The Spotted Owl & Family

Northern spotted owl perched on a branch in western Oregon | Nick Bossenbroek

There are two families or subfamilies of owls, depending on the authority. In either case, there are the “true” owls with nearly all the species, and then all alone in the other category is the Barn Owl, a distinctive-looking animal. There are several genera in the so-called true owls. In this article, I will discuss the genus Strix; no members of this genus have the tufts or “ears” on their heads that characterize some owls.  The scientific name of the Spotted Owl, Strix occidentalis, means western owls, and, indeed, all three subspecies live near the west coast or the Rocky Mountains from Utah down to Mexico.

It is the smallest of its tribe and characterized by spotted sides, and brown body, head, and eyes. The body of the southern subspecies is lighter in color. An excellent reference is National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000) by David Allen Sibley. The northwestern subspecies lives in “old growth” forests, meaning large trees and generally closed canopy. Logging is considered to be a threat to its livelihood because younger, secondary growth is not suitable for nesting. They nest in holes in trees or nests left by other birds or squirrels. The subspecies of interior California and the Rocky Mountains may be a little less particular and, hence, less endangered. The lifelong mates care for two whitish eggs, often very high in a tree. Like most owls, it is a nocturnal hunter with good night vision and excellent hearing. The Spotted Owl feeds mostly on small mammals, especially mice and squirrels.

Barred Owl | Don Mammoser

There may be a greater danger to the northwestern Spotted Owl in the form of a close relative, the Barred Owl (Strix varia). This bird is widespread over the eastern states and the forests of Canada, from Labrador west through the forests bordering the plains on the north, south through the Rocky Mountains, and down the west coast as far as California. This overlap with the Spotted Owl seems to be increasing to the detriment of the latter. The Barred Owl is slightly larger with streaked or barred sides. It is more aggressive and out-competes the smaller owl. Furthermore, the two species are known to hybridize. The Federal Wildlife Service is now trapping and removing Barred Owls from Spotted Owl territory (

From my standpoint, I am quite fond of the Barred Owl as it was the common owl where I grew up in southeastern Illinois. At night I would often hear it saying (asking?), “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.” I occasionally saw them flying in the daytime with their characteristic blunt face, and then usually mobbed by smaller birds. The smaller Spotted Owl has a higher-pitched whup, hoo-hoo, hooooo. I have never heard or seen one.

Great Gray Owl | Holger Kirk

I will mention one more closely related owl, the Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) which is the largest of the three species. At a glance, standing at 27 inches and a wingspan of 52 inches, it looks impressive. However, looks can be deceiving—it weights only 2.4 pounds. This is a bird of the far north, the boreal forests of Canada, only breeding in the lower 48 states in the Rocky Mountains down to Yellowstone National Park. It is also found in Siberia. The clumsy owl named Errol belonging to the Weasley family in Harry Potter movies was a Great Gray Owl ( The real ones are not clumsy, but they fortunately are easy to handle, having smaller toes than other large owls. They feed on mice. The dark rings around their eyes make them look almost hypnotic, suggesting magic.