Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Hearing and seeing owls is a hoot

By CHERYL KIMBALL | May 27. 2017 12:40AM

A barred owl perches in a tree on a trail behind Cheryl Kimball's property. (Courtesy/Emily Lord)

THE FIRST TIME I saw an owl was around 1980. A friend and I had put in a canoe at the launch off Route 25 in Ossipee that meanders down the river to Ossipee Lake. We were lazily paddling along when I happened to look up. There on a large branch overhanging the river was a magnificent owl. I have no idea what kind it was, but it just hung out there as we paddled past but was gone by the time we returned. I remember the sighting clearly all these years later. Owls are hard to forget.

The next owl I was to see was at the house we have lived in for almost 24 years. The first evening we lived here, I went out after dark for some reason I cannot recall and an owl was sitting on a low oak branch overhanging the stone wall along the road. Good perch for nighttime rodent hunting. 
Family legend has it that we saw a snowy owl in the woods behind my childhood home when I was a kid. I don’t recall that at all. I do recall hearing owls in the woods as a kid and began to think that every one of them must be a snowy, but I never saw any of them, whatever they were.

I did see my first snowy owl during the big year of snowy owls wintering along the New Hampshire coastline. A young first-year female with dark striping, she was just beautiful. At the suggestion of an ornithologist friend I didn’t look for the bird when I went cruising the coast, I looked for the crowd of people. This owl had settled in on the peak of a summer residence for its winter hangout. I got some good, close-up extended views of her and some great photos. Apparently the snowies have come back regularly since but not in the numbers of that year.

Although I haven’t seen an owl on our property since that one sighting when we first moved here, our neighbor has and texted us a picture of a gorgeous one of a pair of barred owls she saw recently on the loop walk through our woods. I do hear them regularly. Just 10 days ago two nights in a row, a pair planted themselves a short distance from each other outside my bedroom window. For an hour, they “serenaded” me with the most interesting — and loud — owl sounds. Although I assume they were barred owls, this was not the usual “Who cooks for you!” that the barred owl normally vocalizes. It likely was mating sounds. One of the sounds was similar to that of a crow — I prefer not to think that perhaps it was a crow who was in the grips of being dinner that evening. Even if the noise was all about dinner, I am pretty sure it was more about that this was going to be a romantic dinner, if you know what I mean. According to “Hawks & Owls of Eastern North America,” Second Edition by Chris G. Earley (Firefly Books 2012), the barred owl’s “hoots can sometimes evolve into a maniacal series of notes that have given rise to a variety of other names for this species, such as crazy owl and laughing owl.” I can see why; I could not believe the noises I was hearing on those owl-active nights.

Barred owls are year-round residents of the entire eastern half of the United States, as is the Eastern screech-owl, one of the top goals on my life list — maybe only in competition with the Northern saw-whet owl. The diminutive little screech owls are the size of a robin; their camouflage is so well adapted, they can sit in a hole in a tree and virtually disappear into the surrounding bark. I look and look and look for them in the cavities in our woods, but have yet to be rewarded.

We have a cavernous three-story barn at the base of our driveway, yet I have never seen a barn owl. Barn owls have a very wide range being year-round residents of most of North America (with the exception of the upper Midwest — apparently they are smart) and all of Central and South America. These spooky-looking creatures have heart-shaped concave faces with dark eyes and a dipped nose. But despite their spookiness, they can be very useful to have around. According to Earley’s book, one 10-year-old barn owl would have eaten around 11,000 mice over the course of its lifetime. If I ever find one in the barn, I am going to invite it to live in our kitchen and work on the 11,000 mice that seem to live there. Maybe in exchange for the easy prey and cushy life, the owl would even fetch the mail for me.
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at
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