Barred Owl

Strix varia

Barred Owl

Yutaka Seki/Flickr/CC by 2.0

The familiar hooting call of the barred owl is so common in southern swamps, it has earned this bird its “hoot owl” nickname, as well as the more colloquial “eight hooter” moniker. Less common in the northern and western parts of its range, this member of the Strigidae bird family is still one of the most familiar owls in North America, but there are many barred owl facts that can surprise even experienced birders.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Strix varia
  • Common Name: Barred Owl, Hoot Owl, Northern Barred Owl, Swamp Owl, Striped Owl, Eight Hooter, Bard Owl, Hooting Cat of the North
  • Lifespan: 15-20 years
  • Size: 17-24 inches
  • Weight: 22-29 ounces
  • Wingspan: 50-55 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Barred Owl Identification

Barred owls are heavily camouflaged, but their overall large size, round head, and medium length tail help birders recognize them more easily. Other key field marks include this owl's dark eyes and the shape and markings of the facial disk.

Genders are similar with large dark eyes, brown or gray-brown upperparts with white spotting, and a pale round facial disc with a dark border. The chest and abdomen are pale buff or white, and chest shows heavy dark horizontal barring that contrasts with the vertical dark streaking on the abdomen. The long, rounded tail shows heavy white and gray horizontal bars, and the wings show heavy barring in flight with fewer markings on the interior.

These owls lack ear tufts, and females are larger than males. The legs are feathered and feet are pale yellow or yellow-gray. Juvenile birds are paler, fluffier, and less distinctly barred until all their juvenile down is shed.

Barred owls have a cawing hoot call that features 8-9 syllables and is often referred to with a “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all” mnemonic. The last syllable of the call is frequently drawn out. These birds can be quite vocal when several birds are present, and their calls are regularly heard in the daytime as well as at dusk when the birds become more active.

Barred Owl vs. Spotted Owl

The barred owl and spotted owl can easily be confused with one another, especially in areas where their ranges overlap. Spotted owls, however, lack the distinct vertical barring on the abdomen, and they have a more pronounced "X" in the center of their facial disc. Barred owls are also generally larger than spotted owls and tend to be paler overall.

Barred Owl Habitat and Distribution

These owls prefer heavily wooded habitats with large, undisturbed plots of either coniferous or deciduous trees. They can be found in deep forests or swamps, most often near water.

Barred owls are found year-round from eastern Washington and Oregon north throughout British Columbia. Their range extends east through Canada's boreal forest to the Atlantic coast, and they are found in the central and southeastern United States as far west as eastern regions of Texas and Oklahoma. An isolated population is also present in west-central Mexico along the Pacific coast. In general, the barred owl populations are more dense in the southeast than in other parts of their range.

Migration Pattern

Barred owls do not migrate, but stay within their typical range year-round.

Behavior

These are primarily nocturnal birds that are found alone or in mated pairs. They hunt from perches or on the wing, and will roost high in trees on large branches or close to the tree's trunk. Their courtship display includes hooting, bowing, and head wagging, and may begin as early as February when birds renew their relationships and strengthen bonds with their mates.

Diet and Feeding

Like all owls, barred owls are carnivorous and hunt a variety of small mammals, birds, snakes, and amphibians. They swallow their prey whole or in large chunks, then will remain still and rest while they digest. Barred owls regurgitate hard pellets of undigested material, such as the bones and fur of their prey, and ornithologists often dissect those pellets to study owls' diets.

Nesting

These owls are monogamous and believed to mate for life. They nest in empty tree cavities or will usurp abandoned raptor nests at heights between 10 and 85 feet high, and occasionally use large nest boxes.

Eggs and Young

The barred owl's eggs are round and plain white, and 2-4 eggs are laid in each brood. Because of their long care period, a mated pair will raise only a single brood each year. The female parent incubates the eggs for 29-32 days, and after hatching, both parents feed the down-covered owlets for an additional 40-42 days.

Barred owls occasionally hybridize with spotted owls where the two species' ranges overlap in the northwest.

Barred Owl Conservation

While there is some concern that southern swamp populations of barred owls may be declining, these birds are not considered threatened in any way. Preserving swamp habitats in the southeast and regulating logging to prevent fracturing forest lands in the northern parts of this bird's range are essential to provide adequate habitat and keep their populations strong.

Tips for Backyard Birders

These raptors are not backyard birds, but birders in areas near forests may have some luck attracting barred owls with bird-friendly landscaping that includes large, mature trees in relatively dense clusters. Providing large nest boxes is another option for encouraging these birds to nest nearby. Pesticide use and rodent traps should be minimized so there is abundant prey nearby for hunting owls.

How to Find This Bird

Finding owls can be a challenge, but because barred owls will reuse the same nesting sites from year to year, birders can visit known breeding areas and have good success seeing these owls. Owling trips in the right habitat may see barred owls along with other owl species, and birding by ear can help birders locate these owls by their distinctive hooting calls. Birding at twilight or early in the night is the best time to see barred owls, though during the breeding season these birds may even be active during the day if they have a large, hungry brood to feed.

Explore More Species in This Family

Owls are some of the most fascinating birds to birders and non-birders alike, and it's always fun to learn more about owls. Some of the more popular owl species in the Strigidae and Tytonidae owl families include:

Don't miss our other detailed wild bird fact sheets to learn even more about all your favorite bird species!