Earlier this fall while finishing up an evening walk in the woods, the sun just beginning to touch the western horizon as its last rays of light filtered through the trees, a nearby barred owl let out a long and descending, single-note call: WHOOOooooo!
Stopping to listen, I heard the bird emit the same call twice more before it must’ve left its perch to begin its crepuscular hunt. Indeed, creatures of the dark, especially barred owls and many other owl species, punch the clock each and every evening to begin their nightly activities.
Barred owls are one of the most common species of owls in Minnesota. Easily possessing the most recognizable vocalization — the “Who-Cooks-for-You” cal l— this species of owl is also one of our larger species. Great horned owls are the heaviest species, and great gray owls and snowy owls are larger than barred owls, too.
One of the “earless” owls, barred owls aren’t adorned with feather-tufts on top of their heads as great horned, long-eared, short-eared, and eastern screech owls are. All other owls that inhabit Minnesota have smooth, rounded feathered heads, including barred owls. In all, there are 12 species of owls that occur in our state.
A notable trait of the barred owl has to do with the color of their eyes. One of only two species of eastern owls with brown eyes, the other being the barn owl, all other eastern species of owls’ eyes are yellow. And in western North America, the spotted owl and the tiny flammulated owl are the only western species with brown eyes, too.
As mentioned, a barred owl is a fairly large bird. At about 17 inches in total length with a 44-inch wingspan, barred owls are members of the three-species genus “Strix” that has as its closest relatives the near lookalikes in the great gray and spotted owls.
Coupled with their big domed heads, each of these three species have huge facial disks highlighted with concentric rings. Additionally, barred owls, as their name suggests, have vertical striping on their bellies and horizontal barring on their throats. Barred owls are striking, beautiful birds.
No owl that I’m aware of builds their own nest. They borrow the nests built by other birds such as hawks, crows, and ravens, or they use natural tree cavities or sometimes artificial nest boxes such as wood duck houses. Barred owls are primarily cavity nesters.
To illustrate an owl’s nest choice, many years ago while conducting my graduate research study in North Dakota, I was amused by the comical sight of a nesting great horned owl in the midst of a double-crested cormorant nesting colony.
These cormorants were tree nesters, not ground nesters as some cormorants are. Their stick nests were scattered everywhere throughout the spreading branches of an enormous cottonwood tree adjacent to a wetland.
And in the middle of the colony was a great horned owl incubating her clutch of eggs inside a cormorant nest while nearby cormorants were doing the same. The unlikely combination of predator and prey nesting peacefully side-by-side was unusual, to say the least.
Interestingly, great horned owls are the primary enemy of barred owls. One could look at this relationship similar to the interactions between wolves and coyotes. Each species — great horned and barred owls/wolf and coyote — occupy habitats together, but one species holds a definitive dominance over the other.
The less dominant, barred owls and coyotes, yield to their larger cousins, will move to periphery habitats away from those species, and, in some instances, can fall victim by becoming prey items to their respective relatives.
The barred owl hunts mostly small mammals, but will also prey on bigger animals such as rabbits, hares, and even birds as large as grouse. Like all owls, their soft primary and secondary wing feathers enable these efficient aerial predators to fly silently as they swoop down from lookout perches above the forest floor to capture unsuspecting prey.
When their nighttime calls sometimes permeate the darkness to our listening ears, or when we’re treated with rare and fleeting glimpses of these mysterious and elusive birds, barred owls are one of nature’s many wonders as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.