Spotted Owl vs Barred Owl: Key Ways to Identify Them Correctly

Spotted owls and barred owls are two fascinating yet often confused species of owl. In this article, we will delve into the key differences and similarities between these two remarkable birds. Exploring aspects such as their physical appearance, unique behaviors, and habitats will help you better understand and appreciate these captivating creatures.

Distinguishing between the two can be a bit of a challenge, as their appearances share some similarities. However, by examining the nuances in their plumage, calls, and behaviors, it becomes easier to identify each species. Additionally, their habitats and diets differ, further setting them apart as distinct members of the owl world.

Key Takeaways:

  • Physical and behavioral differences are key in distinguishing spotted owls from barred owls.
  • Variances in habitat and diet preferences exhibit their adaptation to different ecosystems.
  • Recognizing unique songs and calls can significantly aid in proper identification of these owl species.

Spotted Owl vs Barred Owl

When observing the Spotted Owl and the Barred Owl, there are several noticeable physical differences between these two species. To better understand and appreciate these distinctions, it’s essential to pay attention to their size, head, plumage, eyes, and other features.

Read Next: Barred Owl vs Barn Owl


Regarding size, the Barred Owl is generally larger than the Spotted Owl. However, it is important to remember that in both species, females tend to be slightly bigger than males. This means that a female owl’s wingspan and length will often exceed those of a male individual of the same species. Despite this difference in size, the shapes of their bodies are quite similar, with no substantial disparities in overall proportions or weight.

Head and Facial Features

Now, focusing on their head and facial features, you will notice that the Spotted Owl has a slightly larger head compared to the Barred Owl 1. Both species possess a fairly round head, but one significant difference lies in the appearance of their eyes. The Spotted Owl often has brown eyes, while the Barred Owl has darker, almost black eyes. Additionally, neither species has prominent ear tufts, which sets them apart from some other owl species.


When examining their back and plumage, you can observe distinct variations in patterns and colorations. The Spotted Owl generally has a darker, chocolate brown plumage, adorned with horizontal white spots2. In contrast, the Barred Owl shows a lighter gray color, with vertical brown stripes, or “bars,” that inspired its name2. These differences in markings make it easier to differentiate the two species when spotted in the wild.

Unique Behavioral Differences

When comparing the spotted owl and the barred owl, there are both differences and similarities that you’ll notice in their behaviors. One significant difference is their level of aggression. Barred owls tend to be more aggressive in defending their territories, whereas spotted owls are more passive. In some cases, barred owls might even attack people in parks.

Regarding hunting methods, barred owls have a more diverse and opportunistic approach to their prey. While both owls feed on small mammals, barred owls branch out and consume a variety of animals such as salamanders, crayfish, snakes, and even smaller birds. This wider range of prey selection gives them a competitive edge over the spotted owls, whose diet is comparatively limited.

In terms of vocalization, both owls have distinctive calls that can help you differentiate them. While the spotted owl is known for its four-note hoot, the barred owl produces a distinct and recognizable “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all” call. These vocalizations play an important role in communication, helping the owls establish their territories and locate potential mates.

Another difference can be seen in their nesting habits and reproductive success. Barred owls are more likely to nest, have higher success rates in nesting, and produce a larger number of offspring compared to their spotted owl counterparts. This contributes to the expanding population of barred owls, which can potentially put more strain on the spotted owls’ habitat.

Although the barred and spotted owls share certain similarities, it’s essential to recognize and understand these unique behavioral differences to make informed decisions regarding conservation efforts and maintaining a balanced ecosystem.

Habitat Differences

When you explore the habitat differences between spotted and barred owls, you’ll notice they have unique preferences within the forests they inhabit. The Pacific Northwest in the United States, as well as parts of California and British Columbia, serve as home to both owl species.

Spotted owls generally prefer old-growth forests with dense tree cover, a developed understory, and steeper slopes. These forest conditions support their way of life, allowing spotted owls to thrive in areas with suitable vegetation and foliage. The ecology of these forests is crucial for their survival, as habitat loss due to land management practices can negatively affect spotted owl populations. To learn more about these types of habitats, check out this source.

On the other hand, barred owls are more adaptable to different habitat types. This adaptability gives them a competitive advantage, as they can live in areas with varying tree cover and understory development. They can be found in various locations across the geographical range they share with spotted owls. Barred owls have the ability to take advantage of prey species that are active during the day, along with consuming crayfish, snakes, small birds, and insects. Their broader habitat tolerance demonstrates that they are more generalist predators than their spotted counterparts (source).

As you can see, there is a notable contrast in the habitats favored by spotted and barred owls. The spotted owl’s specific habitat requirements in old-growth forests make them more vulnerable to habitat loss and competition with other species, such as the barred owl. Understanding the distinct habitat preferences of these two owl species can help in preserving and protecting their populations within their shared geographical locations.

Barred Owl vs Spotted Owl Songs and Calls

When it comes to the vocalizations of spotted owls and barred owls, there are distinct differences that set them apart. Barred owls have a unique hooting pattern that is often described as “who-cooks-for-you”. They are known to have more than a dozen different calls, including a siren call, a wail, and an amusing monkey call. These diverse calls showcase the expressive communication abilities of barred owls.

On the other hand, northern spotted owls have a four-note call that differentiates them from barred owls. Their vocalizations tend to be more consistent compared to barred owls, which have a more extensive repertoire of sounds.

If you want to compare and listen to the calls of these beautiful creatures more closely, you can do so by visiting websites like All About Birds and Audubon Field Guide. Both websites provide audio samples of various bird species, including the distinctive hoots and sounds of spotted and barred owls.

While barred owls often dwell in southern swamps, calling to each other throughout the day and night, spotted owls tend to be more elusive and can be found in old-growth forests. This difference in habitat contributes to the variation in their vocalizations.

By understanding and recognizing the unique songs and calls of both the spotted owl and the barred owl, you can appreciate the fascinating world of these nocturnal birds and their intriguing communication styles.

Diet and Feeding Differences

The diets of spotted owls and barred owls show noticeable differences. While both species feed on small mammals, their prey preferences and feeding behaviors vary in notable ways.

Spotted owls mainly consume small mammals such as mice and woodrats in their diet. Occasionally, they will also feed on small birds and insects. They rely on their excellent hearing and strong talons to catch their prey, often staying motionless to listen for movement before swooping down to grab it.

On the other hand, barred owls have a more diverse and opportunistic diet. They eat not only small mammals but also other creatures like crayfish, salamanders, crickets, and worms. Their ability to hunt a wider variety of prey species, including those active during the day, gives barred owls a competitive advantage over spotted owls.

When it comes to their feeding behavior, barred owls are slightly larger and more aggressive than spotted owls. Their broader habitat tolerance allows them to adapt and thrive in a range of environments, making it easier for them to find food.

Considering their diet, the barred owl’s tendency to prey on a wider range of species has an impact on the balance of the ecosystems where they coexist with spotted owls. This difference in diets, combined with the barred owl’s more aggressive nature, contributes to the decline of spotted owl populations in areas where they overlap.

In summary, the primary differences between the diet and feeding habits of spotted and barred owls revolve around their prey preferences, feeding behaviors, and the resulting ecological impact. Understanding the unique characteristics of these two species can help inform conservation efforts aimed at protecting them and the ecosystems they inhabit.


When it comes to owls, there are various species that share similar characteristics, making proper identification crucial. Comparing the Spotted Owl and Barred Owl, two similar species of the Strix varia genus, can be quite fascinating.

Spotted Owls and Barred Owls are known to inhabit different regions, with the former mainly living in the western United States, while the latter is more common in the eastern parts of the country. However, since 1959, Barred Owls have been expanding their territory into the western region, potentially putting the Spotted Owl in danger due to their overlapping habitats.

In terms of appearance, the Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis) and Barred Owl (Strix varia) look quite similar, especially from a distance. Both species have brown feathers with distinct white spots on the head and chest. While Barred Owls are slightly larger than Spotted Owls, the size difference is often not enough to correctly identify them in the wild.

To help differentiate between these two species, you should pay attention to their unique vocalizations. The Barred Owl is known for its distinct “who cooks for you” call, while the Northern Spotted Owl uses a four-note call to communicate. Listening to these specific calls can help with proper identification.

It is important to not confuse these owl species with the more common Barn Owl or Great Horned Owl. The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is known for its distinct heart-shaped face, while the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is larger with prominent ear tufts, commonly known as “horns”.

In conclusion, identifying owl species can be a complex task, even for experienced birdwatchers. It is essential to observe their physical appearance, regional distribution, and unique vocalizations to accurately distinguish between similar species like the Spotted Owl and Barred Owl. With practice and attention to detail, you can master the art of owl identification and increase your understanding of these fascinating creatures.

Nesting and Breeding Differences

When it comes to nesting and breeding, there are some differences between Spotted Owls and Barred Owls that you should know. First, let’s talk about their nesting habits. Spotted Owls prefer to make their nests in large natural hollows in trees, broken-off snags, or even utilize old nests made by hawks, crows, or squirrels (National Park Service). Barred Owls, on the other hand, exhibit similar nesting preferences but have occasionally been known to nest on the ground (Audubon Field Guide).

The courtship process of these two owl species is somewhat alike. In both species, males and females demonstrate bobbing and bowing of their heads, raising their wings, and calling while perched close together (Audubon Field Guide). During courtship, it is common for the male owls to feed the females.

Moving on to their breeding and reproduction, you’ll notice that Barred Owls have an advantage over Spotted Owls. Barred Owls not only nest more often and more successfully, but they also produce many times more offspring than Spotted Owls (National Park Service). This edge in breeding success might be attributed to their wider variety of prey species, which also includes prey that is active during the day.

In terms of appearance, there isn’t much difference between juvenile Spotted Owls and Barred Owls. However, as they mature, you’ll notice that Spotted Owls have more brown plumage and distinct white spots on the top and back of their heads, while Barred Owls display more grey patterning throughout their feathers (nsobreedingprogram).

Neither Spotted Owls nor Barred Owls are known for significant migration. Instead, they generally remain in their designated territories throughout the year. This behavior emphasizes the critical importance of preserving their suitable habitats, particularly for the struggling Spotted Owl population.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main difference between spotted and barred owl calls?

The primary distinction between spotted and barred owl calls lies in their vocalizations. While spotted owls typically produce a series of hoots in a staccato rhythm, barred owls have a unique vocal pattern, often described as sounding like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” This difference in calls can be helpful for bird enthusiasts and researchers when identifying these species in the wild.

How does the size of a barred owl compare to a spotted owl?

Barred owls tend to be slightly larger than spotted owls. While their sizes vary across individuals, barred owls generally have a more robust body, broader wingspan, and a more rounded head compared to their spotted counterparts. However, both species display similar coloration, making it essential to note their size and call differences when trying to differentiate between them.

What is the status of spotted owls in terms of endangerment?

Currently, the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) is classified as an endangered species according to the U.S. National Park Service. The primary factors contributing to this status are loss of habitat, logging, and competition with invasive barred owls. Conservation efforts are being made to protect and increase the spotted owl population.

Why are barred owls considered invasive to spotted owls?

Barred owls were originally found in the eastern region of the United States but began expanding their range to the western region in 1959. This expansion has led to increased competition between barred owls and native spotted owls, as they inhabit similar environments and compete for resources like food and nesting sites. The presence of barred owls poses a threat to the survival of spotted owls.

Can barred owls and spotted owls produce hybrid offspring?

Yes, barred owls and spotted owls can interbreed, resulting in hybrid offspring. This phenomenon further complicates conservation efforts for the spotted owl, as these hybrids have mixed characteristics of both species, often blurring the distinctions between the two. The long-term consequences of such hybridization on the spotted owl population are not yet fully understood.

What led to the spotted owl controversy?

The spotted owl controversy arose due to conflicting interests between conservationists, who aimed to protect the threatened spotted owl population, and the logging industry, which relies on the old-growth forests that the spotted owls inhabit. Efforts to preserve these habitats have sparked debates around the impacts of logging on endangered species and the balance between ecological preservation and economic development. The controversial nature of this issue has attracted attention from various stakeholders, including the media, policymakers, and the general public.


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