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  • Shannon Carnevale & Hanley Renney

Tiny Dancers: Young Barred Owls Taking on the World

Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all? I’m sitting around a fire pit with my family on an early summer evening when our conversation is halted by this echoing call.

Two silent shadows plunge over our fire, pulling up to land on a branch just above my head. The pair of barred owls stares us down, their deep black eyes glowing with the light of the flames.

Another form swoops up to the branch, landing clumsily and skipping along the bark to regain its balance. This owl is a juvenile, the feathers around its head ruffled and messy in comparison with the sleek plumage of the adults.

The young owl bobs its head in circles, leaning and dancing as if it is performing for us. With its eyes still locked on us, the owl tilts its head to the side and lets out a long, high-pitched screeeeech, before gliding back into the darkness.

After seeing this pair’s owlets mature year after year, I have grown increasingly intrigued and entertained by the behavior of juvenile barred owls. Though they can be elusive, these birds are highly curious and intelligent creatures, and you may encounter one in a rural area, local park, or even in your neighborhood! Juveniles are often found hopping around, practicing their hunting skills on small lizards and frogs, and trying to get a closer peek at anything they find interesting.

A juvenile barred owl’s story begins late in the winter, when adult pairs initiate courtship and mating. It is common for barred owls to mate for life, so these pairs may already be very familiar with one another. In Florida, mating typically occurs from January to March, followed by an incubation period of 28 to 33 days.

Barred owl chicks are altricial, meaning that they are helpless at birth and require intense parental care. For the first few weeks of life, the owlets receive food from their parents, meaning that the adult pair must hunt for two to four additional little beaks!

The chicks grow quickly, and within about a month, they venture away from the nest for the very first time. There are then two big challenges: learning to fly and learning to hunt. These processes take place over several weeks, making early summer the best time to observe juvenile owls learning about the world around them!

When the owlets first emerge from the nest, they are still covered in fuzzy, light grey feathers, but they soon develop more structured feathers that will aid in flight, a process known as fledging. As the young barred owls grow more comfortable outside of the nest, they become more outgoing in their movements, hopping from branch to branch and covering longer distances, until they are able to glide through the air as swiftly and silently as their parents. As owlets are learning to fly, they are often found on the ground. However, their parents are likely nearby, and they don’t need rescuing! It’s all just a part of the process.

Learning to hunt is also a process of trial and error. Owlets will perch on a low branch next to an adult, waiting for an unsuspecting lizard to scurry within range before pinning it with its talons. Next it is the young owl’s turn; when prey ventures close enough, the juvenile will jump down, copying the movements of the adult. If they successfully pin down the prey, the owlet is in for a delicious snack!

A juvenile barred owl’s silly head-bobbing dance also plays a role in improving hunting skills. Barred owls have incredible head and neck mobility, but their eyes are nearly fixed in place. To combat this limitation, owls will attempt to get a look at something from as many different angles as possible, so that they can narrow down exactly where and how far away the object is. So, although they may look funny, these little dancers are really just trying to become more deadly hunters!

Understanding the curiosity of juvenile barred owls is crucial in safely observing and interacting with them in their natural habitat. The only animals that should really be afraid of barred owls are their prey: rodents, small amphibians, and invertebrates. In fact, barred owls are some of the most skilled rodent predators around. However, concerns for human or pet safety often arise when owls are nearby. Their friendly nature may come across as aggression, and their thunderous calls can be unnerving.

It is best to practice safe and respectful wildlife viewing techniques if you are ever around barred owls.

• If you see an owl, try not to get too close, as this may startle or frighten them, or scare away any potential prey that it is searching for!

• Avoid playing pre-recorded calls to try to draw owls closer to you; this may confuse the owl

• If a barred owl lands close to you, remain as still as possible. The owl is likely just as intrigued by you, as you are by it!

• If you come across a barred owl that is sick or hurt, it is best not to touch it. Instead, call FWC’s wildlife alert hotline at 1-888-404-3922, or your FWC regional office to have the animal looked at by a professional.

As we move into summer, newly independent barred owls all around the state will begin to pack up and leave home, making room for next year’s chicks. If you have trees in your yard or on your property, you can help maintain owl habitat by leaving any mature, healthy hardwood trees standing, as these function as prime nesting sites. Soon enough, you may have some feathered, dancing friends of your own! And even if you don’t see any barred owls nearby, keep your ears perked at night for that telltale call: who cooks for you, who cooks for you all!

This article was written by Natural Resources Extension Program Intern, Ms. Hanley Renney, under supervision by Natural Resources and Conservation Extension Agent, Mrs. Shannon Carnevale.

Photograph by Hanley Renney


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