What a hoot: Barred owls showing up in 'funny places'

Groton — One night in Mystic a couple of years ago, Maggie Jones' husband, Jim Roy, spotted a half-dozen flying squirrels lined up along a tree trunk and taking turns swooping 15 feet toward the couple's birdfeeder, snagging a few bites, jumping down and getting back in line.

"It's interesting what happens at your feeder at night," said Jones, senior director at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic.

But Jones said the flying squirrels, mice, rats and other small mammals that frequent bird feeders should keep their eyes peeled for birds of prey, with the Connecticut Audubon Society recently announcing that a "barred owl boom" is underway this year.

"Barred owls and red-shouldered hawks have learned that bird feeders are banquets," said Jones, who's been at the nature center for 27 years and has never seen or taken as many calls on barred owls as she has in recent months. "People are noticing. We think that's wonderful because we want people to get closer to nature and there's nothing more charismatic than an owl to do that."

In just the first three weeks of January, observers pinned almost 70 barred owl sightings on Cornell University's eBird.org maps, compared to no more than 40 pins in January each of the last three years, according the Connecticut Audubon Society.

The striking, 20-inch barred owls — primarily dusk-till-dawn hunters and typically spotted inland — also are "making brazen, daylight appearances throughout Connecticut," including shoreline areas, the Audubon Society said. The owls have been surprising residents and bird peepers in yards and parks, on vehicles and buildings, and all over social media.

The nature center, which rehabilitates wildlife, including birds of prey, took in 12 barred owls in 2018, many of them injured during collisions with cars or buildings. In 2017, the nature center rehabilitated 10 barred owls; in 2016, only five, according to animal curator Lori Edwards.

The outdoor education and wildlife rehabilitation program at Waterford Country School also has seen "a tremendous upswing in the barred owl population over the last two years, not only here on our 300 acres of woodland on campus, but all over Connecticut as many have been brought to us by brave citizens and police officers after getting hit by cars," outdoor education director Ben Turner said.

"I am a big fan of barred owls for their resilience and ability to fight back against adversity. When the going gets tough, they inspire us all to keep doing whatever it takes," Turner noted. He added that even though their striped feathers allow for heavy camouflage in trees, residents often identify them with a familiar hoot that sounds like "whooo cooks for you."

'Bountiful encounters'

The barred owl uptick has perplexed experts, with some saying there's a rise in population — forcing birds to venture farther to hunt in areas where they aren't typically seen — and others saying food levels (either high or low) are sparking the unusual daytime sightings.

Patrick Comins and Milan Bull, Connecticut Audubon Society's executive director and director of science and conservation, respectively, initially suggested the increased sightings likely stem from an abundance of rodents. Rain and dampness last spring and summer, they hypothesized, created "prime growing conditions for small mammals such as squirrels and mice, and for amphibians such as frogs and salamanders, all of which barred owls feast on."

But the group issued a follow-up news release this past week, citing some experts who said there wasn't necessarily an owl population surge; rather, rodent counts are down this year, forcing hungry barred owls to hunt for food at odd times and places.

After 2016 and 2017 "banner years" for small mammal trappings, 2018 was a "poor rodent year," Scott Williams, a wildlife biologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, said in a statement.

Barred owls "are desperate for food and are hunting roadside, being dumb, and hunting during the day. Driving around the state I am seeing dead owls and hawks everywhere," Williams said.

'Fat and happy'

Jones and Edwards said they believe the barred owl population still is up, along with the population of their daytime hunting counterparts, red-shouldered hawks.

"Wherever you have barred owls by night, you have red-shouldered hawks by day," Jones said. "They share the same ecological requirements and eat the same food but at different times, so they're not competing against each other."

Sure enough, the nature center has admitted just as many red-shouldered hawks as barred owls each of the last two years, Edwards said.

Jones argued the rise in rodent numbers in recent years has led to "bountiful encounters with wildlife," including coyotes, foxes, bobcats, barred owls and other animals "all over southeastern Connecticut ... and in urban landscapes, which we now know they're well adapted to. When there's plenty of food, instead of one barred owl chick surviving, maybe all four survive."

"Many of the barred owls we're finding are well fed, fat and happy, not starving to death," she added. "They're just showing up in funny places."

Jones noted during the recent "owl wave," most taken in by the nature center have been young birds, "inexperienced and exploring all the options and hunting in marginal areas. They haven't learned all the tricks."

Edwards suggested that in extreme cold, it's harder for the owls to find food, so they often wind up struck by vehicles while "going for roadkill."

'Start from the head and you work down'

Edwards, a certified animal rehabilitator and former EMT, said part of the nature center's mission is to help the public and "help them feel good about helping the animal."

"Quite often, people will call me in tears," she said. "It might be their first interaction with an owl when they're hurt, so it can be very upsetting."

While the nature center advises people to keep their distance from injured owls, some people bring in the birds. But most of the time, Edwards, who keeps a pet carrier and net in the trunk of her car, goes out with an assistant to respond to reports of an injured owl.

"As an EMT you start from the head and you do a rapid trauma assessment," she said. "That's what we do. Start at the head and you work down. I never thought I'd be using my EMT skills on a bird."

Jones said sometimes a bird is alert, interested in food and has no obvious injuries. The nature center keeps it for a few days, tests it out in a flight enclosure and, if ready, Edwards releases the owl back at a safe spot near the location it was found.

"Many of them are a relatively easy fix: food and water and a little TLC (tender loving care), maybe an infection and we can give it antibiotics," Jones said. "But there are a lot that don't have happy endings, terrible compound fractures or a wing ripped off. We have to make some really tough decisions."

Jones added that the "saddest thing you ever want to see" is a bird impacted by secondary poisoning after eating a poisoned mouse or rat.

"Much better than poison is to just let the owls do their thing," she said. "You can't buy better rodent control than a barred owl."

The nature center houses about 15 owls, including great horned owls, screech owls, short-eared owls and saw-whet owls.

At the Waterford Country School, a group of resident injured barred owls known as "Wesley and friends ... act as buddies nurturing the new injured owls back to health faster, so they can be released," Turner said.

Turner added that students and staff from the country school, Montville's Palmer Academy, Leonard J. Tyl Middle School and Waterford High School also "play a significant role in helping care for our injured wildlife, farm and nature center animals. They grind it out with us and know it's purposeful work."

b.kail@theday.com

What to do when you see a barred owl

Visit www.ctbirdatlas.org for information on how to record the sightings. The Connecticut Bird Atlas project is sponsored by the Connecticut Audubon Society.

You can also share your sightings at ebird.org, which is maintained by Cornell University in New York.

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