I have never seen a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) in the wild, but I may have heard this owl’s call once or twice. So I decided to perform an experiment to see if I could lure one to my yard. Owls are aggressively territorial and will confront trespassing members of their own species. Smaller species of owls are driven away or devoured. On 3 consecutive evenings, I opened a back window and played a recording of a great horned owl for about 10 minutes. There was no response and I concluded there are no great horned owls in my neighborhood. The next evening, after downing a few glasses of wine, I played a recording of a barred owl instead. (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/barred_owl/sounds) I clicked on the link to the recording and had enough time to grab a bag of kitchen scraps for the compost pile before the recording began. There was an immediate response from a barred owl in the woods behind my house. I heard it while emptying the bag of used tea leaves, potato skins, and apple cores on the compost pile. By triangulation, I estimated the bird was 20 yards from my back fence. I went inside, looked out the window, and saw the owl land on a pine tree branch in the middle of my yard. It was ready to rumble with the other interloping owl. I was able to stand right under the branch and take a photo of the bird.
The barred owl is on the 2nd branch from the ground to the right of the tree. Click to enlarge. The most notable feature when seeing this specimen up close was the large size of the eyes, built for excellent night vision.
Here’s a much better photo of a barred owl I found on the web taken by someone who knows more about photography than I do.
The barred owl is the only species of owl I’ve ever seen in Georgia, and I often hear their call which sounds like someone saying, “Who cooks for you; who cooks for you all.” I frequently see road-killed barred owls on the highway–evidence they are abundant in the environment and fly too low at night while hunting rodents in the grassy medians. Barred owls prefer forested swamps but seem just as home in suburban woodlots and second growth forests. They are habitat generalists that have expanded their range in the face of advancing suburban sprawl. They eat rodents, birds, rabbits, lizards, snakes, frogs, fish, and even crayfish. I’ve seen barred owl pellets consisting of crayfish exoskeletons.
Barred owls have probably been the most common owl in southeastern North America for millions of years. Their fossil remains are more abundant than any other species of owl in the fossil record of Florida, the southern state with the most Pleistocene-aged sites. Barred owl fossil remains have been found in at least 10 sites in Florida. The smaller screech owls (Otus asio) are the next most abundant owl in the fossil record, having been excavated from 8 sites in Florida and 1 in Georgia. The larger great horned owls have been found in just 5 Florida fossil sites. Barn owl (Titus alba) fossils have been found in 6 Florida sites and also several Carribbean sites. Fossil remains of the long-eared (Asio otus) and the short eared owl (Asio flammeus) total just 4 sites in Georgia and Florida. Fossil remains of burrowing owls (Athene cuniculara) were abundantly found but at just a single site in Florida. There was a poorly known extinct species of owl living in Georgia during the Pleistocene that has yet to be named as a species. (See:http://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/the-unknown-owl-of-pleistocene-georgia/)
I decided not to perform my experiment with a screech owl call because I assumed the presence of a barred owl this close to my house would prevent screech owls from occupying this territory.
Barred owls have expanded their range to the Pacific northwest where they are outcompeting the endangered spotted owl (Strix occidentalis). Barred owls usually kill or drive away their smaller cousins but occasionally they interbreed with them. Spotted owls require old growth forests and mostly feed upon flying squirrels. Barred owls are less picky about their habitat and prey and have invaded the spotted owl’s natural range, possibly thanks to human impact on the landscape. To reverse this trend, federal wildlife officials killed 3600 barred owls in the Pacific northwest last year. Reportedly, spotted owls have returned to areas they’d lost to barred owls. Federal wildlife officials have spent lots of money saving spotted owls, and they didn’t want to see it go to waste because of the tougher, more adaptable barred owls. I’m opposed to this disgusting policy. It is not really certain man is responsible for the expansion of the barred owl’s range. This ecological occurrence has not been adequately studied. Barred owls may have eventually colonized the Pacific northwest with or without the presence of man. Species have been driving other species into extinction ever since life evolved.