One evening in early October while relaxing with my husband, I find myself unable to resist reading out loud from my nature book the following line: “Who Cooks For You?”
“What?” he quizzically replies?
“Whooooo-cooks-for-youuuuuuuu,” I sing out, trying to mimic an owl.
Chris just shakes his head, giving me an amused look, and asks, “What animal are we talking about now?”
My North American Wildlife book says that the owl’s call resembles the phrase “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” It makes one wonder about the origin of these interpretations or mnemonics of bird calls, and who exactly makes up these words to go with the songs they sing. I guess I have to concede, though, that all the owlish vocalizing going on right now really does sound like “who cooks for you, hoot hoot-tee hoot-hoot!”
This is the call of the barred owl, or hoot owl that, according to the Audubon Society, is a local breeding bird in much of Massachusetts. The barred owl is a raptor and it is illegal to kill or injure them, or even to hold them captive. Old abandoned pileated woodpecker holes are a favorite nest of these owls, and they will settle in, mate for life, and reuse the same nest every year. The parents share the care of the babies, and once they leave the nest, both parents still protect and feed the young until they are able to take care of themselves. In the spring the young birds move off and find their own territory.
The hoot owl is most territorial in the spring and fall, and all the hooting going on is to warn other owls that this area is taken. Several warnings are given and if the intruding owl stays too long, the other owl will fly to it and try to use more aggressive calling or to size them up. Physical contact is the last resort as sharp talons and beaks may be deadly to both fighters. During the summer they are very quiet while their young are learning to fly and feed themselves, since calling would attract the attention of predators that eat the young. Many owl species are most vocal just after sundown and then again just before sunrise. However, during courtship and the early breeding season, they often can be heard throughout the night. They are also quiet in the winter, as they do not defend a territory at this time of year. Barred owls are very light, weighing in at only one pound, but appear to be larger with a wingspan of 50 inches and a height of almost two feet.
Mass Audubon lists seven breeding owls of Massachusetts: Eastern Screech, Great Horned, Barred, Long-eared, Short-eared, Barn, and the Northern Saw-whet owl. Of all these owls, our area is most populated with the barn owl, the great horned and barred owls, and
Possibly, the eastern screech owl as well. The screech owl, though, is listed as being “the most common owl in Massachusetts and a permanent resident throughout the state, except in the high hill areas of western Massachusetts.” However, I do believe I have heard their eerie, whistling “whinny” that can be such an unnerving scream in the night.
The great horned owl is our largest and our second most common owl. Its hooting, which is mellow and very deep, can be heard on winter nights in much of rural Massachusetts. Owl vocalizations range from hoots to whistles, screeches, screams, purrs, snorts, and hisses. Not all owl species hoot. Owls can also make clicking noises with their tongues to be threatening, and may also clap their wings as part of a mating display.
Owls generally roost singly or in pairs, but may form flocks outside of the breeding season. A flock of owls is called a “parliament!” Owls can be amusing to watch, as they have very expressive body language, and will bob and weave their heads as if curious about something. As birds of prey, they are great hunters with special adaptations and unique abilities. The forward facing aspect of the eyes are what give an owl its “wise” appearance, but it also gives it a wide range of binocular vision. Together with acute hearing, powerful talons and beak, they are a formidable predator. Owls can fly silently to hunt down prey. The outer edges of their
feathers adapted in such a way that there is no sound when the wings flap, making the owl the original stealth bomber.
Now, the next time you are out on an evening stroll and you hear a voice off in the woods asking, “Who cooks for you?” you won’t have to say, “Who wants to know?” !
Barred (Hoot) Owl
Previously published in the New Marlborough 5 Village News, November 2007