I know it doesn’t sound that loud  and annoying on this recording, but this is a pretty old, crappy camera, not an audio recording device. In real life, they are much more piercing! (Crank up the volume to listen to it.)

Now, if you ever hear these calls, you will know who you are enjoying . . . as you lie awake past dawn. (Because,  yes, they continue hooting and caterwauling past sunrise!)

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I never even noticed the owl calls), and Barnum (who doesn’t pay the owls much mind in real life, but when I played the youtube video one night, started barking in alarm!)

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7 Responses to “Birding Thursday: Barred Owl (Audio Edition!)”


  1. 1 Nergler July 28, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Hedwig is an excellent name. The picture totally looks like a Hedwig. I couldn’t play the file, but I think that’s the iPad’s fault. I am going to look for a YouTube video that isn’t in Flash.

  2. 2 Michelle July 28, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    One of my hidden talents is a decent barred owl imitation!

    • 3 Sharon Wachsler July 28, 2011 at 10:27 pm

      Hidden no longer! Are you going to make a Youtube of yourself to share your talents with the world? Your adoring public awaits!

      Actually, I can do a pretty good imitation of the adults, too. I can do the juveniles while it’s fresh in my mind, but not long after.

  3. 4 rememberingniko July 29, 2011 at 6:57 am

    Such cute ‘little’ creatures. :) This post made me laugh, as I clearly remember the first time I heard a fox ‘scream’. I was still in high school and saying a long goodnight to a boyfriend outside, when we heard it. My parents house had a lot of foxes around, but I’d never heard this sound. We thought it was a woman screaming and we went in to get my parents thinking we should maybe call the police. My parents determined it was not human, and we did nothing. They talked to a neighbor who filled them in on what it was.

    I’ve heard foxes scream many times since then, and every time, it freaks me out a bit. Especially when I would be out for a 3 AM bathroom break with Niko, when there was no one else around, and the scream came from trees just a few feet away. I admit, there were times I picked Niko up and ran for the door. :)


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