Spring is in the air, and baby animals are starting to appear everywhere. Although owlets are seldom seen until they leave the nest, owls in our area generally begin nesting as early as late December, with owlets hatching in January and the following months. The larger the species of owl, the earlier in the year they hatch. One of the most common owls in our area, the Barred Owl, is the second largest species in our area; their owlets generally hatch in March/April.
As with all species of owls, Barred Owls are perfectly designed hunters. Their skeletal structure is very light and strong, and many of the bones which would be separated in mammals are fused together in owls, making them strong to support their weight on the ground. In addition, some of their larger bones are hollow with bony internal bracing. This helps reduce overall weight. Although some owls can be quite large, even the heaviest of the species in our area generally weighs no more than five pounds. There are lots of stories and urban legends of owls flying off with small dogs or cats, but even the largest owls found in our area are not capable of doing so; the pet would have to be EXTREMELY tiny (remember, a five-pound owl cannot take off with an eight-pound dog). Owls are known as silent flyers, so you will never hear an owl flapping overhead. Their flight feathers are edged in fringe-like tips, which cuts down on air turbulence and effectively muffles the sound of flight. Many owl species have asymmetrical ears. Having ears located at different heights on their head makes them more able to pinpoint the location of sounds in multiple directions. While owls cannot actually turn their heads all the way around, they can rotate them up to 270 degrees in either direction. They have fourteen neck vertebrae (twice as many as humans) and they also have a special arrangement of the jugular veins to ensure that blood supply is not impeded as the neck is rotated. As nocturnal animals, owls have very large eyes. These large eyes help to improve their hunting efficiency, especially under low-light conditions. Their well-developed eyes are actually not eyeballs as such, but elongated tubes which are held in place by bony structures in the skull. For this reason, an owl cannot move its eyes to look side to side or up and down, but rather they must pivot their head to look around. So even if your jokes are very bad, an owl cannot roll its eyes in disdain.
Barred Owls are slightly smaller than Great Horned Owls, ranging in height from 17 to 20 inches and weight from 1 to 2½ pounds. They have brown and white striped plumage (hence the name “Barred Owl”) and dark brown, almost black, eyes. Barred owls tend to stay in relatively small territories, most often 5 square miles or less, and they are non-migratory. They live year-round in mixed forests of large trees, often near water. They tend to prefer large blocks of mature forest, likely because old woodlands support a higher diversity of prey and are more likely to have large cavities suitable for nesting. Great Horned Owls will prey on Barred Owls, so if their territories overlap, the Barred Owls will usually move to another part of their home range to avoid the larger owls.
As with most species of owls, Barred Owls are monogamous and form very strong pair bonds, usually mating for life. Pairs are very territorial, especially during nesting season. They raise one brood of young each year, preferring to nest in tree cavities, but they will also make use of platforms, nest boxes (if they are large enough), or abandoned squirrel nests. Most nesting sites are 20 to 40 feet high in a large tree and from 1 to 5 eggs are laid in January or February. As with all owls, each egg is laid two or three days apart, and the owlets hatch in the same order they were laid, so in large clutches there can be a huge size difference from chick to chick. The incubation period is 28-33 days. When the owlets hatch, they are covered in soft, white down, and their eyes are closed. They are completely dependent on their parents for food, and both parents feed and tend to the babies. Young Barred Owls can climb trees by grasping the bark with their bill and talons, flapping their wings, and walking their way up the trunk; this is how they would eventually get out of a tree cavity if that is where the nest is. The owlets leave the nest at about four to five weeks old and are called branchers. During the brancher stage, they hop from limb to limb while exercising their wings and learning to fly. The owlets are usually independent by the time they are four to five months old.
The Barred Owl’s diet consists of many kinds of small mammals (including squirrels, mice and rats, voles, rabbits, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects. They also sometimes perch over water to catch fish and crayfish. They generally hunt at night, but especially during nesting season they will feed during daylight hours. When prey is plentiful, they may temporarily store their catch in their nest or in the crook of a branch (kind of like an owl pantry). Like most other birds of prey, they generally swallow prey whole and then regurgitate anything they cannot digest (fur, bones, etc.) in the form of an owl pellet. Their vocalizations can be quite distinctive, and they are often called the “who cooks for you” owl due to their call. To listen to their calls, go to: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/sounds.
To learn more about what we do and view pictures of many of the animals we assist, please visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SavingTexasWildlife. Details and specifies-specific flowcharts regarding how to help found animals can be viewed on our website at www.ftwl.org (click on “Help and Advice”). These charts are extremely helpful to determine if an animal truly needs rescuing or not. If you need assistance with a wildlife animal you have found, please call us at 281-259-0039 or email us at [email protected]. We offer many educational programs (including camps, birthday parties, educational presentations, and Second Saturdays). Our educational visitor’s center is open the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., located at 29816 Dobbin Hufsmith Road, Magnolia, Texas, so the next one will be Saturday, March 12 ($5 per person, kids 3 and under are free). Our ed center will also be hosting our Spring Break Discovery Days on Monday, March 14 (Marvelous Mammals); Wednesday, March 16 (Winged Wonders); and Friday, March 18 (Fabulous Reptiles). Each day is a stand-alone, drop-in session, come and go any time between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and each day will feature a different theme, so feel free to come for one, two or all three sessions. Parents stay with kids; $5 per person, children 3 and under are free, no advance registration is needed for the Spring Break Discovery Days.
We will also be having a full open house on Saturday, April 9 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. This open house is the only time all year our full facility will be open for tours. Visit our educational center, intake center, vet room, and animal care facilities; take a peek inside our 100’ flight enclosure; visit with all of our educational wildlife animals (hawks, owls, snake, opossum, skunk, turtles); and meet with our guests from other community groups such as Houston Audubon Society, Spring Creek Greenway Visitor’s Center, Texas Master Naturalists, Texas Wildlife Association, Caleb Paul (snake wrangler/reptile rescue and removal), Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, and Piney Woods Wildlife Society. This event will be rain or shine, open to everyone, come and go any time during the open house. Tickets are $5 per person, children three and under are free! Please park by the education center for Open House (29816 Dobbin Hufsmith, Magnolia). Summer camp dates have also been set, and registration information can be found on our website or on Eventbrite.