SIB “Bird of the Week” – Barred Owl

Barred Owl – Strix varia
Length: 16.9-19.7 in.; Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 in
Weight: 16.6-37.0 oz.

Photo: Tara Tanaka/Audubon Photography Awards

My husband says he’s not a birder. However, he goes birding with me on a regular basis, comes with me on most of my Shorebird Steward shifts, attends a few SIB events, and carries my tripod and other gear when I’m out taking photos. And most importantly, he’s my spotter. He has a gift for spotting movement in the trees that I somehow just don’t notice.

Cellphone photo of Barred Owl/Gina Sanders

It was on a bike ride last December near Camp St Christopher that he spotted something up in the trees that I completely missed. For once I didn’t have my camera with me, just my binoculars and cell phone, but I was able to get a good look at what he found. A Barred Owl! The owl was sitting on a branch of a large tree keeping a close eye on his surroundings, as well as us standing across the street. We watched him through the binoculars and even shared the binoculars with a couple of other walkers who passed by and wondered what we were staring at!

Barred Owls are year-round residents in our area. In fact they reside throughout most of the east, from Texas all the way to Florida, Maine, and up into Canada. They’re still considered to be widespread and common however loss of swamp habitat may have caused some decline in the south. They prefer dense, thick woodlands, wooded river bottoms and wooded swamps.

They hunt by night or day, mostly at dawn and dusk. They watch from a perch, locate their prey, then drop down to grab it with their talons. Their diet consists mostly of mice and other small rodents, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, birds, frogs, snakes, lizards and insects. They also eat crayfish, crabs and fish. Definitely not picky eaters.

Most Barred Owls can be heard before they’re seen. Their distinctive hoot seems to say “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all.” We have a Barred Owl in our neighborhood in upstate SC and we often hear the telltale hoots late at night or early in the morning when we’re walking our dogs. One of the most fascinating (and comical) sounds is when a pair of Barred Owls are having a conversation. It’s a sound you need to hear to appreciate! In fact, a pair of Barred Owls is called a duet, which is very appropriate considering their duet of hoots!

Courtship involves bobbing and bowing their heads, raising wings, and calling while perched close together. They nest in a large natural tree hollow, a broken off snag, or an old nest of a hawk, crow, or squirrel. They often use an old Red Shouldered Hawk nest, and the hawk and owl have been known to take turns using the nest in alternate years. Male and female Barred Owls look alike but females can be up to a third larger than the males. And their name comes from their appearance, vertical and horizontal bars on their abdomen and chest.

Two to three white eggs is common, sometimes four Incubation is mostly by the female and takes about 28-33 days, with the male bringing food to her while on the nest. Once hatched, the young take their first flight at about six weeks.

Barred Owls don’t migrate, and they don’t move around much either. According to The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds, of 158 banded Barred Owls that were tracked, none moved further than six miles away! The oldest recorded Barred Owl was at least 26 years, 7 months old. It was banded in North Carolina in 1993 and caught due to injury in 2019.

The next time you find yourself out in the woods early in the morning or after the sun goes down, listen for a voice in the forest asking “Who cooks for you?” Even a non-birder, like my husband, will be excited to hear it!

Here’s an audio of two Barred Owls hooting, recorded by a camper in Kansas. Listen to the full track to hear first one owl, then a duet of owls, and finally coyotes howling in the distance.

Barred Owl Hoots and Calls

If you’d like to learn more about these fascinating owls, you can read more at:

Audubon Society:

The Cornell Lab All About Birds:

Submitted by: Gina Sanders

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