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Encountering An Owl Can Be Wonderful

Barred Owls make a huge variety of hoots and hollers that echo through local forests. Photo by Jeff Tome

The sound startled my daughter and I as we walked through the mid-afternoon forest. A loud echoing hoot shot across the valley. The sound was coming from a dense patch of hemlock trees up the hill. It was close, very close. Scary close to someone who didn’t know what they were hearing, like my daughter.

I made an answering hoot to the pattern of “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” — the distinct hooting of a Barred Owl. Seconds later, it hooted back at me from its hidden perch in the hemlocks. We slipped closer to where the sound was coming from.

Just as I was about to pretend to be an owl again, an answering call came from further down the valley. The owls hooted back and forth in a distant duet, perhaps flirting, perhaps staking claim to the mouse-ridden forest in which we were standing.

We listened, edging closer silently, but the owls stopped.

Barred Owls are one of three owls that are common in the area. They are a brown crow-sized owl that can be startlingly loud at any time of day or night. While the “who cooks for you?” hoot is the most easily recognized, they make a wide variety of sounds. They hoot, hiss, and even make crazed monkey sounds, depending on the time of year.

Barred Owls get their name from the brown bars across their body that helps them stay hidden in the forest. These birds live in local forests and wooded neighborhoods, where they eat huge numbers of rodents. One of the problems that they can run into is second-hand poisoning. Like many birds that hunt mice, Barred Owls sometimes eat a mouse that was poisoned. If they eat enough poisoned mice, their stomach hemorrhages, and they die.

It is easy to forget that the products we use don’t always stay where we put them. Poisons move up the food chain to the next predator, killing more than just the mice in the garage or barn. Lead bullet fragments in gut piles kill still more birds. A lead fragment the size of a grain of rice can kill an eagle. Fertilizers and poisons on lawns wash downhill into local lakes and streams. Nothing stays where we expect it.

I find this humbling. It’s good to remember how bad we are at predicting the consequences of our actions two or three times removed. It is doubtful that a person poisoning mice has a vendetta against owls or that a hunter using lead shot wants to kill the eagles, but we cannot always predict what happens with what we do.

Perhaps it is best to simply be more conservative and cautious with the things we do on this earth to limit the unintended negative effects we have.

Jeff Tome is a Senior Naturalist and Exhibits Coordinator at the Audubon Community Nature Center, a former CWC board director and a longtime CWC volunteer.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.

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