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 bird is still one of the most familiar owls in North America.
Common Name: Barred Owl, Hoot Owl, Northern Barred Owl, Swamp Owl, Striped Owl, Eight Hooter, Bard Owl, Hooting Cat of the North
Scientific Name: Strix varia
Scientific Family: Strigidae
Appearance and Identification
Barred owls are heavily camouflaged, but the orientation of their markings helps birders identify them more easily. Other key field marks include this owl's size, its dark eyes and the shape and markings of the facial disk.
- Bill: Sharply hooked, pale yellow or yellow-green
- Size: 17-24 inches long with 50-55-inch wingspan, round head, medium-length tail
- Colors: Brown, buff, white, gray, yellow
- Markings: 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. 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 wings show heavy barring in flight with fewer markings on the interior. These owls lack ear tufts, and females are larger than males. 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.
Foods, Diet and Foraging
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 dissect those pellets to study owls' diets.
Habitat and Migration
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 do not migrate, and 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.
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.
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.
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. The eggs are round and plain white, and 2-4 eggs are laid in each brood. 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.
Attracting Barred Owls
These raptors are not backyard birds, but birders in areas near forests may have some luck attracting them 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.
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.
- Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis)
- Mottled Owl (Ciccaba virgata)
- Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)
- Ural Owl (Strix uralensis)
- Fulvous Owl (Strix fulvescens)