Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

December 2017

Vol. 45, No. 6

Field Notes: The "Dinner’s Ready" Call of the Barred Owl

Alfred Maley

Having a pair of Barred Owls nesting in my yard in Hampstead, New Hampshire, for two years has provided an insight into how the female communicates with her mate during the nesting period and also how she communicates with her newly fledged young. In a previous article (Bird Observer October 2015, Volume 43, Number 5, pp. 294-298) I described the "listless Sora" or admonition call of the female to her mate once the young have hatched but are still in the nest. Also called a "begging call" by scientists, I interpret it as, "Honey, we're still here. Bring food!"

Once the young fledge there is a second, much softer call that the female uses, when she has a food item, to locate the young and assess their level of hunger. I alluded to this call in the article, but was unable to describe it clearly, except to say that it started with a variant of the "listless Sora" call and had a different ending. This year, under extraordinary circumstances, I heard this call and can describe it.

The call is soft as it is only meant for the youngsters, who are all within a hundred meters or so. There is no point in attracting potential predators, like a Great Horned Owl. This year I was standing within six meters of the female who had just obtained a prey item. The young were in the trees above and around us. She called four times in quick succession. The call began with the Sora thing and then ended with a sharp EEK, reminiscent of the call of the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. There was no opportunity to record the call and the situation did not recur.

The purpose of the call is to locate the young, who responded immediately with a hiss. The strength of the hiss probably indicates the hunger level. At any rate, the female went off and fed just one of the young.

This call is somewhat academic since humans are unlikely ever to hear it. Unlike the admonition call, which humans can hear for perhaps a few hundred meters (and owls much farther), the "Dinner's Ready" call is not audible beyond a hundred meters, and most female owls would be reticent to call in the presence of a human intruder. But in this case, we're old friends.

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