A Bird’s Tale

Barred Owl Booms and Busts

Posted:  Wednesday, March 13, 2019 - 10:30am
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By all accounts there are many more people seeing barred owls in the last four to six weeks here in Maine this year than in most years. Late winter can be a challenging time for barred owls just about any year, especially if deep snow or crusty or icy conditions make it harder to find and catch mice or other prey. Just about every year there is at least a small spike in numbers of barred owls seen in late February and March, often along roadsides or near backyard bird feeding stations.

But this year the sightings, often captured in photos or video, seem to abound. Perhaps many of you have seen the video of the barred owl trying to get at some caged parakeets through a window of an Old Orchard Beach home? Or the one of the barred owl catching mice below someone’s bird feeder in Buxton? Or the photo of the one with the chipmunk in its talons in Lewiston? There’s a video of a Barred Owl eating a crow in someone’s backyard. How about the almost unbelievable shots of the barred owl feeding on a rooster carcass in West Gardiner?

There are literally dozens and dozens of photos and videos of barred owls in Maine from the last two months that have been posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and eBird, and probably other places as well. A quick scan of eBird records shows at least twice as many sightings of barred owls in the January to March period this year as last. The renowned Avian Haven bird rehabilitation center reports that in the last 10 days they have received 10 barred owls as compared to zero in the same time period last year. They have already had 48 admitted since January 1st.

We ourselves have had family members send photos of barred owls near their homes, and various acquaintances and even strangers tell us of their barred owl sightings over the least few weeks. Just over the last few days we’ve spotted barred owls in a number of locations.  

While this preponderance of owls appearing in daylight has given countless people the thrill of their first-ever sighting of an owl, the reason these birds are showing themselves in such obvious places is not so thrilling. It is extreme hunger that drives behaviors like trying to catch parakeets inside a lighted house or feeding on a chicken carcass or sitting all day in the open beside a house. Many of these owls are literally on the verge of starvation.

It is possible that the number of barred owls that all of us are seeing now here in Maine is elevated because the total population has been at an unusually high level. We could surmise that the boom in acorn production of two years ago that led to the high squirrel population (and perhaps a high mouse population as well) allowed barred owls to produce more surviving young than usual. If so, this high owl population could have carried right into late-winter when squirrel populations began to decline. Add to this the various late-winter coatings of ice and snow that made catching mice harder and harder and it could mean a bust in barred owl food supplies.

Fortunately for these barred owls, spring is already bringing warmer temps and likely some better conditions for hunting. When it does, they will retreat back into the woods and back under the protective cover of darkness. We may not see them again so readily but we’ll know they are still there when their maniacal “who-cooks-for-you” calls signal that another barred owl breeding season has begun.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide” from Cornell Press.