Owl sex is rather loud. Growing up in Central Florida, the flirtatious, nine-syllabled yowls of mating barred owls rang through my backyard every spring.
The owls would begin their raucous chorus of Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all? around 2:30 a.m. each morning. About four weeks later, I’d wait for one, two, or three wobbly grey owlets to stick their saucer-like faces out of the hole in the nest box.
That was back in the early 1990s, when nest cams were nonexistent. While my owls may be gone, these nest cams give you box seats (sorry) inside another barred owl nest.
April’s Cam of the Month
April’s first nest cam of the month is a barred owl nest in Zionsville, Indiana. Hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this nest is actually located in the backyard of Jim Carpenter, president of the popular birding and bird-feeding supply store Wild Birds Unlimited.
You’ll notice right away that this nest isn’t actually a nest — it’s a nest box, attached to the trunk of a pignut hickory. Barred owls typically nest in tree cavities or use the vacant nests of other birds, but they also take quite readily to nest boxes.
The female owl is dutifully incubating 2 eggs, the first of which should hatch around April 21 — right now! The chicks will then spend about four to five weeks in the nest, eventually clambering awkwardly around the branches outside.
Who cooks for you?
Barred owls swallow their prey whole, but they can’t digest a mouse from nose to tail. So approximately 10 to 16 hours after they eat, they regurgitate a grey, blob-shaped pellet of fur and tiny rodent bones.
Curious? Here’s a video. You’re welcome.
That’s when the fun begins. My brother and I would scour the backyard for pellets, dissect them with tweezers, and then attempt to assemble and identify the unfortunate rodent within. If we were lucky, we’d find an intact skull. (Yeah, I was that kid.)
If you want to try it yourself, you can actually order pellets online. But if dissection isn’t your thing, you can use pellets as a good clue that there’s an owl roosting in the area.
Look for barred owls in forests with large deciduous trees, especially near water. Found primarily in the eastern United States, they’re expanding their range westward, via Canada, into the Pacific Northwest and California, causing some problems for the local and endangered spotted owls.
More Owls, Please
You can never have enough owls. That’s why we’re recommending a second cam this month — a barn owl cam in Texas, also hosted by the Cornell Lab.
Appropriately located in the rafters of a barn, the barn owl nest is noticeably spartan — barn owl nests are lined with little more than regurgitated pellets.
After a month of amorous encounters — where cam viewers got an avian eyeful — the female barn laid 6 eggs in late March and early April. They’re expected to start hatching between April 28 and May 3.
Cuteness Is In the Eye of the Beholder
I know what you’re thinking… so I’ll go ahead and say it: Barn owl chicks are ugly. Not the cute-ugly like other baby birds, but who-swapped-my-owls-with-mangy-vultures ugly.
Watching barn owl chicks is a great opportunity to see what owls actually look like underneath all of those face feathers, known as the facial disk. In owls, this concave disk of feathers actually funnels sound waves into the bird’s ears like a satellite dish, contributing to their auditory super-powers.
Barn owls have especially good ears. According to the Cornell Lab, their ability to locate prey by sound alone is the best of any animal ever tested. (Watch a barn owl’s exceptional hearing in action here.)
While they have a good ear, a barn owl’s singing voice leaves a lot to be desired. Unlike the distinctive hoots of the barred owl, the only sound a barn owl makes is a harsh, raspy scream that is guaranteed to scare the bejesus out of you when camping.
Warning: Nest cams give you an up-close view of nature, and nature can get ugly. Last spring, two of the five barn owl chicks died… and were then eaten by their siblings.
Called siblicide, this behavior is not uncommon. The owls lay their eggs a day or so apart, and the last one (or two) to hatch must compete with the older and bigger chicks for food. If there isn’t enough to go around, the little ones are bullied into starvation.
So while we have our fingers crossed for mice and voles aplenty, be aware that an uncensored view into a nest isn’t all cuteness.
Tips for Watching
Owls will be owls, so you’re best bet for viewing these cams will be in the morning and evening. Both cameras are equipped with infrared light, so you can see what’s going on even in the dark. (Don’t worry, these lights don’t disturb the birds.)