For the Birds: Barred owls

Monday, September 16, 2019

Barred Owl. Note barring at neck and chest.
Photo by John Riegsecker

By Christine Southwick

Barred Owls want to know, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

But don’t answer near the nest tree — they will strafe invaders with their strong talons — the only defense they have. 

Unlike other raptors, owls rarely tear their food, preferring to swallow it whole, and then cough up the un-digestible parts in tidy packets, called pellets, which can often be found underneath their roost trees.

Barred Owl away from trunk
Photo by Doug Parrott

Barred Owls are closely related to Spotted Owls, and will hybridize with them where their territories overlap. Barred Owls are larger and fiercer than Spotted Owls, with the females weighing up to two pounds, but looking bigger because of all the feathers.

Barred Owls are generalist hunters, meaning that they have a wider range of prey choices than the Spotted Owls, which allows the Barred to live in mature second growth, and the edges of logged old growth, where they out-compete the pickier Spotted Owls. Barred Owls have learned to use abandoned hawk, crow, or squirrels nests, in addition to their traditional nests in large tree cavities. They will often use the same nest for a number of years.

Barred owl
Photo by John Riegsecker

Barred Owls are recent arrivals in Washington State, having been long established on the East Coast. They did not arrive in eastern Washington until 1965, and western Washington in 1973. This has put extra pressure on the already threatened Spotted Owls.

Barred Owls form long-term monogamous pair bonds, and both defend their territories throughout the year, but especially in early spring when they begin raising their two-to-four young. Reports of owl attacks usually occur during late fall, when people are still jogging and using trails late in the day, within the actively-defended Barred Owl territory. In the early spring, fewer people are running during the times the owls are active.

My, what a big foot you have
Photo by Doug Parrott

Usually it is hard to see any owl. Barred Owls mostly hunt at night, but will call, and hunt during the day, if the prey comes where they are sitting, waiting. Crows, jays and other birds will mob an owl, and will often be your best Barred Owl locator during the day. Look for owls high up in tall trees, near the trunks. Whitewash on the trunk or nearby branches, and pellets at the base of trees, are also good clues.

So, next time you hear, “Who cooks for you?," look for your successful local Barred Owl.

Article originally published in 2012



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