Wild Profile: Meet the barred owl

A barred owl perched on a branch against a snowy background By critterbiz/Shutterstock

What does the barred owl say? “Who cooks for you?” Lots of bird-savvy cottagers can recognize the species’ call; even though the owls are noisiest during the spring—lots of hoots, hisses, screams, barks, and cackles—you can hear this particular refrain throughout the year. And you probably will: barred owls are one of our loudest owls.

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That said, they’re also good listeners, especially in the winter, when they have to hone in on mice and vole prey sneaking beneath the snow. Barred owls have long ear “slits” that are bigger than their (big) eyes (see below for more on this). The slits are hidden by flaps of skin and feathers. Each slit is in a different position on the owl’s head; this means that the bird can detect noise at two different angles at once. Plus, the owl can raise those skin flaps to deflect sound coming from behind, and use the ear feathers to direct sound into the ear. All in all, this makes the owl’s round head function as a radar dish.

Barred owls need such powerful hearing because, while they can see well from far away—up to six times better than humans, even in the dark—they can’t pinpoint objects up close. Their huge eyes are so massive that they can barely move them in their sockets. Humans can look up, down, and sideways, and have a view field of 180°. Barred owls? Only 110°. They are, however, able to turn their heads 270° (freaky-looking when they swivel their heads abruptly).

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Though barred owls are able to locate prey underneath snow cover, an icy, crusty layer, or very deep powder, makes it hard for them to actually access their dinner. Because of these poor winter hunting conditions, barred owls will sometimes leave their more northern breeding ranges to fly to southern parts of Canada, in search of easier meals. Too bad they can’t just order takeout like the rest of us.

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