Tuesday Tune

photograph and text by Brian Wilson

What does the Barred Owl Sound like?
Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-allll?

Descending from the summit of Beech Hill a couple weeks ago, I’d just entered the woods when I heard what at first sounded like the distant barking of a dog. Within a few minutes, however, I’d approached the sound’s source near enough to recognize the phrasing: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-allll?”

The call of a barred owl.

The species is arguably Maine’s most common owl—the others being the larger great horned and the diminutive saw-whet (whose voice sounds like a rapid series of metallic notes)—and is not overly shy. You’ll sometimes see barred owls at dawn or at dusk or on cloudy days perched in full view. They’re “earless” owls with eyes like bottomless black pools. In winter on the Beech Hill trails I sometimes see their wing prints in the snow where they’ve snatched up a meadow vole.

But whereas they’re certainly impressive to look at, it’s their voice that’ll thrill you. Or at least it does me. Although they’re more vocal in late-winter and early-spring, they’ll call at just about any time of year. Famously, they’ll even get into little musical back-and-forth sessions with other owls, almost as if singing a round.

“Who cooks for you-allll?”

It’s a familiar phrase in these parts—and one that, when imitated by a human voice, can call barred owls in close. (A particularly expert impression delivered by a friend of mine has fooled me more than once.) But it’s not all they say. In fact, their vocalizations show crazy variety and can sound like whistles, screams, laughter, and the howls of exotic monkeys.

More than once they’ve fooled me into thinking I had some bizarre vagrant bird species—maybe even a supernatural visitor—out in my midnight dooryard. When all’s it was was my old friend, barred owl.