Get to Know the Barred Owl

A Singular Call

If you’ve walked the Southern woods at night, then you’ve probably heard the Barred Owl’s memorable call. According to Audubon’s Guide to North American Birds, the call is a “loud barking hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo; hoo, hoo; hoo, hooo-aw!” 

But if you ask a common birder to make the Barred Owl call, you’d probably get the more popular version: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

Though it’s not quite onomatopoeia (Meow! Oink!), turning owl calls to human language helps us to remember them, because once you start listening to owls, you step into a soundscape that is, to the unpracticed ear, confusing.


Figure 1:

Barred Owls will often companion call, meaning that one hoots and the other answers. Naturalist Jon Young characterizes companion calling as a bird’s way of checking in with another of the species. Basically, they’re saying, “I’m okay. Are you okay?” And the other responds in kind.

Our Owl Prowl trip teaches this attentive listening strategy as we paddle Saxapahaw Lake. It’s a nighttime adventure, which is when these birds are most active, both calling and hunting. They can and do hunt in daytime though, and whenever you spot them, they are frequently watching for prey from their perch, although they may also fly low to hunt as well.


Most people naturally recognize an owl: the twisting head, the unblinking eyes. The Barred Owl certainly shares this “owl face;” its large dark eyes are set in an off-white face with a dark yellow beak.

To zero in on the species and positively identify a Barred Owl, look for a mottled brown and white pattern on their wings and back. Looking at the front of the bird, note its upper breast is horizontally crossed with brown bars, and the lower body has vertical brown bars on a white background.

Habitat and Range

Often considered a widespread dweller of swamps, the Barred Owl more generally prefers dense woods, usually with some water nearby. Think river bottoms and other swampy areas. In the southeastern United States, the Barred Owl mostly inhabits deciduous forests, though in the north it can be found among coniferous trees.

For North Carolina paddlers, the Barred Owl can be found anytime along the Haw River as it is a year-round dweller in much of the Eastern United States. There are some claims that individual birds leave their nesting areas during the winter, but the majority stick to their usual range.

History and Impact on Other Species

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Barred Owls began as natives to eastern North America, but they are natural expansionists, possibly beginning to move “west of the Mississippi River around the turn of the 20th century.” While there’s no definitive explanation, one claim is that the Barred Owl’s westward expansion followed a similar move by Europeans; meaning that as the New World was settled by Europeans and the landscape altered, the Barred Owl capitalized on the removal of natural barriers.

Regardless of their history, the Barred Owl is, in some areas, considered invasive and a threat to other species, especially to the Northern Spotted Owl, which is much less aggressive and whose population is already under threat from habitat loss. To mitigate the harm, the USFWS implemented a Barred Owl Removal Experiment in California, Oregon, and Washington to test the feasibility of controlling Barred Owl populations. Results indicated that “[s]potted owl populations stabilized in the areas with removals, but continued to decline at a rate of 12% in the areas without removals.”

Join Us to Look for Barred Owls

In Birds of America, John James Audubon evoked the mystery of the Barred Owl’s flight: “So very lightly do they fly, that I have frequently discovered one passing over me, and only a few yards distant, by first seeing its shadow on the ground, during clear moon-light nights, when not the faintest rustling of its wings could be heard.”


Figure 2: Plate 46, Birds of America. Source:

Want to listen for the Barred Owl? Join us on one of our nighttime trips: Owl Prowl, Stargazing Paddle, or Moonlight Paddle.

Our staff can teach you to paddle quietly, to use your senses, and to enjoy the Barred Owl’s call and the mysterious nighttime world.