Creature Feature December 2021: Northern Spotted Owl

Learn more about this resident raptor!

Spotted Owl looks back on a tree branch
Northern Spotted Owl Photo: Sylvia Hunt/Audubon Photography Awards

Habitat destruction and invasive species are some of the gravest threats many birds face. One of these species is the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). This medium-sized owl prefers the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, often nesting in Coastal Redwood, Douglas Fir, and California Bay Laurel trees. These owls require expansive territory, but due to logging, the habitats they have traditionally inhabited are being destroyed. Due to the decline in their population that resulted, the Northern Spotted Owl was classified as threatened in 1990. This classification halted logging in Northern Spotted Owl habitat. However, this owl faces another threat: their larger and more aggressive cousin, the Barred Owl (Strix varia), which has recently been introduced to the traditional ranges of the Northern Spotted Owl. The Barred Owl fills the same ecological niche as the Northern Spotted Owl, causing harsh competition for food and nesting space for the already-threatened Northern Spotted Owl. However, with their habitats protected and populations monitored, there is hope that the Northern Spotted Owl will be able to adapt to coexist with this newcomer.

There are three subspecies of Spotted Owl, which vary based on region. Here in the Bay Area, the subspecies of the Northern Spotted Owl can be seen in old-growth forests. They are nocturnal, their diet consisting mainly of small mammals, but occasionally smaller birds, insects, and other prey. The birds are medium-sized, and have a round head lacking ear tufts. They are dark brown in color with a dappled white pattern, deep brown eyes and dark facial disks. It can be difficult to tell a Barred Owl from a Spotted Owl, but subtle differences in pattern hold the key: spotted owls have a spotted pattern while barred owls have white barring rather than spots. If walking through their habitat in the evening, you may hear the haunting calls of the Northern Spotted Owl. While they have a wide range of calls (over 13!), they most commonly emit a whistling sound that rises in pitch at the end, or a series of four deep hoots.

To learn more about spotted owls visit Audubon's Field Guide.

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