Mystery chef

barred owl with crayfish
Barred owls always want to know who prepares your meals, but they don't spend much time preparing their own dinners (Photo: Matthew Paulson, Creative Commons license)

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“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

With Thanksgiving less than 2 weeks away, that’s the question on everyone’s lips. Even those who don’t have lips, like the barred owl (Strix varia)—a species that seems to be innately, and oddly, curious about kitchen staffing.

If these owls had access to cable television I’m sure they would love The Food Network. Since they are a protected species and can’t be hunted they could watch Extreme Chef, Good Eats, and Throwdown with Bobby Flay without having to worry about seeing any family members on the menu. As long as a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) doesn’t become the Next Iron Chef, that is—where their ranges overlap, our largest North American owl poses the greatest predation risk to our feathered foodie.

As far as their own palate goes, Thanksgiving with The Barreds is meat-centric. No cranberry sauce or green bean casserole, or even pumpkin pie. Turkey is less likely to be served than rodents, rabbits, bats, weasels, opossums, small-to-medium fowl (e.g., woodpeckers, quail, pigeons, and the occasional duck), reptiles, and amphibians. Oh, and don’t be surprised to find crawfish as the featured dish. They are favorite repast—so much so that the belly feathers of some barred owls may turn pink from carotenoids found in the shells.* To tell you the truth, I have a strong suspicion that Cajun and Creole cuisines would be a big hit with this crowd and that Emeril Live would be a guilty viewing pleasure.

You’ll find barred owls shopping for groceries in woodlands throughout much of Canada and down into parts of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. They are also well established across the eastern half of the U.S., and their range has been expanding westward. They may be curious about who’s preparing your meals, but they put as little effort as possible into their own supper. Opportunist is a more accurate description that epicurean—why fly all over town to Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma at the end of the day in search of exotic eats when you can hang out on a comfy branch, eyes and ears open, and wait for something edible to wander by? A little help from gravity as you descend toward dinner… and then—GULP!—down the hatch. No dishes to wash up afterwards, either!

A round face, large liquid eyes, and a general I’m-not-fat-I’m-fluffy appearance give the barred owl a gentle countenance, but don’t be fooled. You know how territorial even the most homey, hospitable people can get when it comes to recipes, cookware, and all things related to food preparation? Then it should come as no surprise to you that this seemingly mild-mannered bird can boil over like the host of Hell’s Kitchen when defending its turf against interlopers.  Aggression isn’t limited to their own kind either. Barred owls will shoo away the less assertive and near-threatened northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) too, in parts of the Pacific Northwest where both species are found.

If you can’t stand the heat, as they say…

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* These same compounds are what give flamingos their signature South Beach hue.

UPDATE: We did it!  Thanks to everyone who helped me to achieve my goal of reaching 10,000 hits on the NDN site by the end of this 1-year anniversary week. We made it over the top on Tuesday, November 15 — 3 days to spare! Thanks also for all your positive feedback and support during this past year. It has, and will continue to be, greatly appreciated.  ~ Kieran

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.

3 Replies to “Mystery chef”

  1. I loved reading about the barred owl and the way you describe their eating habits (or not!)
    Owls in general are such fascinating and interesting birds, and I love the way they look at you!
    I’d like to share your post on my FB page which is about animals, and hope it helps you reach your second goal of 10,000 hits! Let me know if it’s ok.

  2. Great post and information! I wonder if you might have any insight into a situation I recently photographed — where a Barred Owl swooped down on a child’s backpack (furry toy attached), then grabbed the boy’s hat off his head. The owl took the hat up to a nearby limb, toyed with it in her beak and talons, and held it for probably 10 or 15 minutes before dropping it below to the waiting youngster. Do you have any idea if this might have been mistaken identity (prey), territorial behavior, or some other manifestation of Barred Owl Curiosity? I haven’t had in-depth field experience with owls. Here’s the photo and blurb: http://bit.ly/tlDoEO

    1. Hi Ingrid. I’m so glad to know you enjoyed this essay. It could very well be that your barred owl mistook the furry toy for food — although perhaps s/he had an even bigger meals in mind. My guess is that it was probably a young bird who needs some time to hone its hunting skills (not to mention the ability to recognize that trying to carry off a little boy falls under the heading of “biting off more than you can chew”). That could explain why the bird would be hungry enough to throw caution to the wind and attempt a risky daylight raid!

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