New C.C. Lockwood book focuses on Louisiana’s Nature Conservancy sites _lowres

Near the Tchefuncte River in St. Tammany Parish, C.C. Lockwood snapped these young barred owls perched on a bald cypress tree branch.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY LSU PRESS

A few weeks ago, while returning some pliers to the backyard shed, I saw on the shelf a small figure perfectly made in the image of an owl. It looked like one of those plastic predators some gardeners place on poles as a scarecrow to keep pest birds away.

I couldn’t recall owning such a dummy owl, so I drew closer for a better look. By now you might have guessed that the owl on my shelf wasn’t a fake creature but the real thing. Or so I learned when I was a foot from it, prompting my visitor to fly off to a dark corner of the room.

There’s nothing like an owl passing inches from your face to get your heart pumping more quickly. It’s an efficient way to raise blood circulation, though not one I would recommend.

Our encounter happened quickly, but as a mugging might print the face of the assailant firmly in memory, so I was able to identify my house guest during our momentary meeting. He was a barred owl, which my Peterson bird guide succinctly describes as a “large, gray-brown, puffy-headed woodland owl.”

They get their name from the barred pattern of their coloring — alternating streaks of brown and white across their chests, then up and down on their bellies. I assume my owl had entered the shed through a hole beneath the eaves, something I’ve been meaning to fix.

The Peterson guide notes that barred owls can be active before dark, which I’ve noticed in my years of spotting them around the yard. I’ve sometimes seen them at dusk, alighting on our swing set or fence, ready for the hunt.

If you’ve ever met an owl up close, you might understand why I didn’t first grasp that it was a living thing. Owls have a great genius for remaining perfectly still, which is how they can go undetected by prey, a critical skill in catching supper. As my companion crossed the room, I was struck by the eerie silence of its flight. Their wings are insulated to glide soundlessly, another advantage in sneaking up on squirrels and mice.

Although barred owls live here year-round, I’ve always connected them with winter. That’s when the quiet outside makes it easier to hear them in backyard oaks — the faintly sinister “hoohoo-hoohoo” that speaks of dark deeds on frosty nights.

Brown and mostly quiet, the barred owl seems a fitting mascot for a season that, in this corner the world, is brown and mostly quiet, too. Our yard stays deep in leaves most of the winter, the landscape a canvas of earth tones almost never brightened by snow. With lawnmowers, air conditioners and bullfrogs in hibernation, the neighborhood decibel level drops.

But that’s changing. I mowed the lawn last week, fresh green pointing toward spring and brighter, noisier days. If anything else is lurking in the shed, I’ll probably be too busy to notice.


Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.