Barred Owl Last Night

We had a thrill last night during dinner when a Barred Owl landed in an oak tree about thirty feet from the house. It was last light, and it wasn’t long before the owl jumped off the limb, presumably to swoop down on something. We didn’t see it for long, but it was unmistakable in profile and from the very broad wings.

It’s probably been ten years since we’ve seen one on the property. Thirty years ago, when ours was the only cabin on Pittman Mountain, I used to leave the front door open at night, so I could hear them calling back and forth from our place over to Dividing Ridge, with their “who cooks for you” call. That would go on all night, and I miss it a lot.

Apparently, we’re too developed for that now. They must like a little more peace and quiet. I’m not sure where you would go to hear them today, but Hoot Owl Hill, in the Wilscot Winds subdivision, off Highway 60 South, used to have a lot of them, as the national forest is on the other side of the ridge.

They’re the “hoot owl” of southern legend. In fact, the famous rebel yell is thought to be derived from their call. There’s a clip of film toward the end of the Ken Burns Civil War documentary of a reunion at Gettysburg, where the old rebels do the call as they approach the Union position where Pickett’s Charge ended. That, to me, confirms it. Interestingly, Shelby Foote says earlier in the program that he doesn’t know how it sounded.

Owls are considered raptors, but their biology differs from hawks in that they do not have an anus. Owls swallow their prey, their stomach digests it, and then their stomach churns and they regurgitate the skeleton with the fur wrapped around it. If you can find the tree where they roost – usually a big pine – you’re apt to find quite a few of these “owl pellets” under the tree. I collected them when I was in the 11th grade for a biology project. What you do is take them home, pick the fur off, and place the head over the photos in the Peterson guide to determine what they’ve been eating – field mice, voles, and so forth. That’s a classic lesson in ecology, or at least field biology.

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