How to tell?

Barred Owl vs Spotted Owl

When they are not side-by-side, it can be tricky to tell a Northern Spotted Owl apart from a Barred Owl. They are often mistaken for each other because they are both medium sized, brown owls with white patterning. They are also two of only three species of owl in British Columbia with dark brown eyes (the third being the Barn Owl). However, by understanding the differences in their physical appearance, geographical location and habitat, and vocalization or calls, you will be better equipped to identify if you’re looking at a Barred Owl or a Northern Spotted Owl.

Physical Appearance

From the FRONT:

Northern Spotted Owls have a dark chocolate brown plumage with horizontal white spots (right side of photo). Barred Owls are light grey with vertical brown stripes, or “bars”, for which they are named (left side of photo). Though they both have dark brown eyes, Northern Spotted Owls have a brown facial disk with a very distinct white X around their eyes and beak. Barred Owls have a white facial disk with a less distinct white X and tend to have a brighter yellow beak.

From the BACK:

Barred Owls look more brown from the back than the front but are still not as dark as the Northern Spotted Owl. The Barred Owl has more grey patterning throughout their plumage while the Northern Spotted Owl is predominately brown. The Northern Spotted Owl is named after the little white spots on the top and back of their heads.

Barred Owl vs Spotted Owl Front & Back_edited.png

Geography & Habitat

With fewer than six wild Spotted Owls left in British Columbia, sightings are improbable and exceedingly rare! If you suspect you have sighted a Northern Spotted Owl, take note of the location. Northern Spotted Owls are exclusively found in old growth forest and are NOT found on Vancouver Island. They require 3000 hectares (30 kilometers squared) of 100+ year old forest to survive. Barred Owls can be found in both forested and urban areas. If you have an owl in your backyard, it is likely a Barred Owl. Barred Owls are common throughout the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island and can be found in areas such as Stanley Park.


Since sometimes you might not be able to see the owl to distinguish between species, a great way to tell them apart is by listening. Owls are quite vocal (especially at dawn and dusk) if you listen carefully, you’ll be able to tell all the owl species apart. Even though owl species have different vocalizations for different occasions, the most distinguishable call from the Barred Owl is the "whoo cooks for you" while the Northern Spotted Owl has a four-note call. Head to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website to hear calls from a variety of bird species.

It is not always easy identifying species, but we hope these tips will help! If you still think you have found a Northern Spotted Owl, try to get a photo, or record the owl calling and email us at