Dewey: The Wild Resident Barred Owl of VINS

by Anna Caputo
Americorps Member

Dewey. Photo by Emily Johnson.

This winter has brought some interesting wildlife to VINS. Boreal migrants like Pine Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls have come into the rehab center with broken wings or head trauma. A Pileated Woodpecker came to the suet at our bird feeders. Even subnivean or “under-snow-dwelling” mammals like ermine have poked their white furred heads up from the snow to peer at the goings-on. The most frequent visitor by far has been our wild Barred Owl. In the tradition of how we name our captive education birds, we named our wild resident Dewey after Dewey’s Pond located at the edge of the VINS campus. We are not sure if Dewey is male or female, though I suspect male because he has boisterously hooted back and forth with our 27-year-old retired female Barred Owl, Milton.

Dewey is a typical Vermont Barred Owl, light grey with chocolate brown stripes across his plumage and startlingly large eyes. We first noticed him occupying the tree branches near our campus bird feeders, much to the chagrin of our chickadees and red squirrels. He usually sits drowsy and basking in the morning sunbeams, his eyes squinted shut in the warmth. More often than not, anxious songbirds or peeved corvids berate him from the surrounding boughs. Slowly you’ll see him turn his head, as if ever so slightly interested in the chaos, but ultimately deciding that effort of flying away isn’t worth giving up the sunshine.

Lately, we have all noticed our “lazy” Barred getting bolder in his choice of perches. He seems to have no qualms about sitting comfortably above pathways trafficked by humans. At first it was a spectacle; Dewey would appear at our Owl Prowl events perched casually on top of the Songbird Exhibit or lurking in the forest on the second day of Owl Festival. Then he started coming a little too close for comfort. Recently, he’s been cozying up on the railing of the wooden bridge on the path to the administration building or on the roof of the new bird enclosure building. There was a time where I walked out of the bird enclosures to see him napping in the lower branches of a hemlock, 15 feet away from a path frequented by educators transporting our raptors.

This has been a tough winter for non-migratory predators. Usually, winter weather hardly ruffles the feathers of Barred Owls. They are well equipped to hunt hidden rodents in the network of icy tunnels which make up the subnivean zone. Using their acute ears, they can hear the pitter-patter of mouse paws under two feet of snow. They triangulate the source of the sound as they swoop down on silent wings, adjusting their trajectory to match the pace of their prey and breaking through snow crusts with their talons. However, this winter has pushed some owls, like Dewey, to their limits. The weather patterns of bitter cold temperatures, interspersed with the occasional warm day and a ton of precipitation, has caused snow to pile up and crust over; layers of ice and snow stacked on top of the earth like a crumb cake. With each new layer comes a thicker barrier between owls and their sustenance.

Dewey’s excellent camouflage. Photo by Linda Conrad.

That is why Dewey has been edging closer and closer to the bird feeders and live animal exhibits. Other Barred Owls are behaving in similar ways. We’ve been getting a whole slew of inquiries regarding fearless owls perched on backyard feeders, places where food is more accessible for a “sit and wait” predator. This may also provide an explanation for Dewey’s seemingly lackadaisical demeanor. It could be lethargy coupled with a push to conserve as much energy as possible. Going multiple days without a successful hunt causes Barred Owls to make tough decisions: expanding their hunting hours to include the day shift or suffering through the mobbing of smaller birds.

But don’t go feeling sorry for our wild resident just yet! On March 3rd, against the odds of the prolonging harsh winter, Dewey caught himself a vole. The evidence was imprinted in that most recent snowfall. Just outside of the new bird enclosures, at the bottom of the sloping hill was an almost comical outline of wings and tail feathers, a bit of blood splotched in the deep hole of snow where he punched through the ice crust. Turns out that there was a method to his madness after all!

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