Jackson photojournalist and birder Tom Stanton was cross-country skiing in Grand Teton National Park in late April, looking for owls, when he heard an unfamiliar song. He froze. 

“In my head, I was like, ‘I’ve never heard a great horned owl make that kind of noise,” he said. “But it was coming from an area where there had been a nesting pair of great horned owls a couple of years prior.”

Intrigued, he waited. “About a half hour later, they did what I call the monkey call,” hooting back and forth. “I was like, ‘I’ve never heard great horns do that.’” 

He skied over to the old nest site. An owl flashed by in the corner of his vision, too fast to identify. But then he saw a cottonwood tree with the type of cavity owls use for nests. A stray feather lay near the opening. 

Stanton did what any good birder would do: He returned the following day.

“I was kind of sitting watching the cavity from a distance,” he said. “And all of a sudden, up pops the barred [owl].”

There was a moment of cognitive dissonance, he said, because Wyoming isn’t barred owl habitat. There have been sightings, but they are rare. He could see the pairs’ distinctive black eyes, however, and used his birding app to confirm their songs. 

These were barred owls. 

A male barred owl rests on a limb of a spruce tree near his nest in Grand Teton National Park. The medium-sized species measure about 19 to 22 inches in length with a roughly 42- to 44-inch wingspan. (Thomas Stanton)

Though he didn’t want to harass the birds, Stanton’s instinct was to document. So he returned to the site a couple days a week for the next few months to watch and photograph the pair calling, hunting, sleeping and eventually hatching two chicks. In doing so, Stanton documented Wyoming’s first breeding pair of barred owls. 

The news will no doubt pique the interest of birders, who are known to travel on short notice to glimpse rare species. But biologists aren’t celebrating yet. The arrival of a non-native bird could have ramifications for the ecosystem’s other denizens, they say. 

“We’ve definitely been apprehensive just because we kind of look at things from a bigger ecosystem-level picture,” Teton Raptor Center Associate Research Director Katherine Gura said. “And it’s hard to say what the impact is going to be on some of these other species that are really important in this ecosystem.”

Moving in?

Barred owls are similar in size to great horned owls, but lack the “horns.” They are similar in profile to great gray owls, but are smaller and have black eyes in contrast to the great grays’ distinct yellow ones. Though they are eastern birds, they have expanded their range westward through the boreal forests of Canada and down into the Pacific Northwest. 

In Washington, Oregon and California, their negative impacts on federally protected northern spotted owls have created a high-profile management conundrum. Barred owls, which are territorial and eat a variety of prey, have edged out the shier and more specialized spotted owls. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has wrestled with the issue for years, even experimenting with killing barred owls to make room for spotted owls.

From left, barred owl, great gray owl and great horned owl. (Thomas Stanton)

Barred owls have also moved south from Canada into parts of Idaho and Montana. In Wyoming, there have been sightings of vagrant barred owls over the years, but never breeding pairs. Grand Teton National Park has 12 records of barred owls between 1982-1999, according to Public Affairs Officer Valerie Gohlke.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Nongame Bird Biologist Zach Wallace wasn’t terribly surprised by the news, given their expansion. It’s too early to know what it means for the state, he said, as it might be an anomaly. Any rare bird record in the state is reported to the Wyoming Bird Records Committee for review, Wallace said. 

“At this point, it’s one pair,” he said. “We just keep track of it.”

Grand Teton National Park intends to do the same, Gohlke said, monitoring the owls and their relationship with other species in collaboration with the Teton Raptor Center. 

The management crisis in the Pacific Northwest, Wallace said, is “a really extreme situation with an endangered species. They’re doing management as a last resort, real ecological triage. And we have no reason to believe that would happen here.”

But Gura of the raptor center, who has been studying great gray owls and other raptors in the region for about a dozen years, is uneasy. 

A male barred owl pauses on a cottonwood branch in Teton County with a squirrel before delivering it to the female in the nesting cavity. (Thomas Stanton)

Her team discovered the owls independently of Stanton. They were conducting a prey survey one day this summer when a colleague came across one of the adults and then discovered a fledgling. 

The Raptor Center team was “extremely surprised” by the discovery, Gura said. They were also concerned, “because of the potentially detrimental effects on the native raptors that we spend a lot of time researching and studying and working to conserve.”

What happened with barred and spotted owls is “highly concerning” to her.

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘what are the potential impacts going to be on great grays in relation to barred owls?’” she said. Because great grays are one of the least studied raptors, she said, there isn’t a ton of research to draw from in considering potential competition with barred owls. 

“There’s just really a lot of unknowns,” she said. “Maybe they’ll be able to persist no problem, but there’s just the potential that there’s going to be a similarly negative impact on great grays as there has been on spotted owls.”

Soon after their discovery, Gura said, she connected with Stanton, who shared his research and documentation. The center’s plan is also to monitor and study what happens next.


They may be cast as villains in spotted owl habitat, but the barred owl family charmed Stanton as he observed them over the months. 

He saw the male dive for voles, squirrels and songbirds and deliver them to the female. He watched as the adults preened and cackled together in greeting — behavior he said was downright affectionate. They checked in often with one another and were extremely vocal, he said. 

A pair of barred owls preen and scratch each other in Teton County. Photographer Thomas Stanton discovered and documented their nest in April 2023 — the first instance of breeding barred owls in Wyoming. (Thomas Stanton)

Stanton glimpsed the first evidence the owls had successfully bred on the afternoon of June 28. That’s when a fluffball of gray feathers appeared at the edge of the cavity around 2:30 p.m. A second chick popped up about three hours later. 

The female kept a close eye on them, he said. He figured they were four to five weeks old. After that, he watched the two chicks fledge — they started by hopping from limb to limb before graduating to flying farther distances behind their parents. 

Photographer and birder Tom Stanton with his binoculars in Rendezvous Park near Jackson. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

One of the chicks did not survive — its wing was discovered and it was likely taken by a predator, Stanton said. But he has consistently been able to find one of the remaining three. 

All told, Stanton spent hundreds of hours watching the owls, taking thousands of photographs. It was certainly a remarkable wildlife experience, he said, a birding highlight. But Stanton is also aware that non-native immigrants can come with impacts.

“The big question is: How will it impact the great grays?” he asked.  

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

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  1. Compelling story and wow(!) the photographs by Thomas Stanton really bring it to life. Especially appreciate seeing the different life stages of the owls & their behavior. Thank you! Staying tuned and hope to keep seeing this level of content.

  2. I live in Washington state near the border of Canada. We have lots of barred owls in our wooded backyard and love them. They are beautiful creatures and wish we would leave them alone and let nature do its part.

  3. In Utah Herr, we have a pair of great horned owls that are nesting in our blue spruce tree in our front yard. We also have a pair of tawny barn owls nesting in the cargo container in our back yard. The large number of rodents are proving to support both pairs.

  4. Please “experts” leave the damn Owls alone! Let the Great horned, Gray and Barred Owls figure it out. Mother Nature and history of “experts” has proven she knows a helluva lot more than you do. What happens with these species is exactly what is suppose to happen.

  5. I really think they should be left alone and let nature do its thing. Humans have interfered way too much in the past and really fudged things up. I don’t think they were planted, they probably arrived on their own. Nature constantly grows and evolves to the situation, and I see from the comments, most people seem to agree with this.

  6. All I can say, IS, Remember the wolfes.
    What happened when man decided to bring them to Yellowstone.
    Don’t you think the animals know what they need to survive. And where to be in this world.
    Are they asking for man to step in and help them.
    Is everyone out of control. Watch, listen ,learn. The owls know what is going on in there world. Let them be.

  7. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that barred owls will have less impact than we modern humans have had on the ecology of Wyoming, especially Jackson Hole.

  8. FWP nor people are not God. So there is one pair so far & they will survive or not as will the other owls. Nature is a wonderful thing till people ruin everything.
    This is my opinion, Judy Cain.

  9. Birds, feathers, flying and stuff. What’s the big plan, stop birds from flying wherever they like? Why not just kill all the barred owls out east…stop the flow.
    What a bunch of ninnies. Birds fly; these particular ecologists would like to stop that. I think these folks should take a deep breath and change careers. You can’t micro manage the environment, although they try…god knows they try.

  10. I used to bird when I lived in New England. We did what we called an “owl prowl”, where we would go out at night and with recorded owl calls, try to get them to answer. It was part of a census program. One thing I was taught early on was to start calling the smallest species first. There, it was the saw-whet owl, very similar in size to the northern spotted owl. If you started calling with the most aggressive owl call, the great horned, you would never hear from the smaller owls, the barred, eastern screech, long or short eared owls, and saw-whets, as examples. The Wyoming biologists may be concerned about the natural pecking order impact of this new arrival. By the way, Dewey, there is no such thing as Canadian geese, they are Canada geese.

  11. Would like to know how/if they evaluate a new species naturally moving into the area on their own vs a truly invasive/human introduced competitor. Seems very different situations. Why get involved in the former case?

  12. What puzzling responses from the NGO guru and the agency specialists. They show an uneasy concern when a novel bird suddenly appears in the ecosystem , but cannot be specific about their concerns in spite of having credentials as M.A.s and PhD’s. They walk on eggshells and mutter . I’m guessing furtive glances as well , a symptom perhaps of mild Spotted Owl PTSD. Can we please get some lay language that better frames those concerns?

    In my youth in Cody there were many species of birds commonly seen that no longer grace us. Examples: Nighthawks , sharp drops in Hummingbirds and other Neo-Tropical migratories and songbirds. The usual suspects over time.
    Conversely , there are now several varieties of birds that were scarce in the Eisenhower years but now abundant and even taken up yearround residence. Canadian Geese and some kinds of ducks were rare in the 1950’s when my dad raised and trained Black Labrador retrievers. Now there are literally a couple thousand honkers that live in Cody yearround, and ducks I have no name for in season. My personal favorites are the 30-40 giant Turkey Vultures that roost in the same silver poplar trees with in the middle of town every year from early April to early October and put on nightly aerial ballets . I have no idea where they winter over, but maybe they go to as far south as Brazil like our nesting pairs of Osprey that live on the edge of town do.

    A few winters ago were were unexpectedly thrilled by seeing several Arctic Snowy Owls around Cody’s perimeter. Perhaps these cited bird ecology gurus and agency specialists can elucidate why there are Caspian Terns living on the alkali lakeshore across the road from the Cody airport. They really are native to the Caspian Sea of central Asia but there are sparse populations of them around the Great Lakes. Caspian Terns are supposed to live on ocean coastlines, long lakeshores and barrier islands. But inside Cody Wyoming city limits ?
    On occasion I’ve had birds on my home feeder that are not supposed to be this far West or at this high elevation… Purple Martins, Blackhead Grosbeaks , even a red Cardinal one-off (!?) . As for the Owl family, I’ve lived in the same neighborhood from 25 years. There used to be few if any owls , but now the tall pines are full of them yearround. Being the first birds to mate and roost, they do owl Hooter Opera in the middle of winter nights , as many as six within earshot. Fascinating.

    My conclusion is this Barred Owl actuality is not news to the Owls themselves, just the humans. Biodiversity in the natural world is always in flux. Like that great birdwatcher and songbird of our time Bob Dylan puts forth , ” it’s just Life and life only “

    1. Interesting i saw a big white owl near Deaver in November last year which was shocking to have one this far south.

  13. Great Story Ms. Klingsporn will be interesting to see the results of this pair on the regions owls.. thank you

    1. I was thinking the same thing. As a biologist and birder, I appreciate preserving species, but here we have a case of a native species expanding its range. It’s not our place to decide winners and losers. Particularly with current trends in climate change, changes in a species’ range will become more common.