The Barred Owl Boom of 2019
Click here to see the NBC CT story on the big Barred Owl winter
This article was updated on February 3 to include further discussion among experts about why Barred Owl sightings seem to have increased this winter. Click here and see below.
January 31, 2019 – We all know that owls are secretive and stealthy and, most of all, active in the dark, when you might hear them but rarely see them.
But this winter seems different. Barred Owls have been making brazen, daylight appearances throughout Connecticut over the last few weeks. Bird experts have been watching in amazement – but not only bird experts. Connecticut residents who don’t normally think about the difference between a chickadee and a nuthatch have been gaping and gawking, snapping photos and taking videos and posting them to social media.
Any one of these sightings might be dismissed as random. A Barred Owl roosted on a bird feeder one morning last week in Middletown, for example. A Barred Owl sat stop a tractor alongside a busy road one afternoon in Windsor. Several weeks ago, a Barred Owl snatched a rodent and ate it in a Farmington backyard as a family watched.
Two appeared on different roadsides in Pomfret. A Barred Owl perched for 20 minutes on a garden gate one morning near the Connecticut-New York border. Ornithologist Chris Elphick, a professor at the University of Connecticut who is heading the Connecticut Bird Atlas Project, has seen six during the daytime over the past month, when he wasn’t even looking for them.
The maps on Cornell University’s eBird.org, on which observers can pin the location of birds they see, sported 69 Barred Owl pins in Connecticut for the first three weeks of January. Compare that to 39 for all of January 2018, 40 for January 2017, and 32 for January 2016.
Known as birds of the inland woods that rarely show themselves along the coast of Long Island Sound, Barred Owls have turned up this month near the shore in Greenwich, Fairfield, Stratford, Milford, New Haven, Branford, Madison, Old Lyme, Groton, and Stonington.
If you see an owl, revel in your good luck. But also please don’t approach it too closely. Click here for some common sense rules of owl-watching etiquette.
Unusually abundant this winter
It could be random. More likely, it adds up to Barred Owls being unusually abundant in the winter of 2018-19, resulting in close encounters with people throughout Connecticut.
Patrick Comins, Connecticut Audubon’s executive director, and Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation, think it’s the weather. They hypothesize that the rain and general dampness of last spring and summer created prime growing conditions for small mammals such as squirrels and mice, and for amphibians such as frogs and salamanders, all of which Barred Owls feast on.
The abundance of food, they hypothesize, probably led to a highly successful 2018 breeding season for Barred Owls. Lots of baby owls hatched. And now, as the 2019 breeding season approaches, those young owls are spreading across the landscape in hopes of establishing territories, which can encompass 600 acres or more. Soon their familiar “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all” hoots will be heard throughout the state.
Update, Sunday, February 3, 2019. Experienced and skilled wildlife observers have suggested alternative hypotheses in the days since we posted our Barred Owl article on Wednesday evening, January 30.
There seems to be reason to think that contrary to what we speculated, Barred Owls are much more visible this winter because a drop in the rodent population has left them hungry and searching for food.
Click here for more on the expert opinions of Scott Williams, Phd, of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Research Station; ornithologist and UConn Professor Chris Elphick, PhD; raptor researcher Larry Fischer; and licensed wildlife rahabilitators Dara Reid of Wildlife in Crisis in Weston and Horizon Wings in Ashford.
Barred Owls are big and distinctive-looking – about 21 inches tall, with rounded heads and with breast feathers that form a pattern that looks somewhat like bars. Hence the name. They range throughout forested regions of North America and in general their population is increasing over the long term; the IUCN considers Barred Owls to be of least concern.
Their surprising visibility this winter most likely means an even bigger, short-term increase, although it’s impossible to say how big the increase is or how many live in Connecticut.
“I don’t know for sure,” UConn Prof. Elphick told us in an email, “because we don’t have comparable historic data to use, though we might be able to work out a way to make comparisons after the winter is over. I do know that a lot of people are seeing Barred Owls on their winter atlas surveys.”
Report your sightings
Elphick oversees the ongoing Connecticut Bird Atlas project, of which the Connecticut Audubon Society is a prime sponsor. He urged people who see Barred Owls this winter to visit the Atlas website – www.ctbirdatlas.org – for information on how to record their sightings.
While the owl boom has led to exciting opportunities to view these beautiful birds, it has also resulted in what seems to be an unusual number of Barred Owls being hit by cars as the birds swoop low across highways – for example in the Norwich area, along the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, and near Storrs, where people have been offering to submit owl carcasses to UConn for its collection.
Wildlife rehabilitators have seen an increase. The Wildlife in Crisis center in Weston told us that 45 Barred Owls have brought in for treatment this winter. Horizon Wings Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Ashford told us their number was 25, including six being treated last weekend. Almost all of those are juveniles and almost all have been cared for and released back into the wild.
If you have Barred Owl anecdotes or photos to share, take a look at our Facebook page.
If you see a Barred Owl, enjoy the experience. But please stay far enough away that you don’t disturb the bird!
“It was actually right in the field in front of the Amazon warehouse in Windsor, on Day Hill Road. It was just far enough away from the road that I don’t think anyone noticed it, at all. People driving by probably just thought I was photographing a tractor. I drove by again on Sunday just to make sure it wasn’t in the same spot and need a rescue and I didn’t see it. I’ll just hope all is well and I got a rare treat.” – Brian Kulvete, Bloomfield
“I keep seeing owls during the daytime. Is that common? The one I saw in Prospect, on Route 68, close to center of town, was in a tree near the road. Maybe about 6 feet up the tree. The one in Orange I saw in the morning on my way to work. Same thing, in a tree near the road.” – Sue Pranulis, Orange
“I have seen Barred Owls on occasion in the conifers in the background, including a few calling together one night last spring. But I have never seen one hanging out during the day, let along perched on the feeder. While no other birds visited the feeder for the few minutes I watched the Barred Owl, a few Blue Jays were feeding on seed on the ground about 30 feet away without seeming to care.” – Jim Arrigoni, Middletown
“I saw one last Thursday on Morey Road in Hampton, perched over the road around 8 a.m. I saw one here at Goodwin on Potter Road during one of our senior hikes, probably around 3 p.m. Also in December one was struck by a car on Route 6 in the late afternoon on December 19 and was brought to me here at Goodwin, where it hung out and came out of shock and was released here.” – Helena Ives, Goodwin State Forest, Hampton
“We’ve been enjoying a few visits a week from our backyard Barred Owl.” – Heidi Voight, Farmington
“It was sitting in the middle of the road after flying into the side of a car. I really am not sure how I picked him up without him going crazy. I just walked right over, pet him on the head and scooped him up. We hung out for about 30 minutes. He even fell asleep on my lap. Then all of a sudden he woke up and just stared at me so I brought him back outside and he flew away, from what it looked like healthy as can be. My girlfriend was with me and witnessed the whole thing. She was in awe.” — Chris Stone, Northford
|“I’ve flushed birds from the side of the road at least 3 times within the same quarter-mile stretch while running, often giving myself (and probably the bird) a mild heart attack when I round the turn.” – Allison Black, Norwich|
Photo and video captions and credits, from top: Video courtesy of Heidi Voight, taken in Farmington. Chris Stone coddles at Barred Owl that was hit by a car in Northford. Barred Owl in New Canaan, by Frank Mantlik. A Barred Owl perched on Jim Arrigoni’s bird feeder in Middletown. Birders looking for a Barred Owl at the Milford Point Coastal Center, by Frank Mantlik. Brian Kulvete took a photo of a Barred Owl perching on a tractor in Windsor. Barred Owl in Milford, by Frank Mantlik.
The owl leaps at around the 2:50 mark to capture a rodent. It finally eats the rodent at around 14:35 and then flies off about 15:10.