The Barking Owl is a medium-sized owl (42 cm, 650 g), smaller than the similar Powerful Owl and larger than the Southern Boobook. It has bright yellow eyes and no facial-disc. Upperparts are brown or greyish-brown, and the white breast is vertically streaked with brown. The large talons are yellow. Males are typically larger than their mate and have a more square crown. The quick, dog-like ‘wook-wook’ territorial call is diagnostic, but the yapping of foxes and dogs is sometimes attributed to this species. Pairs of birds perform call-and-answer duets, the male’s tone being the deeper, which often rise to an excited rapid pitch. This species is also famous for a rarely use high-pitched tremulous scream that has earned it the name ‘screaming-woman bird’.
The Barking Owl is found throughout continental Australia except for the central arid regions. Although common in parts of northern Australia, the species has declined greatly in southern Australia and now occurs in a wide but sparse distribution in NSW. Core populations exist on the western slopes and plains and in some northeast coastal and escarpment forests. Many populations crashed as woodland on fertile soils was cleared over the past century, leaving linear riparian strips of remnant trees as the last inhabitable areas. Surveys in 2001 demonstrated that the Pilliga Forest supported the largest population in southern Australia. The owls sometimes extend their home range into urban areas, hunting birds in garden trees and insects attracted to streetlights.
Habitat and ecology
- Inhabits woodland and open forest, including fragmented remnants and partly cleared farmland. It is flexible in its habitat use, and hunting can extend in to closed forest and more open areas. Sometimes able to successfully breed along timbered watercourses in heavily cleared habitats (e.g. western NSW) due to the higher density of prey on these fertile riparian soils.
- Roost in shaded portions of tree canopies, including tall midstorey trees with dense foliage such as Acacia and Casuarina species. During nesting season, the male perches in a nearby tree overlooking the hollow entrance.
- Preferentially hunts small arboreal mammals such as Squirrel Gliders and Common Ringtail Possums, but when loss of tree hollows decreases these prey populations the owl becomes more reliant on birds, invertebrates and terrestrial mammals such as rodents and rabbits. Can catch bats and moths on the wing, but typically hunts by sallying from a tall perch.
- Requires very large permanent territories in most habitats due to sparse prey densities. Monogamous pairs hunt over as much as 6000 hectares, with 2000 hectares being more typical in NSW habitats.
- Two or three eggs are laid in hollows of large, old trees. Living eucalypts are preferred though dead trees are also used. Nest sites are used repeatedly over years by a pair, but they may switch sites if disturbed by predators (e.g. goannas).
- Nesting occurs during mid-winter and spring, being variable between pairs and among years. As a rule of thumb, laying occurs during August and fledging in November. The female incubates for 5 weeks, roosts outside the hollow when chicks are 4 weeks old, then fledging occurs 2-3 weeks later. Young are dependent for several months.
- Territorial pairs respond strongly to recordings of Barking Owl calls from up to 6 km away, though humans rarely hear this response farther than 1.5 km. Because disturbance reduces the pair’s foraging time, and can pull the female off her eggs even on cold nights, recordings should not be broadcast unnecessarily nor during the nesting season.