For the Birds Radio Program: Barred Owl (revised)

Original Air Date: March 27, 1991

The noisiest owl of all is also one of Laura’s favorites.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Barred Owl)

One of my favorite raptors is the Barred Owl. These noisiest of all birds of prey are much more often heard than seen. When I started birding, it took me three years to actually see a Barred Owl to add to my life list, even though I heard them dozens of times. Barred Owls take their name from the horizontal barring on their neck and upper breast—their underside is marked with dark vertical streaking. They have a round head without the feather tufts of a Horned Owl, and black eyes.

Barred Owls hoot year-round, and Christmas Bird Counters always start out optimistically listening hard for them, but in reality, their serious vocalizations begin in early spring. Most of their strident hoots follow the rhythm pattern “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Arthur Cleveland Bent writes “the antiphonal hootings of a pair of these owls, heard at any time during the day or night, will hold the hearer spellbound; when heard close at hand at night, they are fairly startling, as if a pair of demons were fighting.” Bent goes on to describe a peaceful canoe trip through the Adirondacks one night which was rudely interrupted by “a series of unearthly yells over our heads; fully expecting to see a panther, or at least a wildcat, jump into our canoe, we were greatly relieved to see a pair of barred owls fly away.”

Barred Owls apparently put a great deal more effort into courting than into building their nests. They usually take over an abandoned crow or hawk nest in deep woods, and though they sometimes decorate it with a few green sprays of pine or pine needles, they tend to leave the basic structure alone—as Bent puts it, they “are slovenly and careless with their nests; I doubt if they ever succeed in building a satisfactory nest for themselves; if they attempt it, they generally make a poor job of it.” There are many records of Barred Owl eggs falling out of flimsy nests, and even of nestlings dropping out. In the eastern U.S. where Red-shouldered Hawks are common, there are records of Barred Owls and Red-shouldered Hawks sharing a single nest.

Barred Owls generally lay 2 eggs. The mother incubates them for about 28 days. The babies are hatched with their eyes closed, but by the end of the first week, their eyes open. They are brooded by their parents much of the time for about three weeks, when they become active. When the babies fledge from the nest a few weeks later they can’t fly, but usually manage to stay in tree branches rather than on the ground, unlike young Great Horned Owls. They first fly when they’re about 42 days old.

Barred Owls eat a variety of small mammals, especially mice, and also snakes, lizards, salamanders, and occasionally birds, including small species of other owls. I know of one documented case of a Barred Owl eating a newborn fawn. They have also been recorded wading into water to catch fish. As with just about all birds of prey, the female Barred Owl is larger than the male—she weighs almost 2 pounds, while the male weighs a little less than one and a half pounds.

A banded one lived in the wild for over 8 years and captive ones have lived for 23 years. They are often hit by cars, and have occasionally been caught by the talons on fishing hooks while striking lures cast into the air. One incubating female died when she was sealed by ice into her nesting hole in New Jersey. And people still shoot at them in shameful numbers. But the greatest cause for the slow decline of this species is forest fragmentation. Removing old timber may open up habitat for a few edge species like deer and grouse, but it also removes the nesting sites for these wonderful birds of the forest.

(Recording of a Barred Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”