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Barn Owl

"There are mysteries which men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part."

Bram Stoker, Dracula
Tyton, Female Barn Owl, with Alex

Tyton, a Female Barn Owl Fledge, at 7 weeks, with Alex
Photo by Wendy Hall


 Barn Owl

Order: Strigiformes
Family: Tytonidae
Genus: Tyto
Species: Tyto alba


How do you describe Barn Owls? To begin with, what birds are stranger than owls? The oddly inelegant shape, the seemingly humourless and serious demeanor, the hostile and insistent beak snapping, the strength all out of proportion to their sizes? And then there's the barn owl, with that heart shaped, almost alien, face, the head wagging when surprised or threatened, the long, gawky legs, and that arrestingly loud, drawn out and raspy hiss, like a cobra with a microphone. Barn owls are a wierd and fascinating species, even within the ghostliest of raptor orders, Strigiformes. The Martians have landed, and they've come for your rodents! In an interesting observation, the Carolina Raptor Center, speculating on the origin of ghosts and goblins in people's minds, and mindful of the link between old barns, church steeples and agricultural fields, in other words, the proximity of villages to barn owl nesting sites, wonder whether the ghostly appearance, odd hisses, screeches and screams of the barn owl, helped foster such nightmares.

Barn owls are the most widely distributed of all raptors, found on every continent but Antarctica. Alas, barn owls, and other members of the family Tytonidae, seem more delicate than members of the "true owl" family, Strigidae, with most dying during their first year, and with the average age in the wild of only 18 months. Wesley, the hero of Stacey O'Brien's book about her barn owl, lived to be 20, so once again, when you add a steady food supply, observation and care to a wild animal, it dramatically increases their life span. Mature barn owls are just under a pound, and about 15 to 20 inches from beak to tail. As with all raptors, the females are larger than the males, and have a slightly more reddish golden brown breast than the males, with more prominent spots. Barn owls have wing spans from 36 to 48 inches. Great Horned Owls take a discouragingly high proportion of barn owls, and are sometimes suspected of patiently perching near barn owl nest sites to grab branchers and fledglings. Other mortality factors are what you'd expect: vehicles, pesticide poisoning, being shot, high power lines, etc.

Barn owls are rodent-eating machines, and, as many farmers are rediscovering, safer and more effective than rodenticides, as they kill only the targeted animals. A mating pair of barn owls raising five owlets, may take 3,000 rodents in a year, and since barn owls seem to breed in response to the rodent supply, they may breed multiple times in any given year. In addition, barn owls are less territorial than other raptors, so, as Tom Hoffman points out at Barn Owl Headquarters, the farmer may have set up six barn owl nesting boxes within a 100 acre field. While most of what barn owls take are small rodents, according to BarnOwlBox, barn owls have displayed a versatility in hunting various types of prey, focusing on pocket gophers in California wine country, bats in Austria, red wing blackbirds in parts of the midwest, house mice in Spain, and have even been seen catching fish. Is anything safe?!

As with the Great Horned Owl, a consideration of the barn owl's offensive weapons, along with their tools for detecting prey, lead to the conclusion that life is definitely not fair for the rodents they prey on.  The barn owl seeks his prey, by flying in a side-to-side pattern, about ten feet off the ground, with the legs swaying left and right, while sweeping a narrow swath of ground. Sometimes they will hunt from a perch, gliding down to seize rodents.

As with other owls, the barn owl's eyes are locked into the skull sockets in such a way, that the owl must swivel the head to change its field of vision. Like people, owls have binocular vision, while other raptors' eyes are located on either side of the face. A barn owl's eyes are twice as effecient as ours in dim light, and are better at discerning outlines. Like a boxer slipping punches, barn owls bob their head when reacting to movement in their immediate vicinity. Some say this is done to improve depth perception.

A barn owl's hearing is anywhere from 25 to 100 times more sensitive than ours. The ears are asymmetrical, with one set high on the right, and the other in an inverted position low on the left just inside and under the heart-shaped facial disk, whose outline is formed by stiff, bristly tan feathers, and which acts as a dish for collecting sound. When sound reaches the lower ear, the barn owl swivels the head through it's lateral and medial axis, until the sound is hitting both ears simultaneously, and, because the eyes can only look straight forward, by definition, the owl is staring at the location of the sound's source. Laboratory tests indicate that blindfolded barn owls can catch mice, using their hearing alone, and can not only locate a mouse by the sound of it's heartbeat, but can audibly discern the movements of one type of prey from another.

Soft and light feathers enable silent flight, by breaking the air disturbance of the wings, into thousands of tiny pockets of turbulence, inaudible to the ears of mammals. This not only prevents the prey from hearing the owl's approach, but allows the owl to continue triangulating the prey's location as they approach. The outer toe swings back and forth, to enable perching with three toes in front, and the rear toe, or hallux, in the rear, or, when striking prey, to swing back and join the hallux, in framing the rodent's spine, leading to a firm grip, allowing an easier kill by the beak. As the owl reaches its unsuspecting prey, the legs extend the open talons forward, the head draws back and the eyes shut, as the talons grasp the prey. If the prey is not killed by the crush of the talons, the beak is used to quickly finish the job.

Female barn owls can brood when they're a year old. Like most owls, barn owls do not construct nests, but appropriate any suitable cavity, natural or man made, where the female lays 3 to 12 eggs, in intervals of 2 to 3 days.  Incubation lasts about 33 days for each egg, and the owlets fledge at between 56 and 62 days. Mom broods while Dad hunts, and provides food for Mom and the growing owlets.

It is not unusual during the nesting season, to find owlets on the ground in the vicinity of the nest. Before "rescuing" this comically hostile ball of feathers, observe the owl over a few days, just to confirm that the parents are not feeding it where it sits. If the vertical "keel" of a bird's breastbone feels sharp, and protrudes out from the attached muscles, it's often a sign of starvation, in which case it means the young owl is not being fed, and it's time to call the rehabber. The young owl may be a brancher who tumbled from its perch in its first attempt at flight, or was booted by an older unsentimental sibling, as a strategy for garnering a higher portion of the food Mom and Dad bring back to the nest. Each Summer, some of our education birds, notably the Great Horned and Barred owls, foster-parent fledglings, who are later released in early Fall.

Steve Hall

TytonTyton with SteveTyton
Tyton at about 8 weeks, photos by John Vant Erve

Tyton at about 4 weeksTyton, close up, about 4 weeks
Tyton, at about 4 weeks, photo by Trish Marki
Barn owls Tyton & sibling
Wendy & Steve with Tyton and her sister

Tyton in defensive postureby Kevin McKenzie

Tyton in defensive posture, by Kevin MacKenzie


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Tyton by Bill WoodallTyton, by Bill Woodall
Tyton, by Bill Woodall, January 2011

Donations


Kestrel & Barn Owl Rodent Control
Controlling Rodents through the use of Barn Owls and Kestrels
by Stacey O'BrienThe Barn Owl TrustOwl pagesBarn Owl Headquarters
Great sites & books for Barn Owl information and resource

Jonas & TytonJonas & Tyton
Jonas & Tyton
Jonas with Tyton: It's tough to write with your editor constantly in your space.

Rewilding the Adirondacjs

Links & Other Sites of Interest
Contact Information
Adirondack Wildlife Refuge
Adirondack Wildlife Refuge & Rehabilitation Center

Steve & Wendy Hall
PO Box 555, 977 Springfield Road, Wilmington, NY 12997
Toll Free: 855-Wolf-Man (855-965-3626)
Cell Phones: 914-715-7620 or 914-772-5983
Office Phone: 518-946-2428
Fax: 518-536-9015
Email us: info@AdirondackWildlife.org