Like a camouflaged soldier at attention, the big bird stood unmoving and nearly unseen in the bare oak. I took a step closer, and its head rotated slightly. I found myself looking into a pair of penetrating dark eyes. It hesitated a moment, then noiselessly alit. A small stream had already separated us, but that natural barrier wasn't enough. The bird needed to put a safer distance between us.
Largely creatures of the night, owls are usually quiet and still during daylight. With cryptic colors of brown, white and black, they easily blend into the mottled patterns of bark and branches. No sound, no movement, protective coloration: These birds are tough to spot.
The barred owl (Strix varia) that perceived me as a threat was no exception. Barred owls are relatively large, standing upright at 18 inches. They have the bulky build we associate with typical owls and weigh 1.5 pounds. The rounded wings stretch to 40 inches. A dozen shades of brown are irregularly broken by white lines, patches, streaks and scallops. The visual result is a bird that's hard to see in spite of its impressive dimensions.
An owl's eyes are compelling. Like cats, dogs, humans and other predators, barred owls have eyes in the front of their heads, not along the side like most songbirds. Furthermore, the owl's eyes are locked in their sockets. That classic owl head twist is not a sign of curiosity; it is an anatomical necessity to see left or right.
The frontal eye position provides excellent binocular vision and depth perception. The large pupil set in the large eye lets in even the dimmest light. Owls can't see in total darkness, but they need surprisingly little nocturnal light to see and capture their prey.
The barred owl has a circular facial disk that accentuates its round head. Stiff facial feathers can move, helping to direct sound to the barred owl's ears. These predators can literally hear a mouse in a field. The bird's acute hearing, coupled with its superb night vision, makes it a formidable stealth hunter.
A collar of feathers that displays a horizontal pattern of brown and white gives the bird its name. The chest and belly colors are vertically arranged, accentuating the "barred" neck pattern.
The sexes look alike, although females tend to be larger.
The barred owl is a year-round resident throughout its range, including the entire Chesapeake basin. The birds can be found in the eastern United States, the Canadian Maritime Provinces, across central Canada to the Pacific and south into the U.S. Pacific Northwest. In the Northwest, it sometimes hybridizes with its close relative, the spotted owl (Strix occidentalis). Unlike its cousin, though, the barred owl is relatively common and its population is stable to increasing.
A barred owl captures its prey of small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, other birds and insects in its powerful, lethal talons. The bird uses its four needle-sharp toes to firmly grasp and dispatch its meal. If the victim is still alive when the owl returns to its roost, it will literally be torn to shreds by the owl's sharp, downturned beak. If the prey is small enough, it will be swallowed whole.
Like other owls, barred owls periodically regurgitate a dense pellet of undigested bone, fur, feathers and the like. Owl pellets on the ground are a sure sign that a favorite roosting site is overhead.
The barred owl that I disturbed was nearly soundless as it departed. The bird has an extraordinary combination of feather types: velvety on the wings, downy on the stomach, and curled leading edges on primary flight feathers. All of these serve to dampen sound, making the owl nearly silent in flight.
Their flights are quiet, but barred owls are well-known for their vocalizations. While the classic song is usually rendered, "Who cooks for you; who cooks for you all?" the bird is capable of a wide variety of calls. They are usually most vocal at night, but barred owls are heard during daylight more often than most species of owls.
Even though these birds are formidable hunters, they are easily disturbed, as I had just witnessed.
The barred owl across the stream from me was quickly out of sight. For a moment, we had faced one another, eye-to-eye. The unblinking gaze of the barred owl spoke to me of clarity, directness and truth.
Intellectually, I know that the owl's penetrating gaze resulted from the fact that its oversize eyes are fixed in its head. What my heart chose to see, however, was a fleeting glance of how I'd like to perceive the world around me: clear-eyed, forthright and undisturbed by the peripheral.