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Program and General Information
Barn owls received their name from their tendency to develop nests in man-made structures such as barns. They are also called the monkey-faced owl, ghost owl, or white owl. Barn owls are light in color with no tufts on top of their head. The ventral side of a barn owl is generally white to light tan while the dorsal side a slightly darker brown/gray coloration. Barn owls faces are flat discs containing their dark eyes and are often described as heart shaped.
Common Physical Features
Medium in size, the barn owl’s wing span is between 100 and 125cm. They generally have a length of 32 to 40 cm and weigh anywhere from 400 to 700g. Like many other species of bird of prey, the males are smaller than the females.
Barn owls are nocturnal predators who glide smoothly over their habitat in search of food. Their unique, raspy screaming call can be heard echoing through the night sky as males fly above. Females are infrequent callers.
There are several subspecies of barn owl throughout the world. They are separated by differences in both size and coloration seen in different geographical locations. The North American subspecies of barn owl is the largest.
Habitat and Global Range
These owls are found in all of the lower 48 states of the US and South America. There are subspecies of barn owl living on every continent except Antarctica. Barn owls utilize grasslands, marshes, brushy fields, agricultural fields, and other forms of open habitat. They are generally found at lower altitudes.
Barn owl feed on various mammals from rodents to bats and sometimes even rabbits. On occasion they may catch small birds. These owls are known to catch more than they eat and store the excess food (sometimes over a dozen items) in the nest to feed to the young once they have hatched. Being nocturnal predators, diurnal species tend to remain off the menu of barn owls.
As nocturnal predators, barn owls are used to hunting in very low light conditions. With asymmetrical ears, barn owls have excellent hearing abilities and are able to catch prey that is covered by snow or vegetation.
Behavior and Life Cycle
At one year of age, barn owls will select a mate and will most likely remain monogamous for life. To court a female, the male will call frequently and display himself in flight and by hovering before the female.
Once bonded, the pair will select a nest site in a tree cavity or manmade structure (such as a barn) and build a nest lined with shredded pellets. Each clutch contains between 2 and 18 eggs. Incubation starts quickly after the first eggs are laid which means that the first chicks may hatch up to a week or two before the last chicks. This difference in age is also represented in a difference in size. In years when food is limited, the older and more robust chicks out compete their younger siblings.
The young owl chicks may fledge between 7 and 10 weeks, but will return to the nest and remain close by until they are as old as 5 months. While the chicks are being raised, the male is responsible for hunting and returning to the nest with food for his mate and young. The female barn owl feeds the chicks by ripping food into small pieces when they are young and feeding them whole items as they get older. If a pair successfully raises a brood of chicks, they may lay another clutch of eggs soon after. Because of this, while most barn owl pairs raise one brood of chicks per year, some may raise up to three!
Like many other owl species, barn owls often use their nests year round to roost in when they are not raising a brood.
- Barn Owls have been associated with omens, witchcraft, and death. Throughout history they were used as symbols, in myths, and as part of superstitious potions
- Because of their asymmetrical hearing, barn owls are able to discern exactly where a sound is coming from. This ability allows them to hunt for food successfully even in total darkness.
- Barn owls may show sexual dimorphism which means that males and females may look different. It is thought that females will have a more reddish colored chest with black spots, while males will have white chests with no spots.
Owls like other birds of prey are very important predators. Owls consume small rodents which keeps the pest population low. They are very beneficial to farmers and our ecosystems.
A lot of birds of prey including owls use open fields to hunt for prey. As the open fields become parking lots, shopping malls, and housing developments birds of prey such as the barn owl cannot find enough food to feed themselves and their young. As the fields disappear the owls must hunt in more dangerous areas such as parking lots and along the road side. Hunting in these areas can lead to car strikes and other injuries that may cost the bird their lives. As farm lands get destroyed the old barns on the property are also torn down. Barn owls especially need these nesting sites close to where they hunt to be able to provide enough food to their young. Barn owls are cavity nesters and must have a cavity in order to make their nest and lay their eggs. As fields and barns continue to decrease in Pennsylvania as well as in the United States these owls will sustain a population decrease.
Do not litter. Birds of prey can be seen hunting along highways all over the country which is very dangerous for them, many of them are hit by cars or somehow injured along the roadways. They are attracted to the roadways because their prey forages on the trash along the side of the road. Everyone can make a positive impact by not littering or even volunteering to remove garbage from the roads. Although many people may not consider apple cores or banana peels to be “litter”, it can still attract animals to the roadside. Taking trash home and disposing of it properly can help a bird of prey near you.
Plant Hedge Rows. Barn owls are often struck by cars while crossing road ways in search of food. This is a greater problem for barn owls than other owls because this species traditionally flies low when in search of food which puts them directly in the way of vehicles. In addition to not littering, planting hedge rows will cause the barn owls to raise in elevation when they fly over the road thus being less likely to get hit.
Hang Nest Boxes. Barn owls, like many owls, are cavity nesters. Building a nest box provides a home for these animals in an area where many natural nest opportunities have been removed.
Help preserve a field near you. Encouraging State Representatives to preserve Pennsylvania farm land benefits local farms as well as barn owls who need the fields to hunt. Preserving old barns and other older buildings on the farms also ensures the barn owl will have a place to nest. Shopping at local farmers markets and farms that use sustainable and ecologically friendly practices can also help the owls and our local farmers.