Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
Juvenile Barred Owl
Pair of Barred Owls
Barred Owl hunting in the forest
Portrait of a Barred Owl
Striped Owl, Northern Barred Owl, Hoot Owl, Eight-hooter Owl
43cm to 50cm
99cm to 110cm
470g to 1.05kg
With mainly brown, gray, and white plumage, the barred owl’s key distinguishing features are the characteristic dark ruffled barring on the upper breast and the large, rounded head with faint white and brown concentric rings forming the facial disc. Its eyes are dark rather than yellow, and it has a short hooked yellow bill.
The facial disc has a darker brown border, and the crown, head, nape, and upperparts are a lighter brown-gray, mottled heavily with whitish-buff patterning. The lower breast is pale, streaked with vertical dark brown marks.
Barred owls have the same plumage all year round and there is no difference in appearance between the sexes.
Juvenile barred owls are similar to adults, but retain some fluffy down during their first year and their markings are generally less well-defined, particularly on the face and head.
Barred Owl perching in woodland habitat
Barred owls are larger and heavier than the otherwise similar spotted owl. They are chunky, stocky owls, with females noticeably larger and heavier than males.
Barred Owl perched on a branch
The rhythmic ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ hooting phrase is perhaps the best-known call of a barred owl, and is regularly heard being exchanged during courtship and throughout the breeding season as a form of communication between pairs.
Other vocalizations include piercing shrieks used to claim and defend a territory and agitated screeching cackles that are heard when nests are disturbed by potential predators.
Barred Owl perching in a tree
Small mammals are the main prey hunted by barred owls, including voles, rats, mice, squirrels, and rabbits. They are regularly spotted dipping into rivers to catch crabs, crayfish, and fish, and also hunt birds, invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians.
Mammals comprise around 76 percent of their diet, followed by invertebrates and birds.
The initial diet of barred owl chicks is mainly based on large insects and invertebrates, including worms, snails, spiders, and centipedes.
The male brings prey to the nest which is then fed to hatchlings by the female. Small mammals, including voles and shrews, are soon introduced - initially torn into pieces by the female, but young owlets soon master the art of swallowing prey whole.
Barred Owl preparing to take-off to take prey back to its nest for its young
An adaptable species that is becoming increasingly common in urban environments, barred owls are widespread across the eastern US in landscapes with mixed and coniferous forests, particularly those crossed by streams and rivers.
Wetland regions, with woodland cover and swamps, provide important foraging opportunities and old-growth forests are preferred for nesting sites.
Barred owls were originally concentrated in the eastern region of North America, from southern Canada (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) and across the eastern US, from the Great Plains eastwards to the Atlantic coast, south as far as the Gulf Coast and westwards to Texas and Oklahoma.
Throughout the 20th century, the range has expanded westwards through Canada, reaching British Columbia, and now breeding is well established across the country’s southern provinces. Barred owls are now present in the Rocky Mountains of the western US, and have spread down the Pacific coast.
In the United States, barred owls are present in all states east of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. In the west, breeding has now been established in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Montana. Higher than average concentrations are found in Iowa, Maryland, and Tennessee.
In Canada, large numbers of barred owls are native to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and are found across the entire southern regions of the country, in southern Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, central and southern Saskatchewan, Alberta, and southern British Columbia.
Barred owls are widespread, and relatively common, and have enjoyed a population boom in recent decades, with a significant expansion to their original distribution range.
Despite their nocturnal lifestyle, their distinctive hoots offer a clear indication of their presence and can lead to an improved chance of a sighting compared to other owl species. Their population across North America is estimated at 3.5 million mature birds.
Barred Owl with prey in its beak
In Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s forests are popular spots for barred owls, with regular reports of early morning and early evening sightings.
Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park’s woodlands are another good location for hearing and seeing barred owls, while lowland forests in Maine’s Acacia National Park are known to have resident barred owls, particularly along the park’s riverside woodlands.
The Maritime provinces of Canada offer some prime spots for potential sightings of barred owls, including Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia and Fundy National Park in New Brunswick. Further west, Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan is known to have resident barred owls.
Barred Owl in-flight in woodland habitat
The oldest known barred owl reached 18 years and 2 months, living in the wild, and captive birds are believed to have an even longer life expectancy.
Most barred owls survive for around 8 to 10 years. Young barred owls are observed to breed for the first time from 2 years onwards, although yearlings may also successfully breed if there are sufficient nest sites and prey available.
Great horned owls are the most common predator of barred owls, killing nestlings, fledglings, and adults. Northern goshawks are also known to prey on adult barred owls and their young. Raccoons and weasels are opportunistic nest predators, raiding cavities for eggs and hatchlings.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act offers protection to barred owls in the US, prohibiting killing, injuring, trading, or taking one into captivity. Their eggs, nest site, and feathers are also protected. The Migratory Birds Convention Act gives the species similar protection in Canada.
Globally, barred owls are listed by the IUCN as a species of least concern. Populations are stable and rising, with an increase of 86.7 percent in the last 40 years.
Barred Owl perching on a tree trunk in woodlands
Barred owls are usually cavity nesters, using either abandoned woodpecker nests or natural hollows in trees created by decay or disease. If no cavity is available, then stick nests built by other species may also be considered, particularly bulky platform structures previously used by ravens, crows, hawks, and squirrels. Some additional materials, such as lichen, feathers, or twigs, may be added.
Occasionally, if natural sites are not available, barred owls will readily lay their eggs in artificial nest boxes mounted on tall trees.
Courtship calls can be heard from winter onwards as new pair bonds are formed or previous bonds strengthened. Eggs are usually laid between March and April, although the earliest clutches have been recorded in December.
Only female barred owls incubate, brooding the eggs for 28 to 33 days, during which time she’s fed by her mate, who brings prey to the nest. Young barred owls are ready to fledge after four to five weeks, but parental support with feeding and protection continues outside of the nest until juveniles are four to five months old.
Barred owls’ eggs are pure white, with slightly rough shells and no external markings. They are oval in shape and measure up to 5.6 cm (2.2 in) by 4.8 cm (1.8 in). Clutches usually contain between one and five eggs.
It’s believed that barred owls form long-term pairs and remain together for life or until one mate dies. Pairs raise a single clutch together each year, and their bond is strengthened through males bringing food to females during courtship and nesting.
Female Barred Owl in nest with her young
Barred Owlet in the nest cavity
With ultra-sharp talons and a strong instinct to protect their eggs and young at all costs, barred owls are able to inflict severe injury to any intruders that attempt to approach nest sites during the breeding season.
Females are observed to be more aggressive than males at nests, and any potential predators will be chased, flown at, and struck with talons, bills, and wings.
Barred owls are nocturnal and hunt during the night. They spend much of the day roosting, using cavities in trees for shade and shelter from the heat. Young birds may choose roosting spots on the ground in thickets or long grass.
Barred Owl roosting in a tree cavity
Most barred owls remain within a short distance of their home territories all year round and do not migrate after the breeding season ends. Some short-distance dispersal may occur in winter when prey levels are lower than usual.
Barred owls are a native species in the US, found originally only in the states east of the Great Plains but their range has expanded since the early 20th century, and by the 1970s breeding had been established further west, in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana.
Barred Owl sitting in the forest
The blood-curdling screams of barred owls can be quite disconcerting to hear, although are generally nothing to worry about. Screeching is used by this species to defend a territory and to deter intruders from hunting on ‘their’ particular patch.
Barred owls will readily nest in nest boxes, so if your yard has tall trees and is near to a forest landscape crossed by a river, it might be worth putting one up to see if it tempts a pair to move in. Quiet, spacious yards without excessive human activity are ideal, as they allow the owls to nest undisturbed.
Barred owls are certainly strong enough to carry off a small dog, using their sharp talons to grip and lift it off the ground. Rabbits and similar-sized wild mammals are a regular part of their diet. However, owl attacks on dogs are rare, and most reports are anecdotal.
A typically nocturnal species, barred owls feed at sunset and sunrise, and will continue to hunt in between, during hours of darkness. Occasionally, during the nesting season in particular, they may hunt in daylight when additional prey may be needed to feed nestlings.
Barred owls are usually fairly quick to flush from their nesting or roosting spots if humans approach too quickly and they appear to be intolerant of close contact with people.
Reports of barred owls dive-bombing humans during the nesting season occasionally appear in the media, and it’s wise to be extra cautious if you cross paths with a breeding barred owl at this time of year in particular.
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
Great Horned Owl
An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Great Gray Owl
Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.
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