[FYI… Feathered Feature is switching to a winter schedule of every-other-week posts. There are still plenty of birds in the park during the colder months but with everyone (that includes me) extra busy over the holidays, it seems like a reasonable time for semi-hibernation.]
With Thanksgiving 2 weeks away, that’s the question on everyone’s lips… even those who don’t have lips, like the Barred Owl (Strix varia), a species that seems to be innately, and oddly, curious about kitchen staffing.
If these owls had access to cable television I’m sure they would love The Food Network. Since they’re a protected species and can’t be hunted they could watch Chopped, Good Eats, and Beat Bobby Flay without having to worry about seeing any family members on the menu. As long as a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) doesn’t become the next Iron Chef, that is—where their ranges overlap (which includes Saint Louis) this largest of North America’s owls poses the greatest predation risk to our feathered foodie.
As far as their own palate goes, Thanksgiving with The Barreds is definitely meat-centric. No cranberry sauce or green bean casserole, or even pumpkin pie. Turkey is less likely to be served than rodents, rabbits, bats, weasels, opossums, small-to-medium fowl (e.g., woodpeckers, quail, pigeons, and the occasional duck), reptiles, and amphibians. Oh, and don’t be surprised to find crawfish as the featured dish if the chef lives near a stream. Crustaceans are a favorite repast—so much so that the belly feathers of some barred owls may turn pink from carotenoids found in the shells.* To tell you the truth, I have a strong suspicion that Cajun and Creole cuisines would be a big hit with this crowd and that Emeril Lagasse is a revered role model.
You’ll find barred owls shopping for groceries in woodlands throughout much of Canada and down into parts of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. They’re also well established across the eastern half of the U.S., and their range has been expanding westward. Barreds may be curious about who’s preparing your meals, but they put as little effort as possible into their own supper. Opportunist is a more accurate description that epicurean—why fly all over town to Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma at the end of the day, searching for exotic eats, when you can hang out on a comfy branch, eyes and ears open, and wait for something edible to wander by? A little help from gravity as you descend toward dinner… and then—GULP!—down the hatch. No dishes to wash up afterwards, either!
A round face, large liquid eyes, and a general I’m-not-fat-I’m-fluffy appearance give the Barred Owl a gentle countenance, but don’t be fooled. You know how territorial even the most homey, hospitable people can get when it comes to recipes, kitchens, cookware, and all things related to food preparation? Then it should come as no surprise to you that this seemingly mild-mannered bird can boil over like Gordon Ramsay when defending its turf against interlopers. Aggression isn’t limited to their own kind either. Barred Owls will shoo away the less assertive and near-threatened northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) too, in parts of the Pacific Northwest where both species are found.
Kieran J. Lindsey, PhD, is an urban wildlife biologist, writer, and personal assistant to her wire-fox terrier, Dash. Kieran is co-author of Urban Wildlife Management, the first textbook on the subject. Additional wildlife career experiences include: Executive Director of the TWRC wildlife rehabilitation and education center (1997-1999, Houston, TX); former columnist for the Houston Chronicle newspaper (The Urban Jungle, 1998-2001); producer, writer, and host of Wild Things Radio!on KUNM-FM (1999-2001, Albuquerque, NM); Emmy® award-winning documentary producer. Currently, Kieran is Director of Virginia Tech's Online Master of Natural Resources program, Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, and blogger at nextdoornature.org. She lives and works in Lafayette Square (because the Internet is amazing).