Critter of the Month: The Barred Owl
By Brevin Persike
What do barred owls (Strix varia) look like?
Barred owls, similar to most owls, are stout, with streaks of white and brown feathers. They get their name, barred, from the brown streaks along their chest against an otherwise mostly white underbelly. Their backs and wings are mostly brown, and their faces are white with a ring of brown around the brow. Unlike some owls, barred owls do not have ear tufts towards the back or side of the head. Barred owls have dark brown eyes that can be easily identifiable, as only much smaller barn owls have brown eyes, too.
Adult barred owls will range from 16 to 25 inches tall, with the females usually standing a bit taller than males. Wing spans, in barred owls, vary similarly to their heights and can stretch from 36 inches to 50 inches in length. An adult female barred owl will weigh, on average, 1.75 pounds, but that can range anywhere from 1.25 to 2.5 pounds. Adult males are smaller, and weigh in at around 1.5 pounds, ranging from 1 pound to 1.75 pounds.
What do they sound like?
Barred owls are most well known in the Northwoods for their hoots, which pairs use to call back and forth to one another. Their baritone call is distinctive for its repeated four beats, sounding similar to the “coo-coo ca-choo” from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” or “goo goo g’joob, goo goo g’joob” from The Beatles’ “I am the Walrus.”
Where do barred owls live?
With a preference towards woodlands near water and moderate temperatures, barred owls are most commonly found from the Northeastern United states to Central Minnesota. They can be found as far south as Miami or even Mexico City, and as far west as Montana. The populations are slowly shifting further north towards the northern reaches of Canada, as temperatures rise in the southern United States.
In Wisconsin, barred owls can be found in about any rural area year-round. In the winter, some will migrate to nearby cities from the woods. Barred owls are most commonly found in woodlands that are more densely populated with hemlock, maple, oak, hickory, beech, aspen, spruce, poplar, fir, or pine trees. They will also take up residence in nesting boxes in forested areas if they are available well before breeding season.
What do they eat?
Like most owls and other birds of prey, barred owls eat squirrels, chipmunks, mice, rabbits, small birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and invertebrates. They often sit in an elevated perch and survey their surroundings for prey. When set up near water, they will rest on a branch over the water to watch fish, or on occasion can be found in wading in shallow water. On the hunt, barred owls fly low to the ground through the woods in preparation to grab their prey.
How do barred owls behave?
While barred owls are primarily nocturnal, you can hear them starting in the afternoon or early evening. They begin their hunt around dusk and will finish hunting around dawn before returning to their roosts. Although known to be less aggressive than great horned owls, barred owls are very territorial and will hoot loudly at intruders as they chase them away. During nesting, females will even strike intruders with their feet.
What is a barred owl’s lifecycle?
Barred owls pair for life and seem to have close to equal responsibilities. Typically, nest in large trees that are 20 to 40 feet above ground. Either the male or the female can find the nesting spot. They will select their nesting place in February. Courting begins in March, and in April eggs are laid.
During the nesting period, the male will hunt for food while the female watches the nest and protects the eggs. Barred owls have one brood each year, which usually produces two or three eggs, though it can range from one to five. The incubation and nestling periods each range from four to five weeks. At about eight weeks old, young barred owls begin to fly, but don’t master flight until they are twelve weeks old. Young will stay with their parents until the end of summer or sometimes later, before taking off on their own.
What threats do barred owls face?
Nationally, barred owls are known to find and live in the oldest forests that they can. Because of this, they are often displaced during large logging operations. Another threat is the presence of Great Horned Owls in their area. When barred owls and great horned owls overlap regions, barred owls often flee. Great horned owls will eat barred owl eggs and young, and on occasion adult barred owls, too if their regions overlap. Other animals will also attack the nest individually such as raccoons, weasels and hawks. Crows and woodpeckers will also form groups or mobs to attack barred owl nests as a group.
How does climate change impact the lives of barred owls?
With rising temperatures, global climate change is the greatest threat to barred owls. These owls have already lost most of their habitats in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Missouri as well as Mexico because of increasing temperatures. Right now, Wisconsin, like much of the Midwest, is a relatively stable home for barred owls, but some areas are becoming too warm in the spring. Young owls have a hard time surviving spring heat waves, which have become significantly more common in recent years. Along with heat waves, deforestation, both naturally and human caused, is displacing many barred owls, especially on the west coast of the U.S. and Canada.
Brevin Persike holds a bachelor’s degree in English. He lives in Rhinelander and contributes to Living on the Lake magazine, the Star Journal and other MMC publications.