The barred owl ( Strix varia) is more often heard than seen. Its loud call is said to be asking Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all. It usually spends its day in a thick grove of trees in a low, wet forest, and is seen only by those who deliberately seek it out. The search is worth the effort, however, for this owl has beautiful "barred" plumage, or feathers, with black and white stripes. The barred owl is one of the most common species of owl in North America east of the Rocky Mountains.
Physical Description The barred owl is a large and stocky bird, 20 inches from beak to tail. It is gray-brown in color with black and white lateral stripes on its neck, wings and back, and brown and white vertical streaks on its belly. This owl has no ear tufts, or bunches of feathers resembling ears. It has a hooked beak and strong feet equipped with sharp claws, or talons, which help it catch and kill prey. It is the only dark-eyed owl likely to be seen in Vermont .
The barred owl is very vocal and will call even during the day. It has a loud distinctive eight or nine note call which seems to ask Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all in addition to other shorter calls, squeaks, and grunts.
Live Cycle The barred owl is a bird of prey and catches food with its sharp talons and hooked beak. It is nocturnal, active mainly at night, but will feed during the day if necessary. It has a varied diet, which includes small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. The barred owl is undoubtedly an opportunistic feeder, taking whatever is available.
The barred owl typically hunts for its prey while sitting on a perch. Like many other owls, it swallows its prey whole and then, when at a more sheltered location, regurgitates the indigestible materials, such as bones and fur, in the form of pellets. An owl will often use the same perch for feeding, which can be easily identified by the collection of pellets on the ground below.
Habits & Habitat The barred owl prefers extensive mature deciduous forests, such as river bottomlands, northern hardwoods, and oak-hickory forests, but is also found in mixed conifer-deciduous forests and less commonly in spruce-fir forests of Vermont . It may hunt at night over meadows or within the forest interior. Its preferred nesting site is the hollow of a tree but it will frequently use abandoned hawk, squirrel, and crow nests. Typically, this monogamous bird will use the same nest site year after year.
The barred owl is a nocturnal, but is often seen or heard during the day, especially on winter afternoons or when skies are overcast. During the day, the barred owl roosts in shady mature forests, usually on a limb next to the trunk of a tree. During hot weather, it can often be found in the upper part of a large white pine tree where there is a breeze that helps keep them cool. During cold wintry weather it usually roosts lower in the canopy where the vegetation is denser and the wind is not as strong. The barred owl is often mobbed by other birds while on its roost, particularly by crows, blue jays and robins, and a keen observer can locate an owl roost by being aware of this mobbing while out in the woods.
Abundance It is the most common owl in most of the state with its highest numbers occurring in the Green Mountains and lowest in the Northeast Kingdom . In areas that are dominated by agriculture, such as in the Champlain Valley , they are less common and may be replaced by the great-horned owl, a bird which adapts to agriculture and small woodlots better than the barred owl.
History The numbers of barred owls in Vermont today probably is similar to the numbers that were in the state prior to European contact. The population likely reached its lowest point during the 1800s when most of Vermont was cleared for agriculture. Also, owls and raptors in general were maligned and killed because it was believed that they ate chickens and important game birds, such as grouse. Early New Englanders of the colonial period also believed that owls were the messengers of witches and the devil. A visit by an owl in the middle of the night to a family’s yard was an omen that meant someone in the family was going to die. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, that scientists discovered that these owls ate mainly rodents and were a benefit to farmers, helping control rodent populations. Barred owls and most other birds came under federal protection when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in 1918.
Resource Utilization The barred owl is an efficient predator that plays an important role in the control of a variety of pest species. By feeding on rodents and insects, the barred owl helps to regulate these species' numbers so their populations may remain at a beneficial size.
As large diameter trees are a key component to the barred owl's habitat, it can be highly susceptible to changes in the abundance of these trees. For this reason it is sensitive to forest management practices and is a good measure of sustainable forestry.
Management Efforts Today the most serious threats to barred owls in Vermont include the loss of habitat from housing development, recreation development in areas where barred owls breed, and forest management that doesn’t consider including mature forest as a benefit for wildlife habitat. Roads are also a serious problem because barred owls are attracted to grassy roadsides, which harbor rodents. Many owls are killed each year in automobile collisions.
As barred owls are cavity nesters, they have been known to use human made nest boxes for laying and hatching their eggs. The screech and barn are two other owl species in North America that can be attracted to and will use nest boxes.
Current barred owl populations within the state of Vermont are stable. There is no active plan designed for these owls, but continued monitoring is conducted to ensure that their population remains healthy and abundant in Vermont.