Barred Owl vs Barn Owl: How to Tell Confidently Them Apart

When exploring the world of owls, you might come across two fascinating species: the barred owl and the barn owl. Although they may seem similar at first glance, these owls have distinct features and behaviors that differentiate them. Understanding the differences between barred and barn owls will help you appreciate the unique characteristics that make each species remarkable.

Barred owls and barn owls differ in size, appearance, and habitat preferences. The barred owl, with its dark eyes and round face, inhabits dense forests, while the barn owl prefers open spaces for hunting and is recognized for its heart-shaped face. Not just their looks, but their behavior, feeding habits, and nesting preferences also set them apart, each species adapted to thrive in their respective environments.

As you delve into the captivating lives of these nocturnal birds of prey, you’ll uncover numerous fascinating aspects about them. Keep reading to gain a comprehensive understanding of the similarities and differences between the barred and barn owls.

Key Takeaways:

  • Barred and barn owls have distinct physical characteristics that set them apart.
  • Each species exhibits unique behaviors and adaptations to their preferred habitats.
  • Their feeding habits, nesting preferences, and vocalizations differ between these fascinating owl species.

Barred Owl vs Barn Owl

barn owl vs barred owl front features comparison
Barn Owl, left; Barred Owl, right

When observing the differences between barred owls and barn owls, you may notice several distinctions in their physical features. Let’s explore a few of these differences below.

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Appearance-wise, barn owls have a distinct white, heart-shaped facial disc, setting them apart from the rounded head and vertical bars of the barred owl’s facial disc4. Additionally, barn owls tend to have a golden pale color on top and a stark white belly3, while barred owls exhibit vertical brown bars on their chest and brown horizontal bars on their neck.


The shape of each owl’s wings also differs. Barn owls possess longer and more slender wings, which enable their silent flight5. Barred owls have a broader wingspan and shorter, more robust wings.


barred owl vs barn owl back feathers differences
Barn Owl, left; Barred Owl, right

There is a very clear pattern of horizontal white bars on the back of the barred owl. As for the barn owl, its feathers on its back are less distinct in pattern, as it displays a mixture of gray-brown and golden-brown patches with fine black-and-white points throughout.

Feathers of barn owls have specific adaptations such as an intricate pattern of serrated edges, comb-like structures, and velvety surfaces that facilitate their quiet flight and enhance their ability to swoop down on prey1. On the other hand, the feathers of barred owls are designed for camouflage and stealth in forestry environments6.


Tail length and patterns differ too. Barn owls typically display a shorter tail with little to no barring, whereas barred owls have a longer tail with large horizontal bands7.


If you pay attention, you’ll see the beaks of these owl species differ slightly. Barn owls are equipped with a sharp, hooked beak, perfect for tearing their prey apart8. Barred owls, while also possessing a hooked beak, tend to have a larger and more robust beak than barn owls9.

However, you’ll also notice that the barn owl’s beak is positioned lower on its face, giving its face a “longer” appearance than the barred owl’s. Looking at the barred owl’s face, its beak is located just below its eyes.


Regarding size, barn owls are generally smaller than barred owls. They have an average length of 25-45 cm and a wingspan of 75-110 cm, with females being slightly larger1. In contrast, barred owls have an average length of 43-61 cm2 and a wingspan of 39-43 inches3.

Barn Owl vs Barred Owl: Unique Behavioral Differences

barn owl peeking out from a barn
Barn owl looking out from an open barn or shed.

When it comes to behavior, there are several notable differences between the barred owl and the barn owl. Let’s explore these unique behavioral aspects, which include hunting, nocturnal activities, habitat and range, and nesting behaviors.

  • Hunting by senses: Both barred owls and barn owls are primarily nocturnal hunters. The barred owl utilizes both sight and sound to find prey and is commonly found in forested areas. And while the barn owl also has a keen sense of sight, it mainly relies on its excellent hearing to locate even tiny prey in complete darkness. As a matter of fact, no animal is better at hunting by sound alone than the barn owl. It hunts in open grasslands, agricultural areas, and deserts.
  • Hunting styles: In terms of hunting behavior, barn owls tend to hover above the ground, using their acute hearing to pinpoint the location of their prey, such as rodents and small mammals. Once they identify their target, they swoop down and capture it with their powerful talons. Barred owls, though, are more likely to perch on a tree branch and wait for unsuspecting prey to pass by before swooping down and grasping it with their talons.
  • Nesting differences: Nesting behaviors also differ between these two owl species. Barn owls typically make their nests in tree cavities, abandoned buildings, or nest boxes. They are not known to be territorial and often share nesting sites with other barn owls. In contrast, barred owls are more territorial and prefer nesting in natural tree cavities or taking over nests built by other birds in mature forests.

So, next time you spot an owl during a nighttime adventure, take a moment to observe its behavior and see if you can determine which of these two species it belongs to.

Habitat Differences

Barn owls and barred owls have distinct preferences when it comes to their habitats. You can usually find barn owls in open habitats such as grasslands, agricultural fields, and marshes. They also adapt well to urban and suburban areas, making use of open spaces like parks and golf courses.

On the other hand, barred owls primarily favor wooded areas in North America. They inhabit various types of forests, including deciduous, coniferous, and mixed woodlands. Tree cavities serve as their main nesting spots, providing shelter and safety from predators.

Barn owls are more commonly found in open fields where they can easily spot their prey from above. Their excellent hunting skills allow them to thrive in these environments, as they can silently swoop down and capture their meal. These owls are highly adaptable and can be found in almost every continent except Antarctica.

Conversely, the more forest-dwelling barred owls are perfectly suited to a life in the trees. Their coloration and markings help them blend into the surroundings, making them almost invisible when perched on tree limbs. They use this camouflage to their advantage when hunting for prey, often ambushing unsuspecting victims from a hidden position.

The bottom line is, while both barn owls and barred owls are found in North America, they have different habitat preferences. Barn owls gravitate toward open habitats like grasslands and agricultural fields, while barred owls thrive in the shelter of forests and wooded areas. Their unique adaptations and hunting methods enable them to succeed in their respective environments.

Songs and Calls

When it comes to distinguishing between Barred Owls and Barn Owls, their unique vocalizations provide useful clues. Both owls have distinctive calls that can help you differentiate them even if you can’t see them.

Barred Owls are known for being highly vocal, producing a wide range of sounds. Their signature hooting sequence, which can sometimes be heard at night or during the day, has been described as “who-cooks-for-you?! who-cooks-for-you-all?!” This unforgettable hooting pattern is just one example of the many different hoots the Barred Owl is capable of making.

In contrast, Barn Owls have a different set of vocalizations. A common sound they produce is a screech rather than a hoot. This high-pitched sound can be eerie and unsettling, quite different from the Barred Owl’s hooting. Additionally, they may emit a variety of hisses, chatters, and even shrieks, which can make their vocal repertoire fascinating yet challenging to learn.

To further your understanding of these intriguing birds’ vocalizations, you can listen to the calls of the Barn Owl and Barred Owl in the videos above or from your preferred birdwatching resource. Practice identifying each species based on their unique songs and calls. This can enhance your birding skills and help you identify these owls with confidence in the future.

By keeping an ear out for their distinct hooting and screeching sounds, you’ll have an easier time telling Barred Owls and Barn Owls apart. Familiarize yourself with their vocalizations, and you’ll soon be able to recognize each owl species by their unique calls, even without laying eyes on them.

Diet and Feeding Differences

When it comes to the diet of these two owl species, you’ll find some noticeable differences. Barn owls mainly feed on small mammals like mice and voles, which make up a major part of their diet. They’re also known to eat insects, rats, and other small vertebrates when available. On the other hand, barred owls have a more diverse diet. They consume rodents, small mammals like rabbits, as well as amphibians, reptiles, and even small birds.

As a result of their different feeding habits, the hunting techniques of these two owls also vary. When hunting for prey, barn owls rely on their extraordinary hearing abilities. They listen attentively for the sounds of their prey, like the rustling of leaves or the squeaking of mice, before swooping down and capturing their meal.

Barred owls are equipped to hunt visually and through sound, although their sense of hearing is not quite as sensitive as the barn owl’s for hunting purposes. Their large, dark eyes help them spot prey from distances, even in the dim light of dusk or dawn. Additionally, they will also hunt by perching and then swooping down on unsuspecting prey.

In terms of feeding locations, the environment in which these owls reside plays a significant role. Barn owls tend to hunt in open fields and grasslands, where they can easily locate and catch small mammals. Barred owls prefer areas near water sources, like rivers, lakes, and wetlands, where they can find a more diverse assortment of prey, including invertebrates and snakes.

Nesting and Breeding Differences

barred owl resting in a nest in a hollow tree
Barred owl in a hollow tree nest.

When it comes to nesting and breeding, you’ll find that barn owls (Tyto alba) and barred owls (Strix varia) exhibit some distinct differences. Let’s explore their specific nesting habits, egg-laying patterns, and other characteristics that set them apart.

Barn owls prefer open spaces and are known to make their nests in a variety of cavities, such as hollow trees, barns, and even nest boxes provided by humans. They don’t create their nests; instead, they use existing cavities and lay their eggs on whatever material is already present, such as wood chips or dust. A barn owl’s nest usually contains 4 to 7 eggs, which have a white, somewhat round appearance.

In contrast, barred owls are more likely to inhabit wooded areas, where they can find natural tree cavities to nest in. Barred owls also tend to have smaller clutches, generally laying 2 to 4 eggs that are also white but more elongated in shape.

In terms of conservation status, barn owls and barred owls both face threats from habitat loss and human interference. However, barn owls have a broader global presence and are listed as a species of “Least Concern” by the IUCN Red List. In comparison, barred owls are primarily native to North America, and certain populations may be at risk due to habitat loss or other factors. Conservation efforts for both species often involve preserving natural habitats and promoting the use of nest boxes in suitable environments.


In the world of owls, there are various species, each possessing unique characteristics and behaviors. When discussing the differences between Barred Owls and Barn Owls, taxonomy is an important aspect to consider. Barred Owls belong to the Strigidae family, while Barn Owls are part of the Tytonidae family.

Barred Owls, scientifically known as Strix varia, are quite distinct from Barn Owls in their appearance and habitat. They are medium-sized owls with dark brown eyes, a rounded head, and streaked plumage. These owls can often be found nesting in older, well-forested areas and are known for their distinctive call: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

On the other hand, Barn Owls, or Tyto alba, are quite different from their barred counterparts. They are easily identifiable by their distinct white, heart-shaped face and golden-brown upperparts. These owls have long legs and powerful talons for gripping their prey. They are quite versatile in their habitat preferences, often found in open grasslands, marshes, and areas with agricultural activity. Barn Owls have unique, eerie, and high-pitched calls, setting them apart from their barred relatives.

While both Barred and Barn Owls are members of the larger group of owl species, they have evolved and adapted to their respective environments across the globe. Recognized by organizations like Audubon, these two owl species are unique in their own right, making them fascinating examples of the diversity within the owl family.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main differences between barred owls and barn owls?

Barred and barn owls differ in size, appearance, and behavior. One of the easiest ways to distinguish between them is by observing the barn owl’s unique white, heart-shaped face. Barred owls have a more round and uniform facial disk compared to barn owls.

How do their sizes compare?

Barn owls are generally smaller than barred owls. Their average length ranges between 25-45 cm, while their wingspan spans from 75-110 cm. On average, they weigh around 550g. In contrast, the larger barred owls have an average length of 43-61 cm and they typically have a wingspan of 39.4-42.0 inches.

Do barred owls and barn owls have different calls?

Yes, their calls are quite distinct. Barred owl calls are often described as sounding like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all?” Meanwhile, barn owl calls tend to be more like screeches or hisses. This makes it easy to identify the difference between the two species.

How do their habitats differ?

Barn owls are versatile when it comes to their habitat preferences and can be found in diverse environments across the US. They are often seen living in open areas, such as grasslands, marshes, and even urban settings. In contrast, barred owls prefer living in dense forests, which offer them protection and an abundance of perches for hunting.

What are their hunting techniques?

Both species use their exceptional hearing to locate their prey. Barn owls are more likely to hover close to the ground while hunting, relying on their keen hearing to detect even the smallest sounds of their prey, whereas barred owls utilize their excellent night vision and sit-and-wait approach to ambush their prey from a well-hidden vantage point.

What are their main physical characteristics?

Apart from the distinct facial patterns mentioned earlier, barred owls have dark brown and white horizontal bars across the neck/upper chest area and vertical bars on their bellies. Their large eyes are dark brown. Barn owls are predominantly light-colored, with a blend of yellow and white feathers, and have dark brown eyes. Additionally, they display a more owl-like silhouette with a rounded body and long legs.


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