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Barred Owl

BARRED OWL

© Larry Master
Photographer: Larry Master

Scientific Name: Strix varia

OTHER NAMES:  Swamp owl, hoot owl, rain owl, eight hooter.

DESCRIPTION:  Barred owls belong to Order Strigiformes, as do all birds who have relatively large, round heads with eyes fixed in their sockets.  More specifically, they are members of the Family Strigidae.  The barred owl is one of Alabama’s larger owls, with adults attaining lengths of 20 to 24 inches with wingspans of 40 to 50 inches.  Their general appearance is somewhat chunky with a thick body and short tail.  Overall coloration is brownish gray with a creamy or buff breast and belly.  The upper breast is darkly barred (hence their common name) with the lower breast and belly area vertically streaked.  In flight, the wings appear short, rounded, and broad.  Barred owls have no ear tufts, but have well defined eye disks.  Their beaks are yellow and their eyes are dark brown.  The barred owl’s best known call is a series of eight “hoots” best characterized by the phrases “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all.”  They are also capable of making a variety of clicks, clucks, barks, squeals, and whistles, as well as chuckling, grunting, and laughing sounds.  The most likely of Alabama’s owls to be active by day, the barred owl may be heard at almost any hour.  Barred owls have very acute hearing to go along with their well-known night-adapted vision.  To compensate for the fact their eyes can’t move, barred owls can rotate their heads about 270 degrees on their neck. 

DISTRIBUTION:  Barred owls are widely distributed in North and Central America.  Populations historically existed from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains and from the southern tip of Florida and central Honduras northward into southern Canada.  In recent decades, the barred owl has extended its range northwestward into Canada and then southward into the United StatesPacific northwest.  In this region, it is believed to compete with and possibly drive off the endangered spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) to which it is closely related.       

HABITAT:  Barred owls are most commonly found in deep woodlands (hardwood, coniferous, or mixed), bottomland hardwood tracts, and swamps.  These owls do, however, range widely over adjacent open areas while hunting.  Barred owls have adapted to living near man and are regularly found in small but dense patches of woodland near houses or farms.  Barred owls are notably more common in areas of mature to over-mature hardwood timber.  These areas better provide the open midstory and understory characteristics the owls seem to prefer for hunting and are much more likely to contain the large tree cavities favored for nesting.  Barred owls are almost never found in habitats harboring populations of great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) who are one of their few predators other than man.

FEEDING HABITS:  Barred owls do most of their hunting at night, dawn , or dusk, but may be active at any time during the day.  A common hunting practice is for them to perch in a tree while watching and listening for prey.  When prey is located, the owls will then swoop down and capture it with their strong feet and sharp talons.  These owls also hunt from the air, floating along on silent wings until prey is detected.  As generalist carnivores, the barred owls’ prey may include mice, squirrels, rabbits, bats, small birds, other owls, snakes, lizards, fish, crayfish, crabs, and insects.  Small mammals make up the bulk of the diet for most barred owls.  Smaller prey items are swallowed whole and a considerable amount of bone and hair is ingested while devouring larger animals they have torn into chunks.  Pellets of bone, hair, and feathers are regurgitated by the owls while roosting.  This makes location and identification of roost sites fairly obvious.  Uneaten prey is cached in the branches of a tree or in an unused nest.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY:  Barred owls begin forming pairs during late January and early February accompanied by much hooting and associated uproar.  Barred owls are thought by some to be monogamous (mate for life), but whether they are or not they form strong pair bonds which last most of the year.  Barred owl territories are vigorously defended during spring (while the female is on the nest) and fall (while young owls are learning to hunt). 

Barred owl pairs begin nesting in February with some nests established as late as April.  Tree cavities are preferred for nesting throughout their range.  These cavities are often constructed and abandoned by pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) and may be used by wood ducks (Aix sponsa) for nesting after the owlets have fledged.  Where a suitable cavity is not available, the nests of hawks, crows, or squirrels may be used.  Barred owls do not construct nests of their own.

After a nest site has been selected, two to three (range, one to five) white, almost round eggs are laid by the female.  The female incubates the eggs for about 30 days (range, 28 to 33) until they hatch.  During this time the male brings the female food.  After hatching, both parents hunt and bring food to the rapidly growing owlets which usually leave the nest to sit in a line on a limb by the age of four to five weeks.  Young barred owls usually fledge when 42 to 45 days old.  Both male and female will continue to protect and feed the young owls until they are able to take care of themselves.  Young owls follow their parents in order to learn to hunt.  Parental care may continue as late as the end of October in some cases.  By early winter the young barred owls leave the parental territory to mate and establish territories of their own when about two years of age.

REFERENCES:

Carolina Raptor Center:  Barred Owl.”

Http://charweb.org/organizations/science/raptorcenter/bardowl.html. (01/15/98)

Forbush, E. H. and J. B. May.  1969.  A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central

North America.  Bramhall House,  New York, NY

“Georgia Wildlife Website:  Strix varia.”

http://museum.nhm.uga.edu/gawildlife/birds/strigiformes/svaria.html  (06/01/2000)

Hill, D. B.  1998.  “The Barred Owl, Strix varia”. http://naturepark.com/bardowl.html

Howell, A. H.  1928.  Birds of Alabama.  Birmingham Printing Co.,  Birmingham, AL

National Geographic Society.  1989.  Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Second Edition.

National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.

Pough, R. H.  1946.  Audubon Bird Guide, Eastern Land Birds.  Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden

City, NY

Quimby, S.  2000.  Strix varia (on-line), Animal Diversity Web.

animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu.

 

Author:  John S. Powers, Area Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries


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