The first time I heard Barred Owls was on a camp-out. Two of them were trading calls in the middle of the night from each side of a wide field. The sound was positively eerie! And two times in the last week, I’ve heard a Barred Owl calling at about 4:30 a.m in my backyard. Now that I know what I’m hearing, it’s more fascinating than frightening! The Barred Owl’s most typical call, and the only one I’ve heard, has been described as a hooting, “who-cooks…who-cooks-for-you-all” with a drawn-out, descending “all” at the end. But many other vocalizations have been recorded. And of all the owls, he’s the one most likely to be heard in the daytime, although I’ve only heard them in the dark of night.
Barred Owls are mainly nocturnal and hide their daytime roosts extremely well. They’re good-sized at about 21 inches long, with dark barring on the upper chest, hence their name, and a streaked breast. They have a round face with no ear tufts and they have dark eyes while most owls’ eyes are yellow. Interestingly, the owl’s ears are placed at different levels in its head to help determine if sounds are coming from above or below. And although an owl’s head has a great range of motion, it’s a myth that they can turn their heads completely around.
Like all owls, Barred Owls are carnivores and eat mammals such as mice, rabbits, bats, fish and snakes. They eat the entire animal and in the process, they swallow a lot of material they can’t digest, such as bones and fur. These are regurgitated in the form of a pellet. If you find these pellets under a tree, you’ll most likely discover an owl’s roosting spot above. Barred Owls are found in the eastern half of the U.S. and up into western Canada. As they progress westward, they have been blamed for usurping nesting sites of the Spotted Owl and also hybridizing with them, leading to lower populations of Spotted Owls. But the Barred Owl has its own problems—one of its major predators is the aggressive Great Horned Owl.
Barred Owls hardly ever build their own nests. They like to nest in tree holes that are caused by large fallen-off limbs, and in areas with abundant water. Their nests are sparsely lined with feathers or grasses. Barred Owls will also nest in abandoned crow’s nests or squirrel dreys. A pair will stay together in the same territory throughout the year spending the winter together and using the same nesting site in spring. After the young have fledged, they stay with the parents for a long time and the parents continue to feed them as they learn to hunt for themselves.
So listen in the night for the sound of the Barred Owl and keep a watch for telltale pellets when you’re walking in the woods. Someday you may be lucky enough to spot this noisy, but secretive owl.
Written by R. Brune