The Barred Owl (Strix varia) is a common inhabitant of larger forest tracts and wooded wetlands in our area, though it, like many other nocturnal creatures, is seldom seen by humans.
This species can be distinguished from our two other most commonly encountered owls, the Eastern Screech-Owl and the Great Horned Owl, by its lack of ear tufts. Its plumage is overall grayish-brown above, dotted with pale spots on the back, wings and tail, and with pale barring on the head, neck and facial disk. The breast, belly, and under-tail coverts are cream-colored with widely spaced long, lateral brown stripes. The eyes are all-dark, giving it a rather inscrutable appearance, unlike the stern, penetrating glance of owls with yellow eyes like the Great Horned and Screech.
Often curious and sometimes rather unwary, the Barred Owl can sometimes be heard calling during daylight hours. Its usual vocalization is a rhythmic series of hoots, often rendered as “Who-cooks-for-you-who-cooks-for-youuuall?” It is also capable of emitting hair-raising maniacal laughing sounds and a drawn-out, cat-like yowl.
Referring to its temperament in captivity, the ornithologist Paul Errington (1932, “Food Habits of Southern Wisconsin Raptors, Pt. 1: Owls” in the Condor, volume 34, issue 4) wrote, “Altogether, the Barred Owl seems endowed with about as mild a personality as a raptor could have and yet maintain a predaceous existence.” Though one would imagine its usual prey of small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians might take issue with this view.
The Barred Owl, despite giving up only an inch or two to the Great Horned in length and in wingspread, averages only slightly more than half the Great Horned’s weight. This, and its disproportionately smaller and weaker talons, means that it is often preyed upon by its larger relative.
The nest site is typically a large tree cavity, although occasionally abandoned open stick nests of other larger birds are appropriated instead. The eggs are laid in March or April, and the young birds leave the nest about two months later, though they continue to be fed by their parents until late summer or early fall.
If your wooded areas lack mature trees with suitable cavities, consider putting up a nest box in December or January to attract a mating pair. Be sure to install a predator guard as well, to keep raiders from the nest.