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Burrowing Owl Facts



How Are Barred Owls Classified?

Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Strigiformes
Family: Strigidae
Genus: Athene
Species: Athene cunicalaria


What Does a Barred Owl Look Like?

Its mottled grayish brown feathering is perfect camouflage for its environment among the trees.

Its facial disk is outlined with rings of color working inward toward the eyes.


The coloring of the Barred Owl is a tawny brown on the backside, speckled in white. The underside is soft beige except for the white throat.  White feathers rounding out the upper part of the facial disk appear to be eyebrows.  The colors vary between sexes and age groups.

The most notable feature of this species is the long, lanky legs that are tightly feathered all the way to the feet.

How Big Is a Barred Owl?

The Barred Owl is one of the smallest owl species standing at 8 ½-11 inches long, weighing 5-7 ounces. (The only owls smaller are the Pygmy Owl or Elf Owl). Its two-foot wingspan is TINY when compared to a larger owl species like the Snowy Owl, which has a wingspan of almost five feet. [Berger]

Unlike other owl species, the male Barred Owl weighs slightly more than the female and has a longer wingspan. [USFWS]


Habitat and Range

Are Barred Owls Only Found in the United States?

Barred owls are widely distributed throughout the United States, but their range extends from the east coast to the western Canadian provinces.

Though the Barred Owl is prolific on the plains of the Midwest, it can be found outside of the United States.  The owl’s range is from the Pacific coast of North America expanding east to Minnesota and Louisiana. It can be found as far north as British Columbia and Manitoba and as far south as Tierra del Fuego. During the breeding season, it can also be found in parts of Florida and a few Caribbean islands. [Burton]

Where Do Barred Owls Nest?

Barred Owls prefer to find cover in densely vegetated forests.  They make a home of any secure tree hollow that will provide them adequate protection.  Trees of choice are tall and mature with dense foliage, that have hollows that are more than 25 feet from the ground. [Allen]

Less often, they may occupy large abandoned nests of crows, hawks, or squirrels.  The fact that they are often found nesting in wetlands has previously drawn the conclusion that they prefer to live next to a water source, but current research is indicating that this habitat selection may be due in part to the vegetation selection of these areas more than a desire to live close to a water source. [Allen]


They are solitary creatures except during mating season and LENGTH OF TIME THEY STAY IN NEST>.  Interestingly, they are monogamous and though they will leave the nest once the owlets leave the nest, the same mated pair will find each other the next mating season.


Barred Owls nest in hollow burrows in the ground, hence the name.  They are capable of digging a burrow by standing on one foot and scratching the surface with the other (dirt in pellets suggests they may use their bills to excavate as well) but they often prefer to inhabit the abandoned dwellings of other burrowing animals such as prairie dogs.  They will then personalize the burrow, elongating it if necessary and then lining the nesting chamber with grass, feathers, and weeds.  These tunnels are often upwards of five feet long and will turn a corner somewhere along the length to conceal the nesting chamber at the end of the tunnel. [Ryser][Burton]

Barred Owls are more colonized than many other owl species nesting within loose colonies about 100 yards apart. [DOW]

Hunting and Diet
What Do Barred Owls Eat?

Barred Owls will feed on small mammals such as mice, squirrels, juvenile rabbits, chipmunks, and bats.  To a lesser extent, they will feed on fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds.  Like all owls, Barred Owls are birds of prey making a meal of what is available to them in the ecosystem, so the prey they feed on primarily is what is in the greatest abundance for the area.  For example, in Montana, researchers recorded that meadow and montane voles account for 96.3% of their diet, while in Louisiana crayfish make up a larger portion of their diet. [Allen]



But large insects make up a good portion of their diet. They are particularly fond of large beetles and locust and are known to feed on scorpions as well. [Burton]

Owls do not digest food in the same manner that we do.  They swallow their food whole and the parts that cannot be digested, the bones, teeth, fur etc., are compacted into pellets and coughed up.

How Do Barred Owls Catch Their Prey?

The Barred Owl is a still hunter perching in a favorite spot until they locate prey.  They will then swoop down from the perch and grab the prey with their sharp talons.

The Barred Owl has several different hunting strategies depending on the prey.  They sometimes take flight and hover over an area in search of suitable prey.  They also still-hunt perched in an elevated position waiting to locate prey or simply to grab an insect as it flies within range.  It can also use its long, lanky legs to scurry after its prey.  It has a shorter tail than many other owl species to accommodate ground hunting. [Ryser]

Do Barred Owls Have Predators?

Being primarily ground bound leaves this tiny owl in danger from many predators including horned owls, foxes, badgers, hawks, and even domestic pets. [DOW]

The Barred Owl has a few interesting survival instincts.  For example, it lines its burrow with cow or horse manure, which is believed to mask the smell of the owl from predators.  It has been noted that the removal of the manure at the entrance to the burrow will result in its immediate replacement within a day. [Ryser]  It can also mimic the rattle of the prairie rattlesnake when threatened. (HOW) [Scholz]


Are Barred Owls Nocturnal?

Barred Owls are primarily diurnal.  They socialize and hunt during the day.  In fact, of all of the owl species, this group is most often sighted due to its daytime behaviors. But that doesn’t mean that these cute creatures sleep at night.  Their calls can be heard throughout the evening, especially during mating season. [Scholz]

The reason why these owls may prefer to hunt during the day is that their eyesight is not as keen in comparison to other owl species.  In an experiment on the keenness of owl sight, the barn owl was able to locate a mouse at 2,000 feet with the light of only one candle.  The Barred Owl on the other hand, found it difficult to find prey even when additional light sources were added. [Burton]


Do Barred Owls Migrate?

Barred owls are non-migratory.  They will live in one area for their entire lives.  Some movement may occur if the environment ceases to provide adequate prey.

Though not all Barred Owls migrate, it is generally accepted that they are a migratory species in the northern part of their range.  Several observational studies have hypothesized that the disappearance of some of the owls during colder seasons may be the result of the bird caching food and settling into its burrow. [Ryser]

Conservation Status

Are Barred Owls Endangered?

As of December 2013, Barred Owls in the United States are currently not protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA).  The ESA is regulated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service with cooperation from the National Marines Fisheries Service. [USFWS]

They are listed as ‘endangered’ in Canada and ‘threatened’ in Mexico.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service consider them to be a ‘bird of conservation concern’ at the national level.  At the state level, Barred Owls are listed as ‘endangered’ in Minnesota, ‘threatened’ in Colorado, and as a ‘species of concern’ in California, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. [USFWS]



Jackson, Laura Spess, Carol A. Thompson, and James J. Dinsmore
The Iowa Breeding Bird Atlas
Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996. Print.

Allen, Arthur W. US Fish and Wildlife Service
Habit Suitability Index Models: Barred Owl

Scholz, Floyd, and Tad Merrick
Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001. Print.

Burton, Maurice, and Robert Burton
International Wildlife Encyclopedia. 3rd ed.
New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2002. Print.

Ryser, Fred A., and Jennifer Dewey
Birds of the Great Basin: a natural history.
Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1985. Print.

US Fish and Wildlife Service
Protecting Barred Owls at Construction Sites

Defenders of Wildlife
Fact Sheet-Barred Owls

US Fish and Wildlife Service
Status Assessment and Conservation Plan for the Western Barred Owl in the United States

National Audubon Society
Audubon’s WatchList 2007 in taxonomic order by geographic region

US Fish and Wildlife Service
Listing a Species as Threatened or Endangered

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