top of page

Explore the Night Life of Barred Owls

Two worlds collide in winter. In summer, the sky stays bright until bedtime or even later. As humans head to sleep, nocturnal animals awake to start their nighttime activities. But as winter arrives, the sun sets earlier and earlier. Darkness often falls way before our bedtime, so nocturnal animals wake earlier too. For these few winter months, diurnal (active during the day) human and nocturnal animal active times overlap, and our paths can cross. We don’t have the night vision to see all the after-dark activity going on. Luckily, some animals let us know they are close by in other ways. Let’s start a nighttime adventure by following one nocturnal animal — the barred owl. 

A barred owl perched on a bare tree branch.
A barred owl. (Photo via Shutterstock)

The sun begins to set. The brown and white barred owl awakes and opens his large, dark brown eyes. Stretching to his full height of 1 ½ feet to 2 feet, he calls, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” into the darkening night. Will his mate return the call? 

No one cooks for the barred owl, though. He must hunt for every bite. What will be on the menu tonight? With wings spread as wide as a baseball bat (3 feet to 4 feet), he flies off to search his territory for food.  


The barred owl pair claimed a territory of 200 acres to 400 acres (about the size of 150 to 300 football fields). They hoot to each other across the territory. Like a fence you can hear but can’t see, their calls remind other owls to look elsewhere to roost and hunt. This space is taken!  

This owl pair found the perfect territory. The old trees in the woodland provide many tall trees to roost, or nest. Broken branches left cavities, or holes, just right for hiding newly laid eggs and protecting young owlets (owl babies). Will they choose this spot to roost? 

The barred owls won’t build a nest. But their neighbors, the hawks and crows, did last spring to raise babies. Now that the hawk and crow youngsters have grown up, those nests sit abandoned. Maybe the barred owls will settle into one of these warm and well-made nests from February through April to lay eggs, hatch and raise their owlets. The owlets will grow strong enough to leave the nest before the neighbors return to use it in the spring. 

A barred owl in flight.
A barred owl in flight. (Photo via Shutterstock)

The owl soars over the creek flowing through part of his territory. Unlike some owls that eat mostly small rodents and birds, the barred owl has a taste for seafood. Frogs, fish, salamanders and other wetland animals add variety to his menu. Maybe he will even wade into the edge of the water to hunt later. 

He flies on, past the edge of the woodland, perching momentarily high in an old tree near a house. Will mice or squirrels scurry below, taking fallen seed from the bird feeders in the yard? Will a bat fly past, visible against the open sky? The barred owl could choose any of them for a feast.

Here the barred owl waits for the right opportunity to strike. Though surrounded by darkness, he combines his superior vision and hearing to outsmart prey. His forward-facing eyes look straight out from his head covered with mottled (spotted) brown and white feathers. Like binoculars, those eyes see clearly, even far away. 

He hears a sound. With one ear positioned higher than the other, and one farther forward, he listens intently. Working together to combine what they hear, his ears can track the prey's distance and which way it moves even before the owl can see it.  

A barred owl on a chain-link fence with its head turned backward.
The barred owl twists can twist 270 degrees (three-quarters around) to see in all directions. (Photo via Shutterstock)

But still the owl waits, not giving away his location. He cannot move his eyes to track the prey’s movement, but he can turn his head. The left to right barred (striped) feathers of his chest stay still as he twists his head, looking over one shoulder, twisting farther to check over his spine. He might even twist far enough to look over the other shoulder to pinpoint his prey. Found it! 

With his brown-and-white barred wings spread wide, he swoops silently thanks to soft, comb-like feathers that let air whisper through instead of rustling in the wind.  

A detail shot of a barred owl feather showing the comb-like edges.
Looking at the comb-like edges of a barred owl's feathers. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Reaching out with four strong talons, the owl grabs his prey, crushing it instantly with the force of his grip (2 times to 5 times stronger than the grip of a human!). Flying back up to a branch, he begins to eat. Tearing off chunks with his large, yellow, hooked beak and swallowing them whole, the owl eats his fill. 

Are there owlets waiting back in the nest with his mate? He may need to save some food to feed them. Or maybe hunt again for a meal just for them. 

Full and satisfied, the barred owl returns to his starting point. The vertical (up and down) bars of feathers on his lower body mimic the bark of the tree and provide camouflage. The owl keeps his eyes and ears tuned for the sound of delicious prey, but also predators. 

The owl hears a sound. Is it prey unknowingly crossing his path or a raccoon sneakily climbing the tree in hopes of eating an owlet or egg? The barred owl readies himself to hunt or defend. 

Join the story  

A barred owl owlet in a nesting box in a tree.
A barred owl owlet in a nesting box. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Do you live in a neighborhood or near a park with old trees? Does water flow nearby? You might share the territory of a barred owl! Listen for the call of “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” If you hear it, look high. Now look even higher. It would take three, four or even five grownups standing on each other’s shoulders to get high enough to share a perch with a barred owl — though they’d probably fly away before you could get that close! 

If you hear barred owls in your neighborhood and have an old, very tall tree in your yard, try adding a nesting box to invite them to stay. Find directions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With a little luck, you may even get to see owlets! 


Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page