Owls acting oddly — showing up in daylight
Reports of unusual behavior of barred owls have been coming in across Connecticut for the past few weeks.
The owls, which normally hunt at night are instead making “brazen, daylight appearances,” according to the Connecticut Audubon Society.
The normally inland birds, have also been spotted in many coastal towns.
“We’re getting reports from all over,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of the society.
Comins believes the boom could be because of a good breeding season and those young owls born last summer are spreading out to new territory, which can encompass 600 acres or more. It’s also believed the lack of small rodents is forcing the owls to hunt outside of their normal places and times to ensure they can eat.
There have been 69 barred owl spottings recorded on Cornell University’s eBird.org in the first three weeks of January, compared to 39 for all of January 2018, 40 for January 2017, and 32 for January 2016.
“They’re fairly common and widespread,” Comins said. “It’s just that they’re highly nocturnal and camouflaged so it’s hard to see them.”
Barred owls are about 21 inches tall, with rounded heads and feathers that create a bar like pattern. Though they are big and distinct, their dark eyes, light gray coloring and patterning, help them hide in the pines and trees where they roost.
Comins first realized something was abnormal when he saw one at Stratford Point in December. He then started seeing a lot of dead barred owls along the road and people started sending the society pictures of sightings.
The dead owls also tipped off Brian Hess, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, that there were more barred owls than usual. He said there were a series of days in a row when people brought in dead barred owls and he heard about increases in owls struck by cars that were being treated at rehabilitation centers.
The Wildlife in Crisis center in Weston reported treating 45 barred owls and Horizon Wings Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Ashford reported 25 treated this winter, according to a press release.
Just over the state line in Brewster, N.Y., Green Chimneys has had at least one or two a week brought to its rehabilitation center. Paul Kupchok, the wildlife specialist there, said it was a surprise to get one or two total about 30 years ago.
“Now in 2019, we get more barred owls than any hawk or eagle,” he said, adding it’s generally 15 to 20 annually.
The barred owls are found all over the state, though they tend to favor wetlands and red maple swamps, which is one of Connecticut’s most popular habitats.
The owls eat small animals, such as mice, moles, crayfish, frogs, salamanders and even small birds.
In the winter, the water dwellers are harder to find so the owls rely more on small rodents. The mice and mole populations tend to fluctuate based on their typical population patterns, much like a bumper crop. Right now, that cycle is at a low point, making it harder for the owls to find food and forcing them to pop up in places and during times they aren’t normally seen.
Comins also believes the population in general has increased, though he said it’s hard to know the exact numbers because they’re hard to see.
He suspects the wet spring and summer played a role in this because it created prime growing conditions for the animals the barred owls eat, which led in turn to a good breeding season.
Though it’s hard to tell the difference between adults and juveniles, scientists suspect the bulk of the sightings are of younger birds, who are the ones that tend to leave to find new territories, aren’t as good at hiding and not as experienced at hunting.
It’s often the juveniles that are struck by cars as they try to find food by the roadways.
“For a lot of raptors, the first year is really low for survival,” Hess said. “Being a hunter takes skill and they might not necessarily have that skill yet.”
Comins encourages people to report their sightings to the e-bird site so that scientists can track and predict the birds’ range changes. The information is also used for the Connecticut Bird Atlas Project, which will be an important conservation tool to see which lands should be protected to help different bird species.
People should keep their distance, though, while watching the owls so they don’t fly off and use the energy they’re conserving.
“Birds are stressed this time of year,” Hess said. “That’s energy they don’t have to forage or keep warm.”