Birds & Birding

Nest Cam of the Month: Barred & Barn Owls

Barred owl. Photo © Ralph Daily / Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

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.

Barn owls. Photo © Airwolfhound / Flickr
Barn owls. Photo © Airwolfhound / Flickr

Nature Happens

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.)

Check back in May for another cam of the month, and share your favorite cams in the comments below.

Justine E. Hausheer

Justine E. Hausheer is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy, covering the innovative fieldwork and research conducted by Conservancy’s scientists around the world. She has a degree from Princeton University and a master's in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Justine has battled swarms of mosquitos, steep trails, and the wilds of the Papua New Guinea rainforest — all for a good story. When not writing about conservation science, she enjoys having far-flung adventures, long hikes, and waking up at dawn to bird. More from Justine

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12 comments

  1. I was entranced by the Cornell Lab cam last year and then got busy and just forgot about them, I’m ashamed to say. But this is a good opportunity to get into the habit of watching them again!

  2. Cool cameras. I think owls are amazing creatures and I enjoyed watching them tonight. I found it interesting that they put their “kill” in their nest and sleep with it there. I didn’t know they do that. Interesting.

  3. This osprey cam is located just off the Verrazano Bridge that takes you from the mainland to Assateague Island, a barrier island that is home to several bands of wild horses.

  4. I can’t tell…. the chicks hatched? did they both survive? what is the best time of day to watch? is that a dead mouse?

  5. […] son and I were listening to a story about owls I remembered this little photograph from the latest Nature Conservancy calendar.  I went looking and it was right there on the kitchen counter so I sketched this little […]

  6. Hi Fellow Owl lovers. My dad has two active owl families each year that nest in nesting boxes on his property. He would love to get a good camera in there so he can watch what is going on. Can you please recommend the best product?
    Thanks, Deb

  7. I live in a damaged camper in the woods. There is spray foam seeping out cracks on top. This years rats took over the top crunching on the foam until barred owls saved me from this terror. They raided my roof like warriors!! I still hear their claws slapping the roof ocasionally. What camera can I use to catch this??

  8. I’ve put up a owl box with camera,it’s about 300 yards from a hawk nest the hawk nest is in a Hugh pine tree. The owl nest is near my pond an an open field also lots of trees.
    I put the box on a pole nest to a tree for the owlets to have when ready to flight.
    My question is will the Hawks interfere with the owls?
    Thank you in advance for any advice you can give me!!
    Frankie:

  9. I have an amazing 21 pics up close of an OWL which likes my front of house tree, can i send them to you, at which email address?
    Thanks
    Ron
    Central Florida..
    Can you tell me what type it is?

  10. I think you should name the barred owlet starting from right to left Owl Pacino, Fat Owlbert, and Owl Bundy..🦉🦉🦉