Field notes by J. Cantrell; photos courtesy of MO Dept. of Conservation

Many parents know the feeling all too well, the awareness of being an empty nester. People may experience the “storyline circumstance” most likely when their children graduate from high school and soon take to the big world. Our young adults begin a new life chapter seeking occupations and trade or continuing their education in college. The abandoned bedroom, closet space and even household meal habits usually change or get reshuffled by the residents staying on. The parents may feel a sudden gap or loss for chores and routines. But, eventually, the meals become tailored to those remaining. Closet space is always filled, and open bedrooms find other functions. 

This scenario is recognizable often in the animal kingdom, and this month marks our first empty nesters for the season. Wildlife spend a lot of investment in raising their offspring, and that period is a large part of their life cycle.  

Eastern bluebirds are recognized as early nesters, and bluebird landlords start putting up nest boxes in February. So, bluebirds are early for certain, and this gives them advantage for less competition for prime real estate before most songbirds are ready to set up housekeeping. However, they lag behind getting started by our resident barred and great horned owls.

These two owl species commence courting and defending their territory in the fall. Barred owls especially become very vocal at this time, and their riotous vocalizations of laughing, whooping and a call sounding like “Who Cooks for You? Who Cooks for You Alllllll?” are easy to identify. While the great horned owl has a “Whooo” or “Who Who” call, these calls seem simpler than the barred owl, but they may be just as complex. 

A naturalist observing owls can learn a great deal from the great horned owl calls; we notice single calls and a series of four or five deep, resonating hoots. Female hoots are higher pitched and shorter than the male’s, even though she dwarfs the male in size. Territory aggression is rare with these owls. They seem to work out boundary lines without quarrels or fights; perhaps their early vocals set down the rules of home range.

Both species use large cavities in trees, and great horned owls are also likely to use an old hawk nest and sheltered cliffs. Often, they accomplish nesting so early in the season they have the incubation and nesting period complete so other raptors and arboreal mammals may use the same site for their family needs.

March is a fun time to look for nesting owls while on a hike. Be observant of large cavity holes in old sycamore and oak trees and focus your binoculars on the top rim of last year’s red-tailed hawk nest. You might see the fuzzy heads or even an entire downy-covered owlet stretching and peering out. These observations are always best from a distance for we don’t want to disturb them or attract raccoon nest predators by leaving our scent around the nest tree too much. 

Great horned owls stay in the nest longer than barred owls. Barred owls may be very active before learning to fly. They may leave the nest between five and nine weeks, and siblings usually stay close together, “branching” in the canopy of the forest. They leave early for many reasons, some being that small cavity just feels too crowded. If they fall to the ground at this stage, young owls can grab rough bark on the tree trunk and climb back up to safety.  

Again, we see some resemblance in people/owl parental care. While the human moms and dads like to send care packages and help their college fledgling along with support, our owl parents continue to support the fledgling owls for months into the fall. Soon the vocalizations change, territory is defended, and the life cycle starts again.

Every aspect of nature is fascinating to watch, and March brings us many adventures. All the very best, and I look forward to meeting several of you on our Ozark trails! – Jeff