by Andrea Laine, EMGV Durham County
A silence has come over my garden that I do not recognize. It is the absence of squirrels.
By most standards, I live in a generally quiet neighborhood. It is beyond city limits and there are natural wooded areas – oak-hickory forest – all around us and between most of the houses. Aside from the sounds typical of many neighborhoods such as lawn mowers and blowers, children playing and dogs barking, the familiar, yet irregular, back beat has long been the activity of squirrels amongst the dried leaf litter on the forest floor.
Where have all the squirrels gone? Whoooo might know? The owl, that’s who!
I saw it in flight a couple of times and assumed it was a hawk. The third time I spotted it (or it spotted me), it was stationary, perched on a tree branch where the forest meets my lawn. And I felt its steely stare as I walked from the garage to the house. It was then that I noted two eyes facing me and the distinctive owl-shaped head. It was a breathtaking sight as I had never seen one outside of captivity. My curiosity was piqued; I had to learn more about this bird of prey which I believe to be a barred owl (Strix varia).
A barred owl is relatively large with a wingspan of 40 to 50 inches and body length of 17 to 24 inches.
They favor mature forest with a relatively open understory, which describes my yard perfectly. They nest in cavities of large deciduous trees and will sometimes adopt old nests of hawks, crows, and squirrels.
The barred owl hunts by day or night but is most active at night. It seeks prey by watching from a perch or flying low through the forest. Like all owls, their eyesight and hearing are very good. In addition to squirrels, the barred owl hunts mice, voles and shrews, rabbits, opossums and other small mammals. The barred owl also eats various birds, frogs, salamanders, snakes, lizards, and some insects. The array of its diet illustrates the adaptability of the species to live on whatever food source is available.
“My” owl was mottled brown and white. It was so well camouflaged against tree bark and leaf litter that twice I have not noticed it until it takes flight.
The barred owl is common across eastern North America and more common in eastern North Carolina than the mountains or foothills including Durham County. It is a non-migratory bird and its range is one to six square miles. I read that it has a distinctive hoot that often identifies its presence. But so far I have only seen, not heard, the owl. The sound of silence endures.