Barn Owls On The Prowl

For keeping farm rodents in check, a resident barn owl is what you need.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Simon Evans/Flickr

If you have a barn, there’s a chance you have a barn owl (Tyto alba) camping out in it.

Barn owls are superb hunters that can benefit a farm of any size. They hunt over open grasslands, fields, woodlots, ranches, suburbs and sometimes even cities. While they mainly eat rodents—and only nocturnal ones—they could also dine on birds as large as starlings and blackbirds. It’s not likely they’ll take out your chickens, though if you’re raising baby chicks or poults, it’s always a good idea to protect those babies with a predator-proof enclosure.

Barn owls are pretty adaptable in some respects, and it’s possible that their population is holding steady at a time when most bird populations are rapidly declining. This population estimate could be due in part to the difficulty of counting stealthy, nocturnal, silent flyers. But they are hearty enough to stay in one place through all four seasons, are widely distributed throughout the world and can nest in man-made structures, as long as there is a protected platform large enough to build a nest.

What Does A Barn Owl Need For A Nest?

Barn owls make nests from their own pellets—the compressed balls of animal hair, bones, insect exoskeletons and other undigestibles that owls regurgitate. The female will scrape the pellets around to make a snug little recycled fur bed for her family. If you wanted to offer additional housing to your resident owl, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology provides plans for building barn owl nest boxes.

If you want a good reason to leave an old barn or silo standing, a dead tree snag upright, or a cliff ledge undisturbed, consider that these are also favorite homes for the barn owl. While they are in the early phases of nesting in April and May, they are very sensitive to disturbances, so if you suspect you may have a nesting pair taking up residence, be sure to give them plenty of space during this critical time.

barn owl
Phil Fiddes/Flickr

How Do You Know If A Barn Owl Is Living In Your Barn?

Owl Pellets

The first daytime clue would be a presence of owl pellets. If you do find these and you’re curious about what rodents and insects are found on your property, use tweezers and pull the pellets apart. It’s fun to play forensic investigator and compare your findings with a chart like the one provided by this science center.

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A Sighting

The other obvious clue to a barn owl’s presence is seeing it fly. This isn’t likely to happen during the daytime or even at dusk, but because the barn owl is primarily white underneath, you may very well catch a glimpse of it soaring through a field, watching and listening for food. This pale apparition can be startling, and if you’re lucky enough to hear the sound of its’ raspy shriek at the same time, you’ll understand how it inspired many ghost stories.

How Does A Barn Owl Hunt?

At night, the hunt is on. The barn owl has the best auditory hunting record of any animal tested. The shape of its face and location of its ears are uniquely designed to discern the details of the subtle shuffle of tiny mouse feet beneath snow, leaves, or grasses. The owl’s facial disc is heart-shaped and acts as a sort of satellite dish that receives sound signals and funnels them to the ear, two small slits concealed under feathers on each side of the owls’ head. These ears are asymmetrical, offset so that by angling the head this way or that, the bird can hone in on the exact location of the sound.

barn owl in flight
Tony Smith

Are You Ready For More?

If you’re ready to embrace the presence of a barn owl, know that you will likely have a whole family of them because they mate for life. They rear one or more clutches of up to 18 chicks a year, and those young will look for a hunting and nesting space of their own when they reach maturity. More than one pair could hunt in your fields harmoniously, but they will defend their nesting sites from competition.

Barn owls can be part of your integrated pest management system. A family of barn owls can consume up to 3,000 rodents per year, much more efficient than a barn cat. Be absolutely sure that there are no rodenticides out in your area before encouraging a barn owl to take up residence.

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