The Barking Owl is an aggressive hunter taking a wide range of prey. As they hunt earlier in the evening and later in the morning than any other Australian owl species, their diet includes a wider range of diurnal birds. Prey recorded includes House Sparrow, White Winged Chough, Kookaburra, Magpie-lark, Magpie, Red-rumped Parrot and Tawny Frogmouth. Mammals such as small possums, bats and gliders are also taken but the introduced rabbit is now the major source of food in southern Australia. As with other Ninox Owls [hawk owls] they also take insects such as beetles and crickets particularly in the non-breeding season.
Barking Owls’ nest in a large hollow in the trunk or large limb of a tree. Dead hollow spouts are also used, the nest may be up to 30metres above the ground but is usually much lower. No nest is made, the eggs being laid directly onto the floor of the hollow.
There are usually 2 or 3 eggs that, as with most hollow nesting species, are white. Incubation takes about 35 days and the fledglings leave the nest about 35 days later still being downy as are all other young members of the Genus Ninox although none are still showing as much down as the Barking Owl.
The size of a Barking Owl can vary between 35cm and 45cm and the wingspan between 85cm and 100cm. The colour of the head varies from dark to light sandy brown, the upper wings and back are brown with large white spots and the uppertail is inconspicuously barred brown; breast and belly are white heavily streaked brown; eyes are large with a large yellow iris. The large yellow eyes and large white spots on the upper surface are usually enough to identify this species, but, if the dog-like call is heard this would confirm identification. This species is also responsible for the ‘screaming woman’ call. it is described as being very much like a terrified woman and quite capable of making your hair stand on end on a dark night if you’re out by yourself.
The Barking Owl is a species that, in Victoria, is considered to be endangered. There are only a small number of known breeding pairs mainly restricted to the dryer forests of Central Victoria. Severe bushfires over the last few years have burnt many of the large hollow bearing trees used by the Barking Owl as well as other species, the fires have also reduced the availability of food. After the fires the owls were seen coming back to their territories in burnt areas, the loss of their habitat as well as food meant they did not stay.
Ideal habitat is open country with a choice of large trees for roosting and nesting. In Northern Australia where this species is more common the favoured habitat is paperbark swamps; in southern districts it chooses creeks and rivers that are lined with River Red Gums, isolated stands of large trees and open woodland. In Victoria much of its preferred habitat would now be confined to private property or creeks and rivers running through private property.
My first encounter with this species was in October, 1982, when Brenda and I travelled from Melbourne to Chiltern especially to see them. I had been given a detailed map by a friend that showed me exactly where to look for the birds. We spent 3 days bird watching in the area seeing a total of 125 species. A trip one night to the area marked on my map added the Barking Owl to the list of birds we had seen. At first the birds’ were heard calling their unmistakable dog-like double bark ‘wuf-wuf’ or ‘wuk-wuk’. After hearing the call I could understand why they are known as Barking Owls, the call being remarkably like a barking dog. Later that evening we were to see the pair in the spotlight. Unlike their smaller cousin the Boobook Owl, whose mopoke call may go on for hours, the Barking Owl call usually only lasts several minutes at a time making it much harder to locate.
My encounters with these owls have been mostly very few, my second sighting 11 years later when in 1993 I found a single bird roosting in a River Red Gum at Laanecoorie Reservoir not far from home. Four years later in February 1997 whilst spotlighting for mammals and nocturnal birds in open forest of Broad-leaf Peppermint, Manna Gum and Blue Gum near Bogong village in north eastern Victoria, I had good views of a single bird for a few minutes then three weeks later Brenda received an injured bird from Baringhup making a total of 5 birds seen in over 40 years of bird watching.
In 2010 and 2011 I took part in a survey to assess the population of owls and arboreal mammals after severe bushfires in the Goulburn Broken Catchment area. Recorded calls of the owls’ were played at night at approximately 50 sites covering a large area east of Kilmore and extending almost to Jamieson, as high as Alexandra and a little further south than Healesville. Surveys of the areas had also taken place in 1996. The Barking Owl was not found on any site during the 2010 and 2011 surveys. Two other Ninox owls were recorded on some sites, they were Southern Boobook and Powerful Owl. Two Tyto owl species were also recorded on some sites, they were Sooty Owl and Masked Owl. The Masked Owl record is of calling only and on a single occasion. Tawny Frogmouths and Owlet Nightjars were also recorded.
Arboreal mammals seen were Mountain Brushtail Possum which showed a decline over the 3 surveys particularly on the burnt areas; Common Brushtail Possum; Common Ringtail Possum which has shown a steep decline over the 3 survey periods on both burnt and unburnt areas; Leadbeater’s Possum [a single record of call only]; Greater Glider, according to the previous surveys, this species has suffered a steep decline since 1996, especially on burnt sites; Sugar Glider, the trend for this small glider appears to be a small increase over the survey periods; Yellow-bellied Glider, there were few sightings of this species on any of the three surveys but it appears to have had a very slight increase on burnt sites but little change on unburnt sites; Feathertail Glider, this tiny glider was not recorded on any sites during any of the 3 survey periods, it was seen off-site in unburnt forest on one occasion in 2010; Koala, all records of this species during all surveys was in unburnt areas only.
Other mammals recorded on sites were species of micro bats; Black Wallaby; Common Wombat; Cat; European Rabbit and Sambar Deer. A number of frog species were also recorded including Brown Toadlet [endangered] and Dendy’s Toadlet [data deficient] found 10kms farther west than previously recorded.