All about barn owls
The almost ghostly sight of a barn owl flying silently at night is a thrill not easily forgotten. Unfortunately, the barn owl population declined significantly during the 20th Century, mainly due to loss of habitat, nest sites and poisoning by rodenticides. Happily, this trend has now reversed as farmers take part in environmental schemes and they provide rough grassland strips alongside fields as feeding areas. Nest box schemes are also providing nest sites where there are few suitable trees or old barns.
What to look for
The barn owl grows to about 30-35cm in length. It has buff or honey-coloured upper parts, flecked with grey and snow-white under parts, which make it easy to identify. The barn owl has a distinctive white facial disc which is bordered by a fine black heart-shaped border.
Did you know?
- The barn owl has excellent vision and hearing, enabling it to find prey in twilight and at night. Its feathers are especially soft and make no noise – it is a silent hunter and can drop on prey undetected.
- The barn owl feeds on small mammals, mostly short-tailed field voles and pygmy shrews, but also rats, wood mice, house mice, bank voles and common shrews. Prey is swallowed whole and then a pellet of the indigestible material, mainly bones and fur, is regurgitated. By taking apart these pellets, it is possible to discover the exact diet of a specific barn owl by identifying the bones inside.
- Barn owls lay clutches of between two and five, occasionally up to seven, eggs. Egg laying starts in late April to early May. The eggs are laid over several days, but brooding starts when the first egg is laid. Therefore, the eggs hatching is staggered over a few days and the young birds are often different in size. The last to hatch often remains small and is noticeably a runt. The mother sits on the nest for around 28 days and is fed by the male during this period. The young birds are fed by both parents and are ready to leave the nest after about nine weeks. The number of young birds that successfully fledge is dependent on the food supply. If there is a shortage of food the older, larger young will eat the smaller young.
- There are over 100 barn owl nests in Nottinghamshire with numbers increasing, thanks to barn owl projects in the county. This involves volunteers placing nest boxes in suitable sites and regularly checking them for young during the breeding season.
- You can assist the work of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust in looking after the barn owl. The Trust runs an Adopt a Barn Owl scheme, where you can help provide funding to protect their habitat. If you would like more information, please contact the Adopt a Species team on 0115 958 8242.
The barn owl population declined significantly during the 20th Century, mainly due to loss of habitat, nest sites and poisoning by rodenticides. Numbers are now increasing as farmers take part in environmental schemes to improve the habitat for barn owls. Nest box schemes are also helping with the recovery.
Barn owls can be found in habitats which provide a safe nest site near to a suitable feeding area. These include farmland with mature trees and rough grassland, river valleys and marshland.
Where to see
The barn owl hunts at dusk and night along areas of rough vegetation such as field edges, ditches, riverbanks, railway embankments and roadside verges. It may often be seen flying low and silently, making repeated flights over an area or even hovering, looking and listening for prey – a technique known as “quartering.” The barn owl only occupies its nest during the day and sometimes may be seen flying from the nest or nest box, if accidentally disturbed. It is illegal to deliberately disturb the nest.