The barn owl is always popular because of its soft, round face and beautiful plumage. But, there is much about this bird that is hidden out of sight. These nocturnal hunters, hiding out in abandoned buildings, are actually widespread and a big asset to the countryside.
Barn owls can live in many habitats, including grassland, farmland, deserts, and agricultural fields. American barn owls are migratory, while European barn owls have one home range up to 25 km.
There is something about owls that we are often drawn to more than other birds of prey. Perhaps it is their association with wisdom or that they don’t seem as ferocious as eagles or hawks. Let’s look at where these fantastic birds of prey live.
One difference between the European and American barn owl is that the American species are migratory, whereas European birds stick to a home territory year-round. Those that spend their summer in more northern states may fly south where it is warmer in the winter. There are year-round ranges with good populations in southern states, while the mid-west areas classify the bird’s status as a serious concern. Barn owls can be found in every state except Alaska and throughout Canada.
This migration is important when it comes to hunting and finding enough food. Feeding in the spring and summer shouldn’t be too difficult when there are many animals out in the grasslands and meadows. But, in winter, this can get a lot more difficult if there is snow on the ground. The prey is harder to hear, and they may not have the power to get through the snow. Other owls in colder regions, such as snowy owls in the tundra, are much heavier and more powerful to break through that snow.
The American barn owl is not the same as the European barn owl. Some believe that there is just one type of barn owl globally, but the American species is around 50% heavier with shorter wings and long legs. This might not be apparent until you see the two side by side or if you are ever lucky enough to handle captive birds.
This size difference is important to where they live as it gives them more power to hunt larger prey over the grasslands and farmlands of the US. Unlike the European species, which may eat small rodents like mice and voles, the American barn owl can also feed on a lot of different rat species and is even known to predate ground squirrels and pocket gophers.
However, mice and voles remain at the top of the menu, and this is why barn owls can be found among areas containing high rodent populations. Studies into empty nests and remains suggest that the diets are also much more varied, with owls also taking amphibians where they can. If you come across a barn owl pellet, you can also learn a lot about their last meals.
These two birds still share a lot of physiological similarities to help them hunt. All barn owls are incredible hunters, thanks to a series of impressive adaptations. The first is their reliance on hearing. As they are nocturnal hunters, they aren’t going to see their prey out in the grasses, but can still hunt in areas of grassland and farmlands. They can hear a surprising amount and pinpoint the position of prey with great accuracy. This comes from the asymmetrical positioning of the ears on the head and satellite-dish style shape of the face.
Then there are the feathers on their wings. They have special edges to them that don’t create any friction or sound when rubbed together. This allows them to beat their wings and fly close to the ground without being heard. Even studies with high-tech parabolic equipment can struggle to pick up any noise.
Living With Humans
An interesting development is the owls’ use in an integrated pest management schemes in areas of agriculture, vineyards, and orchards. Landowners see the benefits of ridding their land of pests with this natural hunter rather than using chemicals. Furthermore, these schemes have resulted in many nest boxes going up around these sites, helping local populations.
Nest boxes are an important tool in conserving this species, as the birds can raise young in these specialist homes with ease. Landowners can place them in appropriate locations and provide better protection against other creatures that would predate the chicks. One such predator is the great horned owl. A study in Washington found that around 11% of their diet consisted of barn owl chicks
You can also find these owls nesting on ledges in abandoned buildings and barns – hence their name. When not breeding, they will find roosting sites close to their hunting ground to rest in during the day. These can vary as owls swap between them but are often parts of an abandoned building or tree holes.
Nest Boxes Help Chicks
When barn owls settle into their nesting site and mate with their partner, they lay their eggs over a period of time to stagger hatching. This means that the eldest can be feeding and growing as the youngest is still in the egg.
There are cases across the world with raptors in similar situations where the youngest becomes a potential source of food for the eldest in tough times. There is the potential for this with the barn owl, but barn owl cannibalism here is actually rare. In fact, there are accounts of barn owl siblings communicating and sharing their food so that the most hungry among them gets the most. When this works, parents could find themselves with the whole brood fledging.
Barn owls are charismatic, silent hunters that make a big difference to the countryside. You could go for years without seeing a barn owl or even realizing that they are in your local areas. They could be hiding out in abandoned buildings and hunting at night undetected. Hopefully, this beautiful bird will continue to play its role in managing rodent populations and helping cooperative landowners for a long time to come.