Be Your Own Birder

Weekly Bird: Barred Owl

Widespread and often found even in suburban areas, the barred owl is familiar to many birders and non-birders alike, but do you really know these birds? They hide many surprises that even experienced birders may not realize.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl – Photo by Ralph Daily

Barred Owl Fun Facts
  • The barred owl (Strix varia) is part of the Strigidae owl family, which is also home to four other owls with the word “barred” in their name – the Asian barred owlet, African barred owlet, barred eagle-owl, and rusty-barred owl.
  • Barred owls have several other common names, including the northern barred owl, hoot owl, eight hooter, bard owl, swamp owl, striped owl, rain owl, laughing owl, crazy owl, and black-eyed owl.
  • There are four recognized subspecies of barred owl with distinct variations in geography, overall size measurements, and plumage lightness or darkness. Birders should carefully watch for future splits of these subspecies into new species.
  • Barred owls occasionally wade in shallow water and catch fish. Insects, snails, slugs, lizards, birds, and amphibians are other prey these owls may take, though their most common meals are small mammals such as mice, rats, mink, squirrels, shrews, and voles.
  • It is only in the last century or so that barred owls have spread to the Pacific Northwest and into California. Unfortunately, because they are so adaptable, they threaten to displace the spotted owl, which is much more vulnerable.
  • When barred owls and spotted owls interbreed, their chicks are called “sparred owls.” This genetic mingling is another threat to spotted owls, which are in danger of being exterminated by more aggressive invaders as well as muddled breeding.
  • Great horned owls will prey on barred owls. Because of this threat, barred owls frequently move on when a great horned owl enters the area, and it is unusual to see both of these owls in the same territory.
  • While these owls are generally nocturnal, they do occasionally hunt and call during the day. Daytime activities are most common during the summer, when daylight hours are longer and adult owls have hungry broods to feed, so they need to hunt more often.
  • Before they can fly, young barred owls learn to climb trees by using their talons and bills to hitch themselves upward while flapping or fluttering their wings for extra assistance and balance.
  • This is one of the most vocal owl species. In addition to the 8- or 9-note “who cooks for you, who cooks for yooooouuuu” call that is most familiar, barred owls also bark, hiss, screech, squeak, trill, and even growl.
Adding the Barred Owl to Your Life List

Barred owls can be both easy and difficult to see. They will readily use nest boxes in appropriate habitat with dense trees, even in suburban areas. Because they will return to the same nesting site for many years, birders who know someone with an active nest box will have a very good chance for fantastic barred owl viewing. In the field, mixed forests with large, mature trees are ideal barred owl habitat, especially near water or in swampy areas. Listen for this owl’s loud hooting calls to discover if they are in the area, and to determine their rough position. Then, look for large, bulky bumps that are actually roosting or perched owls.

Learn More About the Barred Owl

There are many great resources to use if you want to learn more about these familiar owls…

Barred Owl

Barred Owl – Photo by Mike Carlo/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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