A Barred Owl Family

Barred Owl fledgling

Last year a friend told me about a Barred Owl nest at a trail fairly close to where I live. I checked it out a few times over the summer – the nest was located in a natural tree cavity – but saw no owls on any of my visits. I completely forgot about the owls until I visited again late in April 2019 and someone told me that an owl was sitting out in the open. I was delighted, as this was a species I needed for my year list. I found the owl fairly easily, sitting quietly on a branch along a different part of the trail, and when I continued on to the nest I was happy to see that it was occupied as evidenced by the tail visible within the entrance.

In the north, Barred Owls start their courtship activities in February, while eggs are generally laid in March or April. Barred Owls typically nest in tree cavities, such as this one, or in man-made nest boxes. However, they have also been reported using stick platform nests built by hawks, crows, ravens, or squirrels.

Barred Owl on nest (late April)

The female lays between two and four eggs, each being laid a day or two apart, and starts incubating them as soon as the first one is laid – the male does not take part in the incubation, but instead spends his time hunting and bringing food to the female. While Barred Owls feed chiefly on small mammals and rabbits, they will also eat amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, and birds up to the size of a grouse – including other owls. Finding food is achieved by sitting and waiting on an elevated perch, then watching and listening for prey to come into range.

Barred Owl (male) in early May

Barred Owl on nest in early May

The incubation period lasts for about a month, usually between 28 and 33 days. The nestling period lasts about another month, so it takes about two months from the time the female first starts incubating to when the young are able to leave the cavity or nest. Although they only raise one brood each year, their season is long enough so that if the first nesting attempt fails in the early spring, they have time to attempt a second clutch before the summer.

On a visit in mid-May I was surprised to see no sign of the owl in the tree cavity – had she gone hunting, or was she nestled in deep enough so that her tail wasn’t showing?

Empty Nest (mid-May)

There was an owl nearby, presumably the male; the female should have an obvious brood patch by now – that is, a bare patch of skin well-supplied with blood vessels that transfers her body heat to the eggs when she is incubating. He was busy preening, so while his belly feathers look disorganized, subsequent photos show them his belly fully covered in feathers.

Barred Owl preening (mid-May)

Barred Owl (mid-May)

In late May, the entire tail was sticking out of the nest cavity, a sign that it was becoming cramped – I did not hear or see them, but it seemed that the young Barred Owl chicks had hatched and were growing larger.

Barred Owl on Nest (late May)

A week later, the nest was no longer occupied – the Barred Owls had produced two chicks which were now beginning to adapt to life outside the tree cavity. At about four weeks of age, the chicks are not able to fly. Instead, they use their talons (and sometimes their beaks) to scratch and claw their way to branches close to the nest where they will be fed by both parents and grow strong and healthy until they fledge about 35 to 40 days later. Because the young owls hatch a few days apart, they leave the nest a few days apart and show a noticeable difference in size.

The New Parent (early June)

When I arrived I saw one of the parents sitting on a branch outside the nest, and discovered one of the two chicks in between two tree trunks a few feet above the ground. At that time I did not realize that there were two nestlings and was thrilled just to see the one.

Baby Barred Owl (early June)

I didn’t linger as I knew that the adults could be quite aggressive if they believed their young were being threatened. Even after the chicks learn to fly, the adults will care for their offspring throughout the summer – this care lasts at least four months, longer than most owl species. The most serious threats to the young are Great Horned Owls, which will eat eggs, young birds, and even adults on occasion, and Northern Goshawks, which may also kill both adult and juvenile Barred Owls. Great Horned Owl and Northern Goshawk sightings are scarce in Ottawa, but both are adept at keeping hidden from view and may be more numerous than we know. Nests are also susceptible to mammalian predators as well, especially large weasels and raccoons.

Baby Barred Owl (early June)

Although I wasn’t the only person aware of the nest, I never saw crowds there the way they gathered around the Great Horned Owl nest at Mud Lake a few years back. However, it was around that time that the location was made public, and the next time I visited a week later with a friend we saw a few people photographing the chicks from only a few feet away. I could also hear the ominous sound of an adult making a clicking noise in a tree nearby – it sounded something like a woodpecker’s tapping, but the person I was with recognized it and told me it was a noise they make when agitated, often as part of a threat display or a prelude to an attack. He alerted the photographer, who cooperated and stepped back.

Barred Owl

The smaller chick was on the ground next to a tree, and I only noticed it after cautiously retreating from the larger one. My friend thought it looked kind of small for a nestling. Hopefully, with the protective parents keeping an eye on it, and enough people visiting to deter predators, it will survive to adulthood. The young will eventually lose their fluffy down, and grow to resemble the adult owls. Once the chicks are fully grown and have learned to fly and hunt on their own, they will disperse to their own territories in the fall, although they rarely travel more than 10 kilometers away from where they hatched.

Barred Owl chick

I never did go and see them again after that visit, as I’d heard more and more people were visiting and I didn’t want to contribute to any sort of circus or drama that tends to develop around well-known owls in our area. I had seen the chicks for myself – a first for me – and gotten the photos that I wanted, and that was enough for me.

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