Barred Owl

Strix varia
Population status:
Least Concern
Body length:
48-51 cm (19-20 in)
1 m (3.5 ft )
0.68-1 kg (1.5 to 2 lbs)
Barred Owl

Eric Hudnall

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Did You Know?

  • The Barred Owl is quite a vocal bird. Apart from its typical call, it makes a number of other interesting vocalizations from screams and hoots and barks, to one particular call that sounds quite a bit like laughter. 
  • Scientists believe that Barred Owl pairs mate for life. 
  • Scientists estimate that Barred Owls can live about 10 years in the wild. In captivity, some Barred Owls have lived to be over 30 years old. 
  • A Barred Owl's legs and part of its toes are covered in feathers! 

Other Owls

How The Peregrine Fund is Helping

The Peregrine Fund is not working directly with Barred Owls, but our conservation efforts through habitat protection, education, and community outreach extend to all raptor species, including this owl. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation.

Where They Live

Barred Owls are strictly a North American species, inhabiting parts of all three of the countries in this region. Historically, they were found across much of Canada, throughout the eastern half of the United States, and south into south-central Mexico. In the twentieth century, however, the Barred Owl began to expand its range. In the past few decades, it has been seen in areas of western North America where it had never been documented before, such as in parts of Washington, Oregon and California. 

Barred Owls live in both deciduous and evergreen forested habitats, as well as other habitats - often near water. You may see one of these owls sleeping high in a tree in an old-growth forest, hear its melodic call from the edges of a riparian forest, or see it flying in search of prey along wooded streams. Barred Owls also appear to be on the rise in suburban areas, due to their healthy and more easily accessible rodent populations.  

What They Do

The Barred Owl is a largish owl that lacks the characteristic ear tufts of the Great Horned Owl. Unlike the Great Horned Owl, the Barred Owl does not have bright yellow eyes. Instead it has dark brown eyes, which in certain light can appear to be black. Its dark eyes can give it a mystical, attractive appearance, but its beauty doesn't end there. It has a yellow beak and feet and speckled brown, white and rust-colored feathers with a thin line of darker feathers outlining its facial disk - all of which make for one terrific looking bird.

Speaking of facial disks... Barred Owls, like most other owls,  have one! The facial disk is composed of feathers which grow around the owl's head and help direct sound to the bird's ears. To get an idea of how it works, cup your hands behind your ears and listen – sounds will be louder and clearer. Owls can raise their disk feathers slightly when on the hunt, allowing them to hear the rustle of a mouse in the grass, the flapping of feathers in the night, or the slithering of a snake in a tree branch. These sounds give away the location of prey animals making it easy for the owls to deftly swoop in to catch a meal. 

Also like most owls, Barred Owls are nocturnal meaning they are most active during night time hours. However, they might also call or hunt during the day - particularly on extra dark or cloudy days.

Barred Owls have an interesting, distinctive call that many biologists describe as sounding like "who cooks for you; who cooks for you all!" Next time you are in the forest where Barred Owls live, listen carefully for this lovely call - especially in the evening hours!

Why They Need Our Help

The Barred Owl is increasing its range to parts of the western United States and is beginning to occupy some suburban areas, particularly those where there are trees large enough for them to nest. However, the expansion of their range is having an affect on another owl species - the endangered Spotted Owl. As individual Barred Owls move into new areas, their territories are beginning to overlap with those of the native Spotted Owl. Because Barred Owls can be more aggressive and territorial, they are displacing or out-competing the Spotted Owl which means that Barred Owls are causing Spotted Owls to move out of forests they have been living in for hundreds of years. 

Some scientists are also finding evidence that Barred Owls and Spotted Owls are breeding together, so that their young are a hybrid (or a mix) of both species which isn't good either!

These two facts could spell trouble not only for the Spotted Owl, but also for the Barred Owl. Some scientists are hoping to take measures to cull Barred Owl populations, meaning they want to kill Barred Owls or take other actions to stop them from inhabiting Spotted Owl territory.  This is a big dilemma for conservationists and one that doesn't have an easy answer. 

What They Eat

Like many raptor species, the Barred Owl is an opportunistic hunter - meaning it will catch and eat just about anything it can whenever the opportunity presents itself.  This also means that it eats a large number of different prey species. Though small rodents make up the bulk of its diet,  it will prey on animals as large as opossums, rabbits, and weasels. It will also eat winged critters such as bats and birds, including jays, pigeons and doves. It might even occasionallly dine on other, smaller owls!! It feeds on reptiles and amphibians such as frogs, salamanders, and snakes, as well as fish, crayfish, and insects such as beetles, crickets, slugs, scorpions, and grasshoppers. There is even a photographic record of a Barred Owl catching a house cat!

Depending on which animal it is hunting, the Barred Owl will use different techniques to catch its prey. When hunting reptiles or mammals it may  swoop down onto its quarry from a perch, such as a tree branch or stoop onto prey it spots while in flight. When in the mood for an aquatic-based snack, it will wade into shallow water to catch a meal (such as a fish or a turtle).  As you can imagine, it can be quite difficult to catch a bird, so the Barred Owl uses a very sneaky method to catch its avian prey. It will wait until its target has settled in to a roost spot for the night, then it will attack taking the bird by surprise! This is much easier than attempting to catch such an agile creature while it is in flight.

Barred Owls will sometimes hang out around artifical light sources and even campfires because they attract large insects - a tasty snack if you're an owl! 

Nests, Eggs, and Young

The Barred Owl does not migrate. It stays in or around its nest territory throughout the year, defending it against unwanted intruders.

Barred Owls prefer to nest in the deep, dark cavities of tall trees (ones often made by woodpeckers), but they will sometimes nest out in the open, occasionally using nests built by crows, ravens, hawks, and even squirrels!

During the breeding season, the female can lay between 2 and 4 eggs. While she carefully incubates, or sits on the eggs to make sure they stay at the right temperature, the male will help out by bringing her food. After around 28-32 days of this, it is time for the nestlings to hatch. When the young come out of the eggs they look like giant puff balls with eyes as they are completely covered in fluffy down. They can also begin to vocalize, mostly making begging calls, almost right away.  

The owlets will grow quickly. Even before they are ready to fly, the curious nestlings will be ready to leave the nest cavity. They will carefully climb out of the nest, using their legs, talons, and even their beaks to leave the cavity - similar to how a parrot does! Once out of the nest, at first they will spend their time perching on nearby branches. Soon, however, they will begin to walk around on the branches while stretching their wings and practicing flapping and flying. Approximately 5 weeks after hatching, the young will be ready to fly from the nest for the first time, or fledge!

The young will spend several months around their parents' territory learning to hunt and to identify and avoid predators, such as Great Horned Owls and domestic cats. Once they are completely independent of their parents, which means they are able to catch prey on their own, they will disperse from the area though they usually don't travel very far. Eventually, they will will need to find their own territory and their own mate and begin breeding and raising their own young.

According to the Idaho Fish and Game Department, Barred Owls are considered fairly common in the northern part of Idaho, including the Frank Church-River of No Return WIlderness. They have been documented breeding in this part of the state, as well. They have also been seen in the counties of Cassia and Twin Falls. If you live in or plan to visit Idaho, it might be worth a trip up north to see if you can spot one of these strikingly beautiful owls.  Hint: The best way to find one is to listen for their calls at night, though if you are extremely lucky, you may spot one roosting during the day.

Barred Owls and the World Center for Birds of Prey

The visitor center at our World Center for Birds of Prey has owls among its avian ambassadors, including a Eurasian Eagle Owl. This is a great chance to see owls up close and learn about the wonderful and interesting adaptations they have in order to survive in their respective habitats. There is also a touch table with owl feathers and other natural objects available for exploration. Our knowledgeable staff can help answer any questions you may have about Barred Owls or any other bird of prey.

References: BirdLife International. 2016. Strix varia. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22689094A93217844. Downloaded on 16 February 2018. Livezey KB (2005).

Iverson (2004) on Spotted Owls and Barred Owls: comments on methods and conclusion". Journal of Raptor Research. 39: 102–103.

Mazur, Kurt M., and Paul Clive James. Barred Owl: Strix Varia. Vol. 508. Birds of North America, Incorporated, 2000. Owl, Spotted. "and the Barred Owl." Western Birds 29 (1998): 225-226.

Peterson, A. Townsend, and C. Richard Robins. "Using Ecological‐Niche Modeling to Predict Barred Owl Invasions with Implications for Spotted Owl Conservation." Conservation Biology 17, no. 4 (2003): 1161-1165. "Pictured: The astonishing moment an owl snatched up a full-grown cat for a 'light' meal". London: Daily Mail. 28 October 2012. Retrieved 2013-01-08.