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©Kellie Lukaczyk

Frequent Flyer: Barred owl

Story by Bailey Gilliam + Photo by Tom Casey

What a hoot!

There are quite a few species of owls that frequent the Lowcountry, but perhaps the most frequently seen (or more likely heard) species is the barred owl. There’s nothing quite like hearing that distinctive “who cooks for you?” call on a warm summer evening. Unlike the great horned owl that has prevailed in pop culture for decades, the barred owl has no ear tufts and has dark eyes that appear almost black. Its dark eyes give it a mystical, attractive appearance, but its beauty doesn’t end there. It has a yellow beak and feet and speckled brown, white and rust-colored feathers with a thin line of darker feathers outlining its facial disk, all of which make for one strikingly beautiful bird.

Though these owls primarily hunt during the nighttime, you might be lucky enough to see or hear one during the day, particularly on cloudy days. The barred owl does not migrate. It stays in or around its nest territory throughout the year, defending it against unwanted intruders. They chase away nest intruders while hooting loudly and use their surprisingly long feet to strike. If you’re lucky enough to have one make a home in your backyard, you are in for a treat and a show. Barred owls mate for life and will likely stick around for their entire lives. 

A natural form of pest control, barred owls will also rid your yard of unwanted critters such as mice, squirrels, chipmunks and voles. In fact, they are opportunistic hunters, meaning they will go for any snack available. They may eat reptiles, amphibians, bugs and even fish. Whether defending the nest or hunting, any chance to see this bird in action is something you don’t want to miss. Install a nest box and watch the circle of life unfold before your eyes.

Fun Facts

  • Barred owls may perch over water and drop down to catch fish or even wade in shallow water in pursuit of fish and crayfish.
  • If a barred owl eats enough crayfish, the feathers under its wings can turn pink—just like a flamingo, which gets its hue from the high volume of shrimp in its diet.
  • Barred owls mate for life. They usually have a single clutch of two or three white eggs yearly.
  • Young barred owls can climb trees by grasping the bark with their bill and talons, flapping their wings and walking their way up the trunk.
  • Adult owls can grow to 20 inches tall.
  • Apart from its typical call, it makes a number of other interesting vocalizations from screams and hoots and barks to one particular call that sounds quite a bit like maniacal laughter.
  • Barred owls can rotate their heads 270 degrees in each direction.

Where to see them

  • Barred owls live year-round in mixed forests of large trees, often near water. 
  • Their preferred habitats range from swamps to stream sides to uplands and may contain hemlock, maple, oak, hickory, beech, aspen, white spruce, quaking aspen, balsam poplar, Douglas fir, lodgepole pine or western larch.
  • Barred owls usually nest in a natural cavity 20-40 feet high in a large tree. They may also use stick platform nests built by other animals as well as human-made nest boxes.

Essentials 

While owls are predators and therefore attracting them with food would be nearly impossible, you can still help them out by purchasing a nesting box. Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find a full line of feeders, seeds and accessories for backyard bird feeding at Wild Birds Unlimited. Be sure to check out the WBU Owl Cam at wbu.com.

Accessories

  • Barred owl box 
  • Nesting box guard