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story.lead_photo.caption Missouri Department of Conservation naturalist Alan Reed holds up a taxidermied barred owl during a virtual talk on the species. Barred owls are year-round residents in Missouri. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?"

Any Missourian who's set foot in the woods at night has likely heard the distinctive call of the barred owl. It's not the largest of Missouri's owls, nor the rarest, but it's a year-round resident whose hoots have delighted generations of Missourians.

"Quite often we hear them more than we see them," said Alan Reed, Missouri Department of Conservation naturalist.

During barred owl breeding season in February and March, they make what Reed referred to as a "monkey call." To hear barred owl hoots, screeches and more, visit the Cornell Lab website.

Reed, who works at the MDC nature center in Springfield, gave a virtual presentation on barred owls Tuesday.

The barred owl dwells in every county of Missouri, Reed said. It frequents forests with mature trees, but it sometimes pops up in suburbs or urban areas around parks or neighborhoods with streams and large trees.

Barred owls are sizable birds with rounded heads, a yellow beak and dark — almost black — eyes. They lack the ear tufts that make a great horned owl so distinctive. Their plumage is brown and white, with horizontal bars on the upper chest and vertical streaks on their belly.

Like other owls, barred owls have a number of special adaptations that make them formidable predators.

"Look how big his eyes are," Reed said, pulling up a picture. "They're almost as big as yours and mine."

Owls' huge eyes collect light during even the darkest of nights. The retina at the back of an owl's eye has light-receiving cells called rods and cones, just like a human eye. Cones capture color, while rods capture contrast and are invaluable for seeing in low light levels. Owl retinas are dense with rods.

"They can see in the daytime, but many times, they'll rest in the canopy of the trees," Reed said.

Unlike human eyes, owl eyes are fixed in the skull — they can't turn them without moving their whole head. Luckily, owls have incredibly flexible necks and can turn them up to 270 degrees. That's thanks to their muscles and extra bones in their neck.

"They have 14 vertebrae in their neck, while we humans only have seven," Reed explained.

Owls' feathers also have an important role to play. The feathers on their face form a "facial disk," almost like a satellite disk of feathers, directing sounds to their ear holes. One ear opening is higher on the head than the other, which allows them great accuracy in pinpointing the location of a sound. (Think of how a dog tilts its head when it hears something unusual.)

"They can locate a mouse under several inches of leaf litter or up to a foot of snow," Reed said.

The feathers on owls' wings have ragged edges, which breaks up the air that flows over their wings as they fly. Their flight is nearly silent, allowing them to sneak up on their prey.

Reed said barred owls will eat nearly any animal they can get their talons on and fit their beak around: rodents, squirrels, rabbits, birds, frogs, salamanders, crayfish, snakes, fish, and even small cats or dogs. That's one reason he recommends against leaving small pets outside at night.

"They're predatory by instinct," Reed added. "They do fish — that's not their number one food, but they'll capture anything they can see on top of the water."

Very little preys on barred owls, aside from humans and the larger, hungrier great-horned owl. Raccoons and other forest creatures will sometimes eat barred owl eggs — the birds tend to nest in tree cavities or, occasionally, abandoned hawk nests. Barred owls typically raise between two and three owlets a year in a single brood.

To view and register for upcoming MDC virtual classes, visit mdc.mo.gov/events.

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