One of the most common owls found in urban landscapes in the United States, the barred owl is a large, brown-streaked owl that has become increasingly adaptable to different habitats.
In this article, we’ll be answering the question: what is the preferred habitat of a barred owl? Keep reading to learn where you stand the best chance of seeing – or hearing – one.
Barred owls are among the most common owls native to the eastern U.S., and are also among the most likely to be seen in daylight, not always waiting until cover of darkness to hunt. Barred owls remain in their territories all year, and mixed dense forests provide ideal nesting and hunting grounds.
Previously limited to southeastern Canada and the easternmost states of the U.S., barred owls have expanded their range over the last century and are now present further west into North America, and increasingly spotted in more developed urban landscapes as well as their preferred forest environments, which offer shelter and camouflage when nesting and hunting.
To find out more about the landscapes that best support the hunting, nesting and roosting requirements of barred owls, please stay with us as we explore the year-round habitat needs of these highly territorial birds of prey.
Barred owls are one of the most common owl species native to the eastern US
Barred owls are found mainly in the eastern United States and southeast Canada, with a range that reaches as far west as Texas and into the Pacific Northwest.
Previously concentrated just in the east, during the 20th century, the barred owl’s range has expanded to the north and west thanks to extensive tree planting activity across the Great Plains regions.
The species is now present along a corridor through southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, into Washington, Idaho and Oregon, and even as far south as California.
Close up portrait of a resting Barred Owl
Mature-old-growth, boreal forests with dense foliage offer the ideal habitat for barred owls to live, hunt and breed. Mixed or deciduous woodlands are popular with barred owl populations to the south and southeast of their range, while further north, mature coniferous woodland seem to be the preferred habitats to establish territories, with typical nesting spots found in alder, poplar, oak, cedar, fir, spruce and pine trees.
Wooded swamp areas and forested uplands are among the barred owl’s favored landscapes, while in recent times, successful breeding populations have been established in more suburban settings, perhaps thanks to some extent to the availability of rodents to prey on.
Forests with dense foliage are one of the Barred owls favorite habitats
Although Barred owls are nocturnal, they are unusual among owls in that it is not terribly uncommon to hear one hooting while it is still light.
Within their geographical range, barred owls are fairly common, but their preferred habitat of dense boreal forests makes them quite hard to spot. Increasingly seen in semi-open woodland on the edges of cities and towns, it is perhaps more likely to see one now than ever before.
Just after sunset, barred owls typically emerge from their roosting spot to head out for their first hunting trip of the night. While barred owls are generally nocturnal hunters, they are also opportunistic predators and may occasionally hunt during daylight hours if a hard-to-miss chance of an easy catch or substantial food source arises.
Just after sunset is one of the best time to spot Barred owls
Barred owls are not migratory and do tend to move far from their home territories, generally keeping within a 10-km (6-mi) range throughout the year. The species is highly territorial, particularly during the breeding season, although in winter may have to forage for food slightly further afield if nearby food supplies become scarce.
Barred owls’ range was originally limited to eastern regions of North America, and much of their population is found there in the eastern United States. The species are present from Texas in the southwest, throughout all states along the southeast border to Florida.
Barred owls are widespread throughout states along the East Coast from Florida as far north as New York into Vermont and New Hampshire.
The states of Oklahoma, Kansas, parts of Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota form the general western boundary to the species’ main range, with a corridor to the northwest reaching parts of Washington, Idaho and Oregon.
Perched Barred owl on the lookout for prey
A stretch of land in southern Canada from British Columbia to Quebec provides a suitable forested habitat for barred owls. The species is present in southern British Columbia, central swathes of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and southern Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, with large numbers native to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
The presence of the species in Canada is nothing new. Fossils of barred owls dating from around 11,000 years ago have been excavated in Ontario.
Barred owls are widespread throughout their distribution range, although their large territories mean that no region feels particularly overcrowded with the species. Eastern Canada’s Maritime Provinces are home to a substantial percentage of the country’s native pairs. In the United States, Iowa, Tennessee and Maryland account for higher than average barred owl numbers.
Barred Owl perched on a log in Ontario, Canada
Dense woodlands with few clearings, particularly those with swamp-like landscapes are the preferred habitats of barred owls throughout their range, and offer the best chances of seeing an individual Barred owls perching, roosting or hunting.
They are highly territorial birds, and also creatures of habit. If you locate their favored roosting spot or nest and have plenty of patience to watch from afar, you may get lucky with a sighting.
The presence of large cascades of ‘whitewash’ (owl excrememnt) on the trunk of a habitual perch is a sure sign that an owl may be sitting camouflaged in nearby branches waiting to swoop on prey.
Barred owl sleeping on a branch
Under normal circumstances, barred owls remain in the same territories all year round and do not migrate in winter. Evidence to support this includes analysis of birds that have been banded, and when checked, out of a sample of 158 birds during winter months, none had traveled further than 10 km (6.2 mi) from their original summer breeding range.
Barred owls are not generally migratory, and their summer territories are the same as their winter ones. There is some evidence to support the theory that northernmost populations, for example those that breed in Saskatchewan and Alberta, might relocate slightly to the south in winter, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Barred owl in flight
Common daytime habits of barred owls include spending daylight hours hidden out of sight in the dense leafy branches of trees, at least 5 m (16 ft) off the ground. Sometimes they find a natural tree hollow to rest in or less commonly will roost nearer to the trunk of a tree where the branches offer less cover. Newly fledged owls may roost on the ground, hidden by cover of tall grass.
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