The story of Barry the barred owl, who became a Central Park sensation

A beloved barred owl in Central Park who was unusually charismatic and accepting of humans demonstrated the healing power of nature, says Calgary naturalist.

Calgary naturalist Brian Keating explains why the bird charmed so many people

David Gray photographed this barred owl with a snake in its beak on the West Coast in early August. (David Gray/CBC)

On Aug. 5, a New York celebrity died.

Barry the barred owl had taken up residence in Central Park last October, and in the 10 months that followed, a community had been built around the bird, who stood out for being so accepting of humans in her space.

"In times of uncertainty, her presence became kind of a source of continuity and comfort," Calgary naturalist Brian Keating told The Homestretch on Monday.

Every evening before dusk, Barry would do some pre-flight preparation, preening her feathers and stretching her talons as a small crowd watched.

"Barry seemed to invite her humans, or so it seemed, to accompany her," said Keating. "On the first segment of her nightly hunts, she would fly slowly from perch to perch with occasional pauses in between, almost as if that she was allowing people to catch up if they were falling behind."

Barry, whom Keating calls "a catalyst to turn people on to nature," became a social media darling.

She died earlier this month when she collided with a Central Park Conservancy maintenance vehicle, but she created a new crowd of birdwatchers and photographers.

"Normally, owls aren't really that into people, especially a bird like a barred owl, which is a bird of the old growth forest," said Keating. "She was very unusual, especially for a solitary bird, to be so generous with us, to let us observe her so closely every night."

Dark-eyed owl with a distinctive call

Barred owls, said Keating, originally lived in more eastern regions. During the 20th century, they spread throughout the Pacific Northwest, and the first recorded sighting in Alberta was in the 1930s.

With soulful brown eyes — instead of yellow, like most owls — and brown and white-striped plumage, barred owls are beautiful but easy to miss.

"Like all owls, they're cryptic in colouration," said Keating. "When they snooze on a tree limb, they virtually blend in, especially if they're behind some branches. So they're easy just to walk by unless you hear them."

The easiest way to find a barred owl is to listen to and track their call, a distinctive nine-note melody that drifts through the forest, seeming to say, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?"

The barred owl's courtship call, though, is very different, said Keating.

He most recently saw a barred owl on Denman Island in B.C. At a friend's cabin, Keating heard a bizarre sound in the middle of the night from the garden: "a duet of cackles, of hoots, of gurgles."

"It's the kind of stuff that nightmares are made up of," he said.

More often heard than seen, owls are mostly invisible from us. They lead surprisingly short lives; up to 70 per cent die in their first year, and mortality is still high after that.

"They just die in obscurity," said Keating.

Not so with Barry, whose death was followed by an outpouring of sorrow.

About 250 people gathered last Monday night in Central Park for a vigil, festooning the area with drawings of owls, flowers, Beanie Babies and messages of love and farewell.

"She really became a friend during a time, I think, when people couldn't easily see friends," said Keating. "I've always said that nature is a powerful healer, and I guess this is a beautiful example of that."

For more fascinating stories about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

With files from The Homestretch.


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