• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Barred Owl

Strix varia ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Barred Owl’s hooting call, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” is a classic sound of old forests and treed swamps. But this attractive owl, with soulful brown eyes and brown-and-white-striped plumage, can also pass completely unnoticed as it flies noiselessly through the dense canopy or snoozes on a tree limb. Originally a bird of the east, during the twentieth century it spread through the Pacific Northwest and southward into California.

Love Owls?Sponsored Ad
YardMap Be on the Map

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
16.9–19.7 in
43–50 cm
Wingspan
39–43.3 in
99–110 cm
Weight
16.6–37 oz
470–1050 g
Relative Size
Smaller than a Great Horned Owl; larger than a Barn Owl.
Other Names
  • Chouette rayée (French)
  • Búhu listado (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Great Horned Owl is the most serious predatory threat to the Barred Owl. Although the two species often live in the same areas, a Barred Owl will move to another part of its territory when a Great Horned Owl is nearby.
  • Pleistocene fossils of Barred Owls, at least 11,000 years old, have been dug up in Florida, Tennessee, and Ontario.
  • Barred Owls don’t migrate, and they don’t even move around very much. Of 158 birds that were banded and then found later, none had moved farther than 6 miles away.
  • Despite their generally sedentary nature, Barred Owls have recently expanded their range into the Pacific Northwest. There, they are displacing and hybridizing with Spotted Owls—their slightly smaller, less aggressive cousins—which are already threatened from habitat loss.
  • Young Barred Owls can climb trees by grasping the bark with their bill and talons, flapping their wings, and walking their way up the trunk.
  • The oldest Barred Owl on record was at least 24 years old.

Habitat


Forest

Barred Owls live year-round in mixed forests of large trees, often near water. They tend to occur in large, unfragmented blocks of mature forest, possibly because old woodlands support a higher diversity of prey and are more likely to have large cavities suitable for nesting. Their preferred habitats range from swamps to streamsides to uplands, and may contain hemlock, maple, oak, hickory, beech, aspen, white spruce, quaking aspen, balsam poplar, Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, or western larch.

Food


Mammals

Barred Owls eat many kinds of small animals, including squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles, rabbits, birds (up to the size of grouse), amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. They hunt by sitting and waiting on an elevated perch, while scanning all around for prey with their sharp eyes and ears. They may perch over water and drop down to catch fish, or even wade in shallow water in pursuit of fish and crayfish. Though they do most of their hunting right after sunset and during the night, sometimes they feed during the day. Barred Owls may temporarily store their prey in a nest, in the crook of a branch, or at the top of a snag. They swallow small prey whole and large prey in pieces, eating the head first and then the body.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.7–2.2 in
4.3–5.6 cm
Egg Width
1.5–1.8 in
3.8–4.5 cm
Incubation Period
28–33 days
Nestling Period
28–35 days
Egg Description
Pure white, with a rough surface.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless and covered with white down, with closed eyes.
Nest Description

Barred Owls do little or nothing to change an existing tree cavity or abandoned platform nest. They may add lichen, fresh green conifer sprigs, or feathers to a stick platform nest, and they may flatten or remove the top of an old squirrel nest. Cavities measure 10–13 inches wide and 14–21 inches deep (sometimes much deeper, with one cavity recorded as nearly 8 feet deep).

Nest Placement

Tree

Barred Owls usually nest in a natural cavity, 20–40 feet high in a large tree. They may also use stick platform nests built by other animals (including hawks, crows, ravens, and squirrels), as well as human-made nest boxes. Barred Owls may prospect a nest site as early as a year before using it. No one knows whether the male or the female chooses the site.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Barred Owls roost on branches and in tree cavities during the day and hunt by night. Territorial all year round, they chase away intruders while hooting loudly. They are even more aggressive during nesting season (particularly the females), sometimes striking intruders with their feet. Pairs probably mate for life, raising one brood each year. Their nests are preyed upon by other large owls and hawks, as well as by weasels and raccoons. When humans interfere with a nest, the parent may flee, perform a noisy distraction display with quivering wings, or even attack. Other birds recognize Barred Owls as predators; small songbirds, crows, and woodpeckers may band together to mob them. Their most dangerous predator is the Great Horned Owl, which eats eggs, young birds, and occasionally adults.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Barred Owls are fairly numerous and their populations increased 1.7 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates their global breeding population at 3 million, with 91 percent spending some time in the U.S., 7 percent in Canada, and 3 percent in Mexico. They rate 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 watch list. Until the twentieth century, Barred Owls were residents of old, undisturbed forests in eastern North America. They were probably restricted from moving into northwestern boreal forests because of frequent forest fires. But fire suppression—along with tree planting in the Great Plains—allowed them to spread northward and westward during the past century. They eventually expanded south along the West Coast as far as northern California, where they began competing with Spotted Owls. Barred Owls have displaced these slightly smaller and less aggressive owls and started hybridizing with them, further threatening the already compromised Spotted Owl population. Barred Owls are forest birds. They tend to occur in older forests and they need large, dead trees for nest sites; these requirements make them sensitive to expansion of logging. For this reason, the Barred Owl is often used as an indicator species for managing old forests.

Credits

Range Map Help

Barred Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident (nonmigratory). Most Barred Owls remain in a single area their whole lives. On rare occasions they may wander farther in search of food during winters when prey is scarce.

Backyard Tips

Barred Owls often take up residence in nest boxes in mature forests. Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

Barred Owls are easiest to find when they are active at night—they’re a lot easier to hear than to see. Visit forests near water (big bottomland forest along a river is prime Barred Owl habitat) and listen carefully, paying attention for the species’ barking “Who cooks for you?” call. At great distance, this can sound like a large dog. Try imitating the call with your own voice and then wait quietly. If you’re lucky, a territorial Barred Owl will fly in to investigate you. During the daytime, a quiet walk through mature forest might reveal a roosting Barred Owl if you are very lucky.