If you’re out for a walk in the woods and hear what sounds like someone asking “Who cooks for you?” chances are it’s not coming from a curious chef, it’s coming from a barred owl.
The barred owl call sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for youuu?” which is a strange question to hear while walking around the forest. I always feel like responding back “Well, who cooks for you?” but of course, not much cooking is involved with a meal for an owl!
Owls don’t have the luxury of a barbecue or oven. They don’t even have a fridge. Instead, they eat rodents, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, or invertebrates—a veritable smorgasbord. You may even find the leftovers scattered on the ground around a tree. As owls can’t digest fur, feathers, or bones, they cough those up in the form of a pellet. Pellets are a neat way to tell what the owl had for a meal.
I’ve been amazed by owls ever since I was young. As a child, I would hear the calls of two great horned owls outside my bedroom window and wonder what they were saying (maybe chatting about cooking tips?). Owls have one of the few birdcalls I can hear as I’m hard of hearing and can’t catch the high-pitched sounds of most birds. This is really a blessing, though, since I’m a night owl (sorry) and waking up to the chatter of birds in the morning would be noisy.
It’s no wonder we can refer to ourselves as night owls—most owls are nocturnal. They roost on branches or in wildlife tree cavities during the day and hunt at night. But how do owls hunt at night? It’s dark, it’s quiet, and any noise an owl might make would alert its prey to hide from danger.
Fortunately for owls, they have some stealthy adaptations to night hunting. The soft, comb-like edges of their wings dampen the sound of the air flowing over their feathers, giving them silent flight. Other birds make a swish, swish, swish noise with their wings—or so I’ve been told—but owls glide on their silent wings.
Owls also have very large eyes. If our eyes were the same size, as far as the body-to-eye ratio goes, they would be the size of baseballs! The bigger your eye, the more light it can let in, which means better sight at night. Plus, owl eyes have densely-packed light-sensitive cells in their retina, while we only have these cells around the outside edges of our eyes.
Owls also have a mirror at the back of their eye, a tapetum lucidum, in technical terms. This mirror allows light to reflect back at the rods, giving the owl a second chance at catching light. If you’ve ever been walking at night with a flashlight and seen two eyes glowing at you from the bushes, it’s an animal with a tapetum lucidum. We don’t have them since the mirror would make our daytime vision blurry.
Their large eyes are also the reason why owls can move their heads almost 270 degrees. If our eyes were the size of baseballs, they would be very difficult to hold in our skulls. Owls have boney rings to hold their eyes in, but this means they can’t move their eyeballs around like we do. For owls to see what’s around them, they have to turn their whole head.
This turning of the head also helps owls have amazing hearing. With their disk-shaped face, sound is captured and channeled to their ears. Their ears are on either side of their head—like us—but they have one ear higher than the other. This helps owls to tell where their next meal is in an up-and-down direction. By bobbing their head, they’re triangulating where their prey is exactly.
Owls are truly master hunters of the night and it’s always a treat to see or hear them. If you hear a low “hoo hoo” in the forest, it’ll be the great horned owl, while that distinctive “who cooks for you?” belongs to the barred owl. Both are common to Vancouver Island and live here year-round. Next time you’re out in a regional park, listen closely and maybe you’ll answer the call.
If you’d like to learn more about owls join one of CRD’s guided nature outings suitable for both children and adults.
Lauren Sherwood is a Parks Naturalist with the Capital Regional District. Please visit the website for the calendar of events crd.bc.ca/about/events