A few years ago while walking in the woods on a winter day in the Middlesex Fells Reservation, a few miles north of Boston, I stopped and looked around. In the fading light of late afternoon, about 30 feet away, I saw a pair of big, dark eyes in a large, round, grayish-brown disc-shaped face staring at me.
At first glance, the face looked like that of a large primate, and for a few seconds I froze in fear. Once I realized that what I was looking at wasn’t a Sasquatch, but a 2-foot-tall owl sitting on a branch, I breathed a sigh of relief. I recognized it as a barred owl.
We looked at each other for a couple of minutes, then I continued on my way.
Barred owls are year-round residents in Massachusetts and can sometimes be seen sunning themselves in deciduous trees during the winter, according to the Mass Audubon website.
Wayne Petersen, director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program for Mass Audubon, said barred owls prefer heavily forested habitats, especially around wetlands, but they will often show up in suburban areas in search of food when deep snow makes it more difficult to locate prey in their usual haunts.
“Winter movements are probably because the barred owls are looking for less snow and more food,” said Petersen. “They can’t get to rodents under the snow. They will sit right near bird feeders in people’s yards looking for mice that are picking up seed on the ground.”
Petersen said barred owls even show up in city parks in winter.
“There’s often one or two in places like the Boston Public Garden, Harvard Yard, and other urban sites,” said Petersen. “They’re hungry and looking for food like rats, mice, and house sparrows.”
Brendan Keegan, a horticulturalist at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, said in an e-mail that barred owls are typically a winter visitor there.
“At least a couple are spotted in our conifer collection every year,” said Keegan. “They seem to like roosting in large conifers, especially in hemlocks.”
There are lots of white-footed mice and meadow voles at the Arboretum, said Keegan. Red-tailed hawks and great horned owls feed on the rodents, and he suspects the barred owls do, too.
Barred owls also eat snakes and frogs, and hunt for frogs and salamanders around vernal pools in early spring, Petersen said.
“Barred owls are named for the horizontal barring on their throat and upper breast,” said Petersen. “It almost looks like the barred owl has a scarf on.”
The horizontal bars, dark vertical streaks on its belly, and mix of light and dark feathers on its wings and back give barred owls a mottled appearance.
With a body length of about 21 inches and a wingspan that can reach 3½ feet, barred owls are the second-largest resident owls in Massachusetts, after the great horned owl, Petersen said. Snowy owls are larger than barred and great horned owls, but are only winter visitors to Massachusetts, not permanent residents.
The barred owl’s most distinctive feature is its voice, said Petersen. They call a lot, both in daytime and at night. Their primary call is a nine-note refrain that sounds like, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
Petersen said barred owls often will respond to imitations of their calls, even if the imitations aren’t that good.
In addition to their standard vocalizations, barred owls sometimes engage in caterwauling — “a series of wild, almost maniacal, hoots and screams,” according to Mass Audubon.
“It sounds like maniacal laughter,” said Petersen. “It’s almost always a pair of owls doing it, so it seems to have a courtship or reproductive element.”
Petersen said barred owls call year-round, but they get especially vocal during their breeding season, beginning in February.
Barred owls don’t build their own nests, Petersen explained. They nest in hollows in large trees or in old crow, hawk, or squirrel nests. They may use the same nesting site for several years. Barred owls also will use nesting boxes.
They usually lay two or three eggs, according to Mass Audubon. The female does most of the incubating, and the eggs usually hatch in 28 to 33 days. The parents feed the young owls a diet of mice and other small mammals, birds, and sometimes frogs and snakes. The young begin to fly about 42 days after hatching and stay with the adults for most of the summer, begging for food and learning to hunt.
While fairly common in Western Massachusetts, barred owls have moved into the eastern part of the state as mature forests have returned, said Petersen.
“Barred owls are increasingly as common as great horned owls in the Boston suburbs,” Petersen explained. “If good-size trees and the right type of forest — mature hardwoods and wooded swamps — are available, barred owls are inclined to take advantage of it.”
They remain uncommon on the Cape, he added.
Barred owls are found across much of eastern North America from southern Canada to the Gulf Coast, according to Mass Audubon.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website said that although barred owls were originally an eastern bird, during the 20th century they spread through the Pacific Northwest, western Canada, and southward into California. This has raised concern among researchers because barred owls compete with spotted owls — a threatened species — and may drive spotted owls out of their habitat. In some cases, barred owls even breed with spotted owls.
Barred owls have been known to live up to 23 years in captivity and 10 years or more in the wild, according to the website, “The Owl Pages.”
Barred owls occasionally hunt along roadways and sometimes get hit by cars, said Petersen.
While animals like raccoons and fishers may pose a threat to barred owl eggs and chicks, the biggest predatory threat to adult barred owls are great horned owls.
“Great horned owls can take out practically anything they want to,” said Petersen, “and barred owls are the losers because they’re not as big as great horned owls.”
Surprisingly, Keegan said he’s never heard barred owls vocalizing at the Arnold Arboretum. He guesses the barred owls’ silence may be due in part to the presence of great horned owls.
“I’ve read they go after barred owls,” said Keegan, “so perhaps it’s good to keep quiet.”
Want to go on an “owl prowl”? Sign up for a Mass Audubon event here.
Don Lyman is a biologist, freelance science journalist, and hospital pharmacist who lives north of Boston. Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to firstname.lastname@example.org.