Strix varia

      The dark-eyed barred owl has a gentle, soulful expression that is mirrored by the bird's temperament - this is an unaggressive species. The barred is the East's next-largest resident owl, second only to the great horned owl, but there is a vast difference between the two species. The formidable great horned owl, at three pounds, is a top predator, capable of taking prey up to the size of skunks or house cats, even porcupines if it is hungry enough. Great horned owls are fierce defenders of their young, and are one of the very few birds of prey on record as having killed people. The barred owl, by contrast, is dangerous only to small mammals, frogs, snakes and fish. This is due partly to its lack of aggression, and partly to the fact that under all those soft feathers there isn't much bird - male barreds average only 13 ounces, females 17. The species' name comes from the crosswise barring on the bird's breast feathers; the pantaloonlike belly feathers are streaked lengthwise. The barred owl is gray-brown overall, quite different from the tawny-brown of the great horned owl. Barreds lack the ear tufts of the great horned owl, and they utterly lack their larger relative's yellow-eyed demonic glare. The soft brown eyes of the barred owl are surrounded by dark concentric rings that give it a bemused look, as if it found this wicked world a bit too much.

     This species is resident in wet woodlands in the eastern half of the U.S. (although the barred owl is expanding its range westward, and is now encroaching on the territory of its close relative the spotted owl). The barred is a cavity-nester, and its home range typically contains stands of mature trees that provide roosting cover during the day as well as holes for nesting.

      The barred owl, like the great horned, is sometimes called "hoot owl." Both species do hoot, but the barred owl is more emphatic in its vocalizations, and its voice has a higher pitch. Its best-known call is a series of eight accented hoots, in groups of four : hoohoo-hoohoo, hoohoo- hoohooaw. That descending note at the end is characteristic of the barred owl. This talkative species can also bay like a hound, scream, shriek and whistle. To the superstitious the barred owl must sound like one of the unrestful dead abroad on some sinister mission, and surely some ghost stories trace their origins to the unearthly noises made by this bird.

      Their uncannily silent flight may also be responsible for stories of restless spirits. Like other owls, barred owls have velvety-soft feathers. This softness, combined with a fringed leading edge on the flight feathers, dampens sound and enables the owl to fly virtually noiselessly. Another aid to silent flight is the fact that the barred owl's wingspan averages 43 inches - a big wingspread for such a light bird. Broad wingspan plus low weight equals buoyant flight, and the barred can move through the air like a moth. Prey is captured partially by being seen, and partially by being heard. Hearing is extraordinarily acute, as is eyesight - even in daylight.

     The gentle barred owl sometimes falls victim to the great horned owl - there is no sense of family among the various owl species. Many barreds meet their death on highways when they swoop down after a mouse, only to collide with a car instead. And, sadly, they are sometimes shot, since they are inquisitive birds that will follow people to see what they're up to.

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