An owl by any other name

owlBy Morgan Bongard

Just beyond those trees, that’s where he is,” says Chief Naturalist Kim Diedrich, of the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary as she leads me along the edge of the lagoon, still frozen with long fillets of snow, punctuated by muddy puddles and slippery, black autumn leaves. I take photos of a lone goose pecking away at the ice with its beak. Across the lagoon, high in the trees is a giant eagle’s nest, perfectly silhouetted black trunks like fingers pointing upwards, in contrast against a pale, blue sky.

“In here,” she says, and Diedrich disappeared into a small wooden hut, and emerges with one of the most beautiful birds I’ve ever seen. Sitting pensively on her gloved arm, Diedrich introduces me to Shakespeare, a barred owl with beautiful brown and white striped plumage and deep, dark, brown eyes. “Shakespeare was injured after being hit by a car, and was then brought to the sanctuary in 2005,” says Diedrich. “He came to us as an adult, and you can see that he has a very obvious eye injury. He is blind in his right eye, and, with cataract developing in his left eye, he is almost completely blind.” Nonetheless, Shakespeare sits, blinking quietly while he stares up at the sky, stretching his wing feathers for our admiration.

Barred owls are one of America’s most attractive owls, and the third largest owl in Wisconsin. Originally a bird from the east, these large, stocky creatures spread to the Pacific Northwest, and then into California during the twentieth century. They live here year round, and can live as long as 25 years in the wild. The prefer a swampy habitat to a wooded one and while they nest in trees, they rarely build a nest from scratch; they are known to take over the nests vacated by squirrels and crows, perhaps adding only a branch or two of fresh evergreen in order to customize their new home. Barred owls are nocturnal and begin hunting just as soon as daylight diminishes. Their hooting call, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” is a classic sound that you may have heard while camping in an old forest, or while fishing in a treed swamp. Their diet consists of mice and rodents, along with crayfish found along the water’s edge.

Unlike other birds whose sex is determined by the coloration of their plumage, the barred owls sex is determined by weight; the males are smaller than females.

Shakespeare’s is well cared for at the sanctuary, with a diet that consists mainly of chicken and he has his own outdoor sleeping quarters. Unlike his neighbors, whose quarters get a spring cleaning that includes moving ‘furniture’ — perches, feeding dishes and the like — around, Shakespeare’s things stay where they are, on account of his failing eyesight; memory guides him inside the confines of his quarters.

His nails and beak are trimmed on a regular basis, and he receives blood draws to check for parasites. According to Diedrich, “About nine years ago, the sanctuary lost most of its program birds to the West Nile Virus, so we are extra careful now, and maintain regular blood draws.”

This magnificent bird is one of the many animals that reside at the sanctuary. If you’ve never visited before, it is certainly worth your while to plan a visit, and soon. Inviting footpaths await, offering the best glimpse of spring’s arrival — budding trees, the return of migratory birds to opening lagoons as wildflowers begin to break through a winter blanket. The many creatures and habitats of this wonderful place make this, not just a sanctuary for animals, but for ourselves as well.

In order to continue providing excellent animal care for Shakespeare, the sanctuary gratefully accepts monetary donations. In addition, Shakespeare and the other barred owls found at the sanctuary can be adopted through the sanctuary’s Wildlife Champions Program. For more information on this, and other animals in need, please visit, and view Wildlife Champions: Adopt an Animal. Interested patrons will be directed to a downloadable brochure, or they may pick up a copy while visiting the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary.

The sanctuary readily accepts a number of supply items. Donations of these items will help to raise healthy animal infants that will be released back into the wild. Some of these items include, Purina puppy and kitten chow (new bags, please), bird seed (any kind), raw nuts and peanuts (in the shell), rabbit pellets, alfalfa, Timothy hay, unflavored Pedialyte, baby blankets, bath towels, heating pads that do not automatically shut off, shoeboxes and lids (without holes, please), cotton swabs, cotton balls, cloth diapers and baby wipes.

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