Nesting Season for Owls

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

December 28, 2020

Nesting Barred Owlet

Anne Marie Warren

Have you heard the “hoot”? Among the first birds to begin laying eggs each year, the Great Horned Owl and the Barred Owl start sitting on the nest in mid- to late winter. Learn more about these fascinating owls, owl nesting, and facts about owlets (owl babies)!

Identifying the Owls

Both the Barred Owl and the Great Horned Owl are well into their domestic duties by January. Males generally find a territory by December and a nesting site by January. Despite the cold, eggs are laid at the end of January through February, as this gives the large bird’s chicks enough time to develop before spring arrives.

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 is very large with yellow eyes and earlike 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

Image: Great Horned Owl

  • Barred Owls are smaller than the Great Horned Owl (but larger than Barn Owls) and are an attractive white-and-brown striped bird. 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 found, “Who cooks for you?” They can surprise you, flying noiselessly through the air.

Image: 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.

Owl Nesting

Both 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.

  • 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.

Both owl species often take up residence in specially-designed nest boxes. 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.

Laying Eggs

For both owls, 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 at this time of year near a nest. 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 do not lay eggs.



Young birds rapidly increase their weight from 35 grams at birth (0.77 lbs.) 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. Thankfully, if an adult owl dies, the remaining adult can successfully raise the young alone. At 7 weeks, young owls are already capable of short flights. 

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 This Blog

Tom Warren is a graduate of Harvard College and earned an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He has had an interest in birds since the age of 3, when he lived across from the President of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who showed Tom how to care for injured birds. Later, a neighboring grandmother taught him the songs of warblers and thrushes, and in the eighth grade, his Middle School biology teacher took his class on birding excursions every weekend. Tom has guided bird walks and owl prowls for conservation groups, and has also participated in annual Christmas Bird Counts and the Hawk Watch on Pack Monadnock Mountain. Throughout the years, he has spent time at Pt. Pelee in Ontario observing the spring migration and has traveled to a variety of other migration areas. 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.