Is a barn owl box worthwhile?

When I was growing up, we had a few ducks that stopped by the old farm pond outside of our old farmhouse as they were passing through. They never stayed too long, but one morning I noticed that there was a duck or two missing from the group.

I asked my dad about this and he speculated that the missing waterfowl had fallen victim to a great horned owl that kept a nightly watch over the farm from a perch in an ancient oak tree. Though this giant bird of prey was seldom heard and rarely seen, there was ample evidence of its presence with the absence of missing chickens, barn cats and other creatures on the farm that disappeared in the night.

Since then, owls and their mysterious habits have fascinated me. The recent story from OCJ field reporter Mike Ryan re-inspired me to look into the possibility of adding a barn owl box to our property. From his story:

Discussing the value of “getting up too early” in the morning in his book, A Sand County Almanac, American naturalist Aldo Leopold writes about the pleasures of listening to “the owl, in his trisyllabic commentary, play down the night’s murders.”

In her poem “In the Pine Woods, Crow and Owl,” Mary Oliver calls the owl “the pine god…the bone-crushing prince of the dark days,” and John Haines renders a captivating image of owls as they “sit/in the shadowy spruce and/pick the bones/of careless mice/while the long moon drifts” in his poem “If the owl calls again.”

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.

The barn owl is not nearly as common in Ohio as the giant great horned owl, but is welcome on most farms for its voracious appetite for rodents of every kind, including those terrible subterranean beasts that tunnel up our yard every year. Even in the absence of the other mysterious appeal of owls, this trait alone makes a barn owl box worth looking into.

Our children, especially our daughter, have also shown a keen interest in birds and owls in particular — an interest that I am happy to encourage. With these things in mind, a barn owl box project with the children definitely seemed like something worthwhile.

In addition, the first week of April was spring break for the children and the barn owl nesting season is from early April through early summer. This was sounding like a better idea all the time. Barn owls also seek out open pasture for hunting and, with our sheep pasture, the cattle across the road and goats and horses on either side of us, it seems like fairly suitable barn owl habitat.

So, with some help from the Fairfield County SWCD, I procured some plans for building a barn owl box. This is where I rediscovered the reasons for not doing the project. While not a complex or particularly challenging construction project, a barn owl box does take some time to build and considerable effort to put into place. This time and effort is, of course, significantly compounded with the “help” of a four- and a six-year-old. There is also some expense for the necessary materials.

And then once the time, effort and funding are put forth, there is certainly no guarantee that a barn owl will show up. The box could end up being more of a nuisance than anything by attracting bees, wasps or other undesirable birds to the barn. This could lead to disappointed children and an ongoing hassle for me moving forward.

I thought about all of these things before suggesting the idea to the children. Was all of the effort worth the potential (or even likely) failure to achieve the desired outcome? I wasn’t sure. But, ultimately, like many aspects of life, I realized that it was the process of doing the project, and not necessarily the end result, that made it worthwhile. The work was its own reward and a desirable outcome was simply an added benefit.

With this philosophy in mind, I called my wife’s Grandpa Cathers (a talented wood craftsman with a great workshop in his basement) and started picking through the old scrap wood in the haymow of our barn to see if I could find the proper materials. I found some old scrap wood that, though a bit thicker and heavier than necessary, would work for the project and — most importantly — it was free.

I explained the project to the children and they were excited to go “work” with great grandpa and great grandma for a couple of mornings over spring break to cut the wood and construct the barn owl box.

The children had fun with their great-grandfather Cathers building this barn owl box.
The children had fun with their great-grandfather Cathers building this barn owl box.

The box itself is fairly large at 40 inches long and more than 16 inches tall. The top of the box is hinged with a latch so it can be accessed to clean out, but not by raccoons and other hungry critters. While the children did not “help” with the entire construction process, they were around to see the cutting and assembling of the box and got to see how scrap pieces of wood were transformed into something useful.

Once the box was mostly assembled in Grandpa’s shop, I was then faced with the daunting task of installing the roughly 40-pound box 23 feet up in the air with an outside entrance that has direct access to pasture. Ideally, the large box is set on a cross beam in the barn and attached to the wall. Unfortunately, though, I wanted to use an existing window in the haymow of the barn that was the perfect height and eliminated the need to cut a hole in the side of the barn, but there was no cross beam in the proper spot to do that.

It was quite a job installing the barn owl box.
It was quite a job installing the barn owl box.

It took the better part of a Saturday afternoon to install. I kept telling myself, “It is the work that makes this worthwhile” as I cobbled together a hillbilly pulley using a plastic coated dog leash looped over barn rafters to hoist the giant bird box up to the window, precariously balanced the other end of the box on a flimsy board and a long PVC pipe and contorted my body into back-wrenching positions while balancing on a rickety ladder in the gloomy haymow of the barn.

I estimate that I nearly died three times from various causes, but finally, with a sore body and calloused hands, the barn owl box was installed. I admit that at that point I was not feeling like the work was all that worthwhile.

I went to get the children to show them. My son was most impressed with the pulley/PVC pipe system I had used to get the box up there. They both looked at what really is a pretty unimpressive barn owl box and acted impressed, but quickly turned to go back outside and play.

As they walked away, I stretched my aching back and rubbed my sore hands together, feeling like a crazy person for spending all of this time on a barn owl box that would probably never house a barn owl. I was turning to leave too when my daughter turned around, walked over and hugged me around my waist and said, “Daddy, that is a wonderful barn owl box.”

And then, barn owl or not, it was worthwhile.

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