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The Barred Owl

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The "hoot-hoot-hoot" owl

Owls are sometimes tough to add to one’s birding life list. They simply operate on a different schedule from us day-loving humans. And even if you make the effort to meet them on their terms, that is, you head out after-hours—good luck! By that time the theme song of Mission Impossible should begin echoing through your mind. It just doesn’t work that way: our cone-happy, color-loving eyes were never meant to part the shadows. But fortunately you do have your ears!

Like its cousins, the Barred Owl is often best identified by its song. And the wide-ranging Barred Owl will not be confused with any other night denizen, though maybe a lunatic! Its distinctive call has earned it the common name of Hoot Owl. I think the best mnemonic for this species’ call is who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all. And that is what it sounds like, though with a whinny sound at the end. It’s a treat! A great way to hear this bird’s song is to listen to the audio file at the Bird Lab of Cornell University’s website. It’s fun! And chances are you’ve heard the Barred Owl many, many times already—you just never knew who it was. 

The Barred Owl is actually one of the owls I more commonly see. It is one of those birds that you stumble upon, rather than find by intent. I encounter it most often during the fall hunting season, while strolling through the woods, especially on overcast days. Though nocturnal, it is commonly active around sunrise and sunset. It is a big bird, about the size of a large grouse. These birds will be predominantly a rusty brown color speckled with white, giving the bird a mottled look. The face is white. The breast and belly are also light colored, though streaked vertically with brown. Some birds replace the brown with grey, though the other patterns hold true. Other important field marks are the round head that lacks ear tufts, and the dark eyes. Most other owls have yellow eyes, so the dark orbs of the Barred Owl are a great help for making a definitive identification—assuming you can see them.

As I have noted previously in other articles of The Bird In Hand, the Barred Owl is yet another eastern species of North American birds that has been moving westward these past decades. A distribution map of the Barred Owl shows that this bird is predominantly found in eastern North America, but its population also stretches across a fringe of the boreal forest of Canada and into Alberta and British Columbia and from there down into the northern Rockies of the United States and the Cascade Range of Washington and Oregon. Indeed, the successful expansion of the Barred Owl into western North America is now so earnest that it is pushing out its cousin, the endangered Spotted Owl. There have even been calls to kill Barred Owls to protect Spotted Owls. Crazy stuff!

As you might assume, the Barred Owl feeds predominantly on small mammals like chipmunks, rabbits, and squirrels. Interestingly, they themselves are commonly preyed upon by the Great Horned Owl, meaning the two tend not to coexist as the one becomes the other’s dinner. It’s an owl-eat-owl world out there!

So, on that next hunting trip at elk camp, listen for the distinctive vocalization of the Barred Owl. Impress your hunting buddies: “That, my friends, is Strix varia, formally known as the Barred Owl, though also commonly called the Hoot Owl.” They may not be impressed, but at least you can demonstrate you can be pedantic with the best of them. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

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A Bird in Hand, barred owl

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