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Barn Owl Fact Sheet and Information

Barn owns are graceful, ghostly birds that can locate and pounce on a mouse in the dead of night.  They are one of Washington's best natural rodent traps. 

Owl Adaptations

  • Flight feathers are serrated at their tips, muffling the flapping sound of the wings during flight.
  • Short feathers on side of head form a groove that helps direct sound waves into the ear opening.
  • Sharp talons for seizing and holding prey.
  • Hooked beak for tearing meat.
  • Eyes in front allow for depth perception and ability to isolate and efficiently capture prey, as well as to avoid obstacles.
  • Eyes fixed in sockets, so the owl's flexible neck is designed to turn up to 270 degrees

Barn owls have a distinctive call that can easily identified and certainly will never be forgotten once heard. The barn owl's high-pitched screeches or hiss-screams can be very loud. They make these sounds to warn their young of danger, to ward off enemies, announce their arrival at the nest and to proclaim their territory.

Barn owls are sometimes called "monkey-faced owls" because of their white, heart-shaped faces and dark eyes. These crow-sized owls are distinguished from other Washington owls by a pale face, long legs, light underparts and a rust-colored back speckled with black. Barn owls and other owls are classified in the same taxonomic order (Strigiformes), but barn owls are in a separate family (Tytonidae) because their skeletal structure and pale, stiff facial feathers differ from those of other owls in the family Strigidae.

Barn owls don't have ear tufts like great horned owls or screech owls. But this doesn't mean barn owls don't have ears. Ear tufts are just feathers; the owl's real ears are behind its round facial disks, which help direct sound into the ears. Barn owls' ears also are asymmetrical; they are different sizes and one is located higher on the head than the other. This enables the bird to sense direction and distance by differences in the intensity of the sound that reaches each ear. Barn owls use their ears to locate food. They are very accurate hunters, even in pitch darkness. Barn owls also have special feathers on the front edges of their wings that reduce the amount of noise they make when flying. Their quiet flight prevents prey from hearing them approach.

Food

Photo of Barn Owl feeding on field mouse.

Why are barn owls called one of Washington's best natural rodent traps? Because they eat 1.5 times their weight in food, mostly mice, meadow voles and pocket gophers each day. That's like a 100-pound person eating 150 pounds of food every day! A barn-owl family of two adults and six young may eat as many as 1,000 rodents during the nesting period. They are active in Washington year-round. Barn owls are primarily a nocturnal hunter, with limited daylight activity. Their excellent hearing helps them capture prey, which they usually swallow whole. They are unable to digest the fur, feathers or bones of the animals they eat, and cough up the undigested parts in a dark, fuzzy lump called an owl pellet. We can find out what an owl has eaten by examining the remains in the pellet. However, owl pellets should be examined cautiously since they may harbor potentially harmful organisms.

Barn owls hunt on the wing, from a perch, from hovers, stoops, and in open fields, wetlands, and grasslands. They also eat shrews, insects, crustaceans, small birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Recent studies have shown that decline in vole (and to a lesser degree, mouse) populations have an effect in reducing barn owl populations. These studies conclude that providing nest sites isn't enough to secure the survival of these fascinating night-flyers. Their hunting habitat and food supply must also be present.

Breeding and Habitat Ecology

Photo of Barn Owl feeding on field mouse.

When they are one year old, barn-owls are capable of breeding. The male courts the female by chasing her, bringing her mice and uttering a series of rapid squeaking noises. A pair may use the same nesting site each year. Barn owls may nest on ledges, crevices, or other sheltered areas of cliffs or human-made structures like attics and barns hence the name. They also nest in tree cavities or snags, burrows, culverts, or nest boxes.

Barn owls are known to breed year-round. In Washington they usually rear a brood of young in the spring and, if food and other conditions are favorable, they may rear a second brood in the late summer or early fall. Eggs are laid on a bare surface or, if the nest was used the previous year, on a thick mat of flattened pellets. The female lays an egg every two days until 4-10 white eggs are in the nest. When the first egg is laid, she begins incubating. Thus, when the first egg hatches about 30 days later, that owlet is older than the next one to hatch. It often is stronger and more able to take food from the parents.

Both adults provide food for their snow-white, down covered young. They bring prey to the nest, where the owlets swallow it whole. Sometimes competition for food is intense and younger nestlings don't fare as well as their older nestlings and may die. The older, stronger owlets may even eat the weaker ones. Great horned owls and raccoons also eat young barn owls. The young owls fledge in about 8-10 weeks.

Distribution and Current Status

Barn owls have a world-wide distribution and can be found in many parts of Europe, Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, Australia and North America. They live in temperate and tropical regions. Barn owl numbers and distribution are declining in many parts of the world as farmlands and nesting structures disappear from the landscape. The use of nest boxes where prey is still common has assisted barn owl recovery. 

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Barn Owls