Who gives a hoot? Biologist Rob Bierregaard
If a barred owl is in your neighborhood, you probably know it with their standard "who cooks for you" call. Charlotte is unusual for a city its size in that it has a lot of barred owls. WFAE's Tina Portman reports how UNC Charlotte biologist Rob Bierregaard is leaning about our noisy neighbors with the help of local residents. Rob Bierregaard is usually prepared for battle when he climbs a tree to reach an owl's nest. A barred owl only weighs about two pounds, but they hurt when they attack. So Bierregaard wears a lacrosse helmet half-covered with stickers, one for each attack he's survived. Bierregaard has been taking hits from owls for 9 years. At first, his mission was to find out why Charlotte has so many barred owls. "If you read the textbooks on barred owls, it says they need large stands of old growth forest to survive. Well, you can't swing a dead rat in suburban Charlotte without hitting a Barred Owl so either the Barred Owls didn't read the book, or the book's wrong. And after all these years we've determined that as far as the barred owl is concerned, the suburbs really are old growth forest," he says. These days, Bierregaard's research focuses on the differences between Charlotte's barred owls and those in the country. Video cameras are key to his work. He has eight owl cams mounted in custom-made nest boxes in trees throughout the Charlotte area. Residents like John and Mary Spiegel let Bierregaard record the lives of the barred owls in their back yard. The Spiegels love the entertainment value. From their living room they can watch Owl TV 24 hours a day. "It's incredible. It's just mesmerizing. You can watch it for hour after hour, even if they're not doing anything," John Spiegel says. The owls stay quite busy, and hungry, as they hunt through the night. "One of the nests a couple of days ago brought in a mourning dove, a barn wwallow, a flying squirrel, crayfish, a couple of fish, they bring in little things, they brought in some little insectsthis was amazing how much they brought in that one night," Bierregaard says. He outfits some owls with tiny transmitters that look like a backpack. By tracking their daily travels he's calculated that a male owl in the city needs 200 acres to live. Bierregaard monitors 41 nesting pairs of barred owls in Charlotte. The oldest is a female who is at least 8-years-old and comes to a whistle. He begins working with owls soon after they hatch. Bierregard and some student assistants recently visited a country barred owl's nest near Davidson. A chick clicks its beak in an attempt to ward them off, but Bierregaard wraps a silver-numbered band around the chick's leg. Bierregaard has found differences between barred owls in Charlotte - which he calls city owls - and those in the country. Small birds are over half the diet of city owls, while country owls are more likely to eat reptiles, amphibians and insects. City owls sit tight during the day, while country owls like to fly around at all hours. But the mating cycle stays the same, and that's keeping Bierregaard especially busy this spring. So don't worry if you see a strange-looking man wearing an owl-scarred lacrosse helmet climbing a tree.