Portland Parks & Recreation’s natural areas are home to a wide diversity of wildlife, including six different species of owls. One owl species that you may encounter is the barred owl, which has been observed in Forest Park, Gabriel Park, Hoyt Arboretum, Oaks Bottom and River View Natural Area.
Typically, observations are of owls passively perched in trees,
but occasionally barred owls exhibit aggressive, territorial behavior.
Part of PP&R’s mission is to protect these wild neighbors in our urban landscape. Recognizing, understanding, and taking action to ensure positive interactions will help to protect wildlife in our parks. Barred owls are beautiful examples of predatory birds in Pacific Northwest forests and ecosystems; a sighting can be a great experience for an outdoor enthusiast.
- Up to 20 inches tall and stocky in appearance
- Wingspan ranging up to four feet
- Grayish-brown wings and back
- Brown and white horizontal feather pattern on upper chest and neck
- Brown and white vertical feather pattern on lower chest
- Round head shape, lacking ear tufts
- Dark eyes
- Small hooked bill
- Distinct call sounds like “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all?’
What should you do if an owl is acting aggressively?
As visitors to parks and other forest environments, we are willingly entering wildlife habitat areas. While it is intimidating to see aggressive owl behavior, injuries from barred owl attacks are very rare. Following these simple suggestions will help ensure that encounters will be positive for both barred owls and visitors alike.
- View During Daytime - Barred owls are most active at dark, dawn, and dusk, generally roosting during the day. Visit posted areas during daytime hours to minimize active owl interactions.
- Be Aware - When passing through posted areas, remove headphones or other sensory blocking devices and be aware of your surroundings.
- Cover Yourself - In the rare chance that an owl swoops near you, hats and clothing that covers your neck work best to minimize injury.
- Leave the Area - If an owl is acting aggressive, leave the area as quickly as possible.
Barred owls populate wooded forests. They typically roost unnoticed during the daytime, though occasionally will hoot with a distinctive call described as sounding like ‘Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all?’. At night they hunt small rodents, birds, and reptiles, often perching on a favorite tree before sighting prey. Like all owls, they swallow their food whole, regurgitating a pellet with the indigestible parts of their meal. Barred owls have few predators, notably raccoons and weasels who will raid their nests and great horned owls which will occasionally kill adult or juvenile barred owls.
Barred owls are solitary outside of breeding season (February to August). When that time arises, female and male owls will call out to each other, and perform a courtship “dance” that consists of rhythmic bobbing and the spreading of wings. Once a mate has been found, the paired owls typically remain together for future breeding seasons. Barred Owls nest in tree cavities and or take over large stick nests built by crow and other birds. The female owl will lay 2-4 eggs. The female sits on the eggs while the male hunts during the month-long incubation period. Though able to fly around six weeks, young owlets can remain with their mother for up to six months.
Barred Owls (left) vs. Spotted Owls (right)
Barred owls are native to eastern North America, moving westward over the past century. The first barred owls arrived in British Columbia in 1959 and were first documented in Oregon in the mid-1970s (see figure one.)
The smaller spotted owl is native to the Pacific Northwest, and relies upon old-growth forests for their habitat needs. Due to the spotted owl’s specific habitat needs, we call them 'specialists' in their preference for only old-growth forests. Barred owls are 'generalists' in nature, meaning they have fewer specific habitat requirements, and can occupy a wider variety of habitat types. Spotted owls are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act due to a decline in old-growth forest habitat. Additionally, barred owls encroach upon and reside in spotted owl habitats, furthering to contribute to spotted owl decline. In areas with established barred owl populations, spotted owl populations have been recorded to decline more dramatically the longer barred owls are present.
There are conflicting views surrounding the management of barred owl populations. While the US Fish and Wildlife Service has issued permits allowing limited lethal control on an experimental basis in a small number of areas where spotted owls are established, this is not an issue in the Portland Metro area. Spotted owls do not occur in the Portland Metro area. Furthermore, barred owls are protected under federal law and harming or killing them without a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service is illegal and can result in a jail sentence of up to 6 months and/or a fine of up to $15,000. Portland Parks & Recreation treats barred owls just as it would treat any other protected species.
Barred owls are territorial year round, though it is hypothesized that this behavior increases during the breeding season and when young owls are establishing new territory. When a barred owl’s territory is threatened, it will swoop towards the intruder and hoot loudly to chase them away. Additionally, when the adults are protecting a nest during breeding season, one owl may hoot and put on a display to distract the possible predator from the nest while the other remains with the eggs.
Barred owls have occasionally attacked runners, swooping down and hitting them on the head or neck with their talons. This is very rare, and has only been noted recently in nature areas in the Pacific Northwest, including Salem, Portland, and the Seattle area.
- Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts p.317
- Mazur, K.M., and P.C. James. 2000. Barred Owl (Strix varia). The Birds of North America, No. 508 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
- United States. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office. Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Information Site: Barred Owl Threat. US Fish and Wildlife Services - Pacific Region, Web.