On the prowl for a night owl or two
They’re more often heard than ever seen, but when spotted either on the wing or perched in a tree, these sentinels of the night often evoke a mixture of wonder, respect, curiosity and perhaps even a bit of dread in those fortunate enough to see them. They’re always cool, sometimes ghostly, often spooky and occasionally creepy. They’re the ever-watchful eyes of our forests, groves, parks and yards. They’re the owls of Iowa.
Iowa is home to eight regularly occurring owls, including three common species – Eastern screech, great-horned and barred; one rare breeder – barn; and four less-common migrants/winter residents -- snowy, long-eared, short-eared and northern saw-whet. Burrowing owls are rare and sporadic to Iowa, and there are accidental species, including the great gray, northern hawk and boreal, that show up on occasion.
During a twilight walk on Christmas night, Stephanie, Andrew, Elizabeth and I were serenaded by two of those common species: great-horned and barred owls. It was a magical experience for all of us.
Disembarking from our vehicle at a trailhead in Emma McCarthy Park in west Ames, we were initially greeted by a series of distinctive deep “hoots.” A male great-horned owl. Seconds later, in a different direction, a higher-pitched call followed. The back and forth continued for several minutes as we finally located the male near the top of a large white pine. Soon he was joined by the female, which silently glided over our heads on its way to what we presumed was her mate.
Great-horned owls are year-round statewide residents found in both open and forested habitats. They have the most diverse diet of any owls in the state, but they survive primarily on rabbits and rodents.
Great-horned owls are also one of Iowa’s earliest breeding birds with some individuals incubating eggs in January. They are most easily heard and seen during the courtship period, which extends from December through February. Undoubtedly, we were witnesses to a bit of their amorous affections as they followed each other to different perches in several other trees before finally flying out of our sight for good.
Not much later, with darkness filling the woods on our return walk to the trailhead, a familiar “who-cooks-for-you” call broke the silence and signaled the presence of a barred owl.
Another fairly common and widespread species, barred owls prefer mature forests, including bottomland and upland sites, with an abundance of older trees that provide nesting cavities. They can sometimes be located during the day in mature forest and are most often seen perched along forest edges and roadsides adjacent to forested areas at dawn and dusk.
Later nesters than great-horned owls, the peak of courtship for barred owls is in March and April. During this time pairs will sing duets with spectacular loud calls, any time of the day and night, that have been likened to the sound of hollering monkeys.
Owls are cool, but like I said, they can occasionally be a bit creepy. Nevertheless, start off this New Year by getting outdoors and discover if you can see or hear one or two.
Todd Burras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.