This silent shadow speaks when spoken to

This silent shadow speaks when spoken to
John C. Lorson

One of Ohio’s most common owl species, a barred owl enjoys a view of passersby on the Holmes County Trail before it begins its nightly ramblings. Not shy about its vocal ability, its call is a standard in woodland lore. The bird seems to ask, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”


The black and white landscape of the winter woods holds an almost impossible hush, a silence so still it seems to pull all sound groundward to bury it under the snow. Even the snap of a twig — the clumsy, clamorous announcement that man is about — is muted in a wash of white. It’s a good time to be out in the woods with eyes wide open and ears tuned toward infinity.

Naked trees and the world in white, the movement of a shadow is an instant tell. While the landscape may seem barren and abandoned, many of the creatures that live there are still about, though keeping short hours and laying low until the worst of the moment has passed.

If you wish to experience a glimmer of rebirth, go into the woods as the temperature climbs back toward the 30s after a cold snap. You’d think spring had arrived in full bloom. The winter birds — cardinals, chickadees and blue jays — jump through the brush in a Mardi Gras parade of merriment, making the most of what will invariably be followed by another austere period of “hunker and wait.”

But in the days of quiet white, I like to move slowly through the trees and with an eye toward mid-level branches and shadowed cavities. Dusk is a particularly good time, for it is then my favorite quarry is on the rise. The owl happily takes the second shift while his raptor kin roost for the night.

It’s easy to forget about owls while wandering the daytime world. With hawks and now even eagles all about in area skies, there is always something to draw a nature watcher’s interest. Sometimes it takes a reminder that owls are likely all around us. I got just such a nudge the other evening as I was riding home from work.

In new snow, traveling the trail by bicycle is about as peaceful as it gets. Reveling in the quiet, I watched for deer and one particular red fox that lays tracks all across my path but has only revealed himself in one moment this winter. With my gaze fixed on the lower landscape, I didn’t have a clue what was coming until a feathered shadow dove from a nearby tree to cross the trail just in front of me. It pulling up at the last minute to perch on the broad branch of a dead ash tree about 40 yards away. The barred owl was likely as surprised as I was to find another creature stirring so close at hand.

The barred owl is among the three most common owls found in our region. The eastern screech owl and the great horned owl fill out the top of the order. The barred owl favors mature forests and woodlots for the nesting opportunities afforded by hollowed-out cavities in beech and sycamore trees. An able predator of small land animals like voles, mice and chipmunks, the barred owl also claims a bit of swagger as an adept fisherman and frog catcher.

Seasonally flooded or continuously damp woodlots provide a smorgasbord for the adaptable creature. A barred owl that’s taken up housekeeping in the right location will never have to travel far for its nightly meal, or food for the family. Once you’ve located a barred owl, you may very well find it very near the same spot again and again.

The owl that swooped past me just last week is likely one of a pair I’d spotted frequently last year in the very same area. Easily watched from the trail, they were never so shy as to dash entirely away when I pulled out my camera. This particular owl seemed very willing to pose for a portrait; however, the light had faded to where I could barely make out whether the bird was facing me or looking away. In an effort to draw his gaze, I gave the old, standard barred-owl call, which is one of the simplest to remember and easiest to imitate in all of the bird world: “Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you-all?”

Not only did the distant bird clearly turn in my direction, but another more delightful response came from nearly above my head as, only 20 or 30 feet away from me, the owl’s mate called back, revealing herself with a simple, “Who?”

I’ll have more on the owls next time around, but until then why not head out to the nearest woodlot at dusk and ask who’s doing the cooking?

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email

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