Nesting Habits of Great Horned and Barred Owls | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Nesting Season for Owls


 Barred owl box, Ridgefield, CT.

Photo Credit
Michael Kralik

Get to Know the Habits of Barred and Great Horned Owls!

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Owl nesting season begins in winter! Learn all about owls and their nesting habits—and tune in to a barred owls’ nest livestream.

About the Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl

Both the Barred Owl and the Great Horned Owl are well into their domestic duties in winter. Males generally find a nesting site by January. Despite the cold, eggs are laid through March, as this gives the large bird’s chicks enough time to develop before spring arrives. Learn more about these fascinating owls.

  • The Great Horned Owl is very large with yellow eyes and ear-like tufts. When we think of an owl, this is the storybook image we usually conjure up. (That makes sense: it’s the most widespread owl species in North America!) A nocturnal and fierce predator, this owl is capable of taking down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on smaller prey such as rodents, frogs, and scorpions. Ever heard their deep, hooting voice? Listen to the call of the Great Horned Owl

great-horned-owl-744357_1920_full_width.jpgImage: Great Horned Owl

  • Barred Owls are smaller than the Great Horned Owl (but larger than Barn Owls) and are attractive white-and-brown striped birds. Barred Owls tend to hunt during daylight hours in February and March, seeking prey for incubating females. Active early in the morning and at night, you may recognize their classic forest sound, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” They can surprise you, flying noiselessly through the air.

barred-owl-1106953_1920_full_width.jpgImage: Barred Owl

Try imitating the call with your own voice and then wait quietly. If you’re lucky, a territorial Barred Owl will fly in to investigate you!

Listen to the Barred Owl

Credit: The Cornell Lab’s Laura Erickson

Interestingly, the Great Horned Owl is the most serious predatory threat to the Barred Owl. Although the two species often live in the same areas, a Barred Owl will move to another part of its territory when a Great Horned Owl is nearby. Otherwise, Barred Owls don’t migrate, and they rarely travel more than a few miles from their mating area.

Credit: Ann-Marie Warren

About Owl Nesting

Both owl species tend not to build their own nests. Instead, they will spruce up an old nest made by another animal. Nests are lined with bark, feathers, animal fur, and leaves, but by the end of the nesting season, the nest deteriorates to a few sticks. Keep in mind: When owls are nesting, they’re very territorial. If an owl swoops down near you, they’re just focused on mating and nesting—and will chase away intruders while hooting loudly.

  • The Great Horned Owl uses tree nests of other birds such as hawks, crows, squirrels, and Great Blue Herons, but will also use tree cavities, snags of broken trees and wood platforms, and occasionally a building or barn. The most commonly used nest is that of the Red-tailed Hawk. 
  • Barred Owls often use natural cavities in trees, about 20 to 40 feet high. They may also use stick platform nests built by other animals (including hawks, crows, ravens, and squirrels), as well as human-made nest boxes.
barred owl house
Barred owl house. Photo by Michael Kralik.
Barred Owl Babies
Barred Owls. Photo by Michael Kralik.

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season (late winter/early spring). Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young.

Barred Owl Nest Livestream

Michael Kalik from Ridgefield, Connecticut, put up an owl house that he bought online. After five years of other creatures living in the owl box, his patience was rewarded when he saw a pair of barred owls checking out the box one fall. In a typical year, the adults start scoping out the nesting site in January and February, the female lays eggs in early March, and then the owlets emerge in April and May. Michael says it’s amazing to watch the owls hunt and bring food to the babies—everything from worms to snakes, turtles, chipmunks, and squirrels!

Click on the video above to watch the live stream!

Laying Eggs

For both the Great Horned Owl and the Barred Owl, about 2 to 3 eggs are laid 2 to 4 days apart. Females can incubate eggs in temperatures as low as -35°F (-37°C), and eggs have been known to survive at -25°F (-31°C) for up to 20 minutes while the female takes a break from incubation duties!

The eggs hatch in about 33 days. The female incubates the eggs while the male brings food to her at the nest. In the case of the Great Horned Owl, skunk is a favorite food, so it is not unusual to smell the scent of a skunk near a nest at this time of year. Mice and smaller birds are preferred by the Barred Owl.

The owls have thick feathers to keep the young warm. Even their legs and feet are feathered! Plus, the young hatch with a layer of fluffy down to keep them warm. Early nesting might give the young time to learn hunting skills before the next winter. In years of low mouse or squirrel populations, however, many eggs do not hatch, and many young do not survive. 

About every third year, females decide that motherhood requires a rest, and they do not lay eggs!


Young birds rapidly increase their weight from 35 grams (0.77 lbs.) at birth to 1000 grams (2.2 lbs.) for females and 800 grams (1.76 lbs.) for males in less than a month (25 days). They leave the nest in about 40 days, ready to take on the world. 

While still in the nest, the mother owl will tear food into small pieces and feed it to the owlets. She will hunt all day and most actively at dusk, often waiting patiently for hours for something to catch. Then, she glides silently through the air to catch her prey.

Thankfully, if an adult owl dies, the remaining adult can successfully raise the young alone. At seven weeks, young owls are already capable of short flights. 

Barred owl owlets
Barred owlets. Photo by Michael Kralik.

By late October and November, urged by the adults, young owls leave their natal territory and venture off to start their own lives!

→ Find even more Fascinating Facts About Owls.

About The Author

Tom Warren

Tom Warren is a lifelong bird enthusiast. Tom is also committed to protecting birds and their habitat as a Trustee for both Massachusetts and New Hampshire Audubon, and the Harris Nature Center. Read More from Tom Warren

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