There are shrieking, airborne killers among us

Doug Kneibert - Contributing Columnist

Doug Kneibert

Contributing Columnist

Let’s take a break from politics and the world’s problems this week. Besides, I want to talk to you about a killer who lives in my neighborhood.

Yes, I said killer. But we get along OK, I don’t bother him and he doesn’t bother me. But I can’t say the same for certain other residents of my neighborhood.

I am fortunate to live in a part of town with many tall trees. They attract a large population of red squirrels. The squirrels, in turn, attract a formidable member of the bird family that is more than happy to keep their numbers in check.

I’m speaking of the barred owl.

I stepped outside the other evening at dusk, just in time to witness – and hear, for barred owl calls are unmistakable – the demise of a squirrel that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As dusk falls, barred owls, which roost during the day, have worked up a powerful appetite. This one swooped straight down from a tree, its huge wings breaking its fall, with a startling “screeching” sound. It was the last thing the squirrel was destined to hear in this life.

Up to 20 or more inches in height and with a wingspan of four feet or more, the barred owl is only slightly smaller than the great horned owl, the king of the owl family.

Barred owls have a high tolerance for human activity, and you might have heard them call out at night with their distinctive “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all?” vocal pattern. The barred is the proverbial “hoot owl” you’ve always heard about. They also can bark like a dog and scream like a woman. When mating calls are going back and forth, things can get really weird.

The barred owl takes its name from the brown vertical barring on its abdomen. It has no ear tufts like the horned owl, and its dark eyes are centered in a concentric circular pattern. Like all owls, its eye sockets are fixed. But no problem, for it can rotate its neck and head 270 degrees. Its vision at night, when it prefers to do its hunting, is superb.

Despite what appears to be a fairly small mouth, the barred owl prefers to swallow its prey whole – none of that chew-every-bite stuff. What it doesn’t need it later vomits out. Not exactly my idea of fine dining, but who am I to say?

Squirrels aren’t the only diet of the barred owl: if it moves on the ground, it’s fair game. They have been known to fly off with house cats in their sharp yellow talons. If you live where barred owls are known to hang out, you cat lovers might want to keep that in mind before putting Puss in Boots out at night.

“Nature,” wrote Tennyson, is “red in tooth and claw.” But that doesn’t keep me from appreciating it – even when a bloody life-or-death struggle is played out right in my own backyard.

Doug Kneibert is a former editor of the Sedalia Democrat.

Doug Kneibert is a former editor of the Sedalia Democrat.

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