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Barn Owl

Tyto alba

  1. Not Evaluated
  2. Data Deficient
  3. Least Concern
  4. Near Threatened
  5. Vulnerable
  6. Endangered
  7. Critically Endangered
  8. Extinct in the Wild
  9. Extinct

About Us

The barn owl is one of the most widespread owl species in the world, found on every continent except Antarctica. They do not hoot, but instead make screeching calls, and are often associated with witches and evil spirits because of this, combined with their ghostly white appearance. Their name ‘Tyto alba’, comes from the Greek ‘Tyto’ meaning owl, and the Latin ‘alba’ meaning white, and their English name ‘barn owl’ from their habit of nesting in barns and disused buildings.

Here at Woburn we have two barn owls, a female, Frosty, and a male, Barney. Frosty is frosty by name, frosty by nature. She’s not a morning bird and can be a bit of a diva some days. Barney likes to show off how skilled and silently he can fly by doing long elegant circuits around the arena.

Distribution
America, Europe, Africa, India, Asia and Australia
Habitat
Grassland, woodland, riverbanks, farmland and some urban areas
Height
33 - 39cm in length
Weight
200 - 500g
Lifespan
Wild 4 - 6 years, in captivity up to 20 years
Threats
Road accidents, poor weather, pesticides

Physical Features

The barn owl is often associated with witchcraft and evil spirits, due to its ghostly white appearance. The prominent feature of this small bodied species is its large facial disk, a disk of feathers surrounding the face, which is pale, and heart shaped. The body is often golden-grey coloured, with white under parts. The sexes are dimorphic, meaning they are different in appearance. The males have a pure white underbelly, whereas the females have small grey spots along their underbelly, used for camouflage during nesting. The eyes are black.

There are 35 sub species of barn owl, all varying slightly in colour and size.

The talons of a barn owl are long and sharp, but the middle toe on each foot features a talon with a finely serrated edge, thought to aid in preening the feathers, especially the all important facial disk feathers.

The wings of an owl are finely serrated so that they can fly silently. This is to allow the owl to approach its prey silently without it hearing it first, and so that they owl itself can hear its prey over its own sounds.

The eyes of owls are adapted to be like a pair of binoculars. They are fixed in place, allowing for detailed long distance vision for hunting, but this does mean their close range vision is very poor.  To look around the owl has to move its entire head, it is a common myth that they can turn their head all the way around, it actually only rotates around 270 degrees horizontally, and around 90 degrees vertically. To be able to do this the owl has extra bones in their neck. Most vertebrates, including us, only have 7 vertebrae in their neck, whereas an owl has 14.

To cope with the lack of short range vision they have a group of sensitive feathers, called crines, around their beak. These sensitive feathers are used to locate dead prey.

Owls have very sensitive hearing, used to locate prey either hidden under snow or other coverings, or to hunt in the dark. Owl’s ears are holes hidden beneath the feathers, one further up than the other, allowing the owl to pinpoint the location of a sound. This ability lets them build a sort of sound map and locate prey, often in complete darkness, by sound alone. The barn owl has been studied in great depth, and has been found to be capable of hunting and navigating in complete darkness.  The feathers of an owl’s face help with this hearing, by forming a facial disk, a disk of feathers used like a satellite dish to help point any sound towards these ears.

Diet and Hunting Behaviour

Their diet consists of small mammals, mainly mice, voles and shrews.  They will also take small rabbits and rats occasionally. During the breeding season barn owls will collect and store food.

Hunting starts around sunset, at first using their well adapted eye sight, and then relying on their sensitive hearing as darkness sets in. They attack from low flights, of about 1.5m to 4.5m above the ground. The strong feet and talons are used to catch the prey, which is then dispatched with a nip through the back of the skull with its beak. Depending on the size of the prey item they will swallow it whole, or if larger tear it apart with the beak. Owls produce a pellet, a small package of all the parts of their food they cannot digest, such as the bones and fur or feathers.

The wings of an owl are finely serrated so that they can fly silently. This is to allow the owl to approach its prey silently without it hearing it first, and so that they owl itself can hear its prey over its own sounds.

Communication

The barn owl is well known for its haunting screeches and high pitched calls, often referred to as the ‘screech owl’ in some countries.  It does not hoot, but will make a range of noises including screeching, hissing, and twittering calls. The young owlets will make a series of calls in the nest, including calls to get attention and when squabbling with nest mates.

When threatened or acting aggressively they will make a loud clicking noise with their beak, and will often give a loud scream at predators. Calling can be territorial, threatening, or used during courtship.

Breeding

This species usually nests, as the name suggests, in barns and old buildings. They will also nest in hollowed out trees.  They will often use old nest sites, which have been used for decades previously. The female will line the nest with dried pellets.

Barn owls are monogamous, meaning they pair for life, and will often return to the same nest site for several years. The male will call to a female, giving display flights, and chasing her, with both sexes screeching throughout this courtship.

The female lays between 4 and 6 eggs, which she will then incubate for 32 to 34 days. The male will bring her food to the nest during this time. Female owls are generally a third larger than the male, so that they have the extra energy to incubate the eggs and can survive this period.

Chicks will leave the nest and take their first flight at around 50 to 70 days after hatching, but will return to the nest to roost at night until they are around 8 weeks old. At around 3 to 5 weeks after their first flight they will become fully independent.

The barn owl reaches sexual maturity at around one year, and can live up to 6 years in the wild, or up to 20 years in captivity. They can breed up to three times a year, but most will only breed once. Breeding is dependent on food supply and can happen at any time of the year.

Husbandry

All of our birds of prey are flown daily. This has many benefits to the animal. Firstly it allows the animal to exercise, keeping them fit, and developing flying muscles. It also allows them to perform their natural behaviours, for some of our birds of prey this may include various hunting techniques such as catching prey mid-flight, and chasing down ground prey, or killing a (rubber) snake.

Each bird has a varied diet, just as it would in the wild, mimicking the varying nutritional properties of each food type and the quantities.

Threats and Conservation

Young barn owls can be preyed upon by stoats and snakes, however adults are rarely preyed upon. The smaller individuals may be preyed upon by some larger birds of prey, such as  golden eagles, red kites, goshawks, buzzards, peregrine falcons, lanners, eagle owls and tawny owls.

As a whole the barn owl is not considered an endangered species, however in some parts of its range, such as the US and UK it is in serious decline. The UK population has been in decline since the latter part of the 20th century, with less than 5,000 breeding pairs.

Changes in agriculture have caused a lack of hunting ground, with prey species declining. With an increase in land use for agricultural crops comes an increase in the use of harmful pesticides and insecticides, causing more incidents of poisoning and cases of infertile eggs, or shell thinning. There is also a lack of nesting spaces, with small farms and disused building less frequently found.  Changes is weather can have detrimental effects on barn owls, with longer winters and more rain and snow, making hunting difficult for the barn owl.

There are a number of conservation efforts happening in the UK, through groups such as the RSPB, and the World Owl Trust. Artificial nest boxes, and schemes to encourage farmers to conserve vole and shrew habitat are amongst these efforts.

They are listed as appendix II of CITES, which means the trade and export of this species is heavily regulated and controlled to protect them.

Fun Facts

Owls fly silently; their wing feathers are finely serrated to allow air to flow through them softly, making no noise!

Owls eyes are like a pair of binoculars, their fixed lenses give them fantastic long distance vision, but very poor short distance vision!

The barn owl has been shown in studies to be able to hunt in complete darkness, by its hearing alone!