A beauty uncommon: Ohio’s barn owls

Mysterious and reclusive phantoms of the night, owls have fascinated mankind for centuries. In Roman and Greek mythology, an owl accompanied Minerva/Athena, the goddess of wisdom. In some Native American societies, the owl was a totem animal representing wisdom and helpfulness.

Ohio has its share of owl specie, but none are as rare, and arguably as intriguing, as the barn owl. The barn owl is described as having a “ghostly” appearance with light tan and white coloration and a telltale white, heart-shaped face with large black eyes. Unlike the traditional “hoot” of other owl species, barn owls utter harsh, eerie, raspy screeches.

So named for their nesting preferences, they haunt old barns, church steeples, abandoned buildings, and hollow tree cavities.

“Barn owls make no real nest whatsoever. They lay their eggs on flat, dark, solid, elevated spots and old barns are perfect habitat for nesting,” said Ken Duren, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Biologist. “Today’s new barn construction makes it difficult for them to get into, and there is a loss of nesting cover for them.”

A lack of habitat for barn owls is a loss for farmers.

“They eat a lot of rodents,” Duren said. “A nesting pair will eat a few thousand meadow voles a year.”

Barn owls are strictly nocturnal creatures that have a wingspan of 3.5 to 4 feet.

“They hunt at night, flying 2 to 3 feet off of the ground, circling above grass fields. They are listening for the rodents to move around,” Duren said.

Barn owls hunt primarily by sound, and their ability to locate prey by this method is the best of any animal ever tested. Once their target is pinpointed, the barn owls swoop down and grasp it with their half-inch long talons. The prey is consumed whole and the indigestible bones and fur are regurgitated in pellet form a couple of times a day.

An attractive, pleasing addition to Ohio’s farmlands, barn owls are, unfortunately, a state threatened species. Their Ohio numbers peaked in the 1930s, Duren said, because of the habitat available to them. “There were a lot of pastures and hayfields due to the cattle industry and large livestock numbers,” he said. “They have lost much of this habitat due to the shift to crop production.”

Habitat loss and the loss of suitable nesting sites seem to be contributing to the decline of this silent night spirit. The North American Breeding Bird Survey conducted from 1966 through 2002 showed a 2.5% decline of barn owls per year —a 60% overall decline — with the largest declines in the Midwest. Cold weather also presents a challenge to this raptor.

“They are more of a southern owl,” Duren said. “They can’t handle the cold well. Rodents can hide better in the snow.”

Because they are a threatened species faced with a variety of challenges, the ODNR is very interested in charting bird numbers and studying its success and survival rates in the Buckeye state. In the 1980s and 1990s, they conducted a barn owl banding project that showed nest success — measured by having at least one bird survive from egg to fledgling — to be around 80% to 90%, with the average life span of a barn owl ranging between 2 to 10 years of age.

Another interesting discovery was made, as well.

“A lot of people thought barn owls were monogamous. Through the banding process, we found quite a few that had another mate, and some that had more than one mate at the same time,” Duren said. “That’s a lot of work for a male with two females!”

His workload would be extreme due to the fact that, before the young can be uncovered, the male gathers food while the female incubates and broods her clutch of about 5 eggs.

Another way the ODNR is studying barn owl populations is through the Barn Owl Box Monitoring Program. ODNR has put out approximately 200 nesting boxes throughout the state and annually checks them for nests.

“Last summer, our staff found 57 nests in these boxes,” Duren said. “The summer of 2012 was our best year ever. There were 107 barn owl nests in the DNR boxes. But if you remember, the winter of 2012 was a very warm winter, which allowed them to survive and thrive. That year, there were barn owls nesting in February when they don’t typically nest until late April. I have a feeling that this cold winter we just had is going to be hard on them.”

It is difficult to estimate the number of barn owls in the state because the ODNR can only gather information from its own boxes. Hence, they have initiated the Barn Owl Citizen Science Project to collect further data.

This program encourages anyone in the state who sees barn owls or has evidence of barn owl nesting activities on their properties to report them to the Division of Wildlife. The summer of 2013 was the first summer that the public was invited to report barn owl nesting sites and of the 42 people who called in, 22 of the sightings were confirmed.

To report/participate in this program, call 1-800-WILDLIFE.

“If possible, please take pictures of the owls,” Duren said. “This is very helpful. It allows us to confirm that what you have is indeed a barn owl.”

Another important aspect of this initiative is to encourage landowners to construct barn owl nesting boxes on their properties.

“These boxes provide a safe place for them to nest. The box sits on the inside of the barn, and there is a 6 inch hole on the outside of the barn that allows the barn owl access, but prevents great horned owls and raccoons, their primary animal threats, from entering and eating the eggs or young,” he said. “The boxes can also provide barn owls access into modern barns that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to use due to modern day barn designs.”

Those interested in obtaining a barn owl nesting box can contact a local wildlife officer or the nearest Division of Wildlife office. Evidence of barn owls on a farm property is indeed a lucky sign. This species is non-migratory and, if left undisturbed, will return to its nesting site annually. In some instances, they will use the nest site for roosting all year long.

Though they are oft unseen, these fascinating apparitions of the night add great beauty and diversity to our Middle Western countryside. Content to slip about in its shadowy world and disappear before the dawn, the barn owl, as John Haines writes, “parts without a sound/fulfilled, floating homeward as/the cold world awakens” — a world so often unaware of this enigmatic creature’s secretive rituals.

3 comments

  1. good info- i know who to contact for sightings and for procuring a nesting box. especially liked the info about the 6″ hole providing owl access to new barn designs. the quote at article end adds a nice “visual” to this piece.

  2. Wonderful story! I wonder how people clean the boxes when they are so high up in a barn…

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