The barn owl is always popular because of its soft, round face and beautiful plumage. But, much about this bird is hidden out of sight. These nocturnal hunters, hiding in abandoned buildings, are widespread and a significant 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 essential when it comes to hunting and finding enough food. Feeding in the spring and summer shouldn’t be too difficult when many animals are out in the grasslands and meadows. But, in winter, this can get a lot more difficult if snow is on the ground. The prey is harder to hear, and they may not have the power to get through the snow. 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 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 vital 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 many 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, which is why barn owls can be found in areas containing high rodent populations. Studies into empty nests and remains suggest that the diets are 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 many physiological similarities to help them hunt. Thanks to a series of impressive adaptations, all barn owls are incredible hunters. 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 the satellite-dish style shape of the face.
Then there are the feathers on their wings. They have unique edges that don’t create 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 exciting development is the owls’ use in 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 essential tool in conserving this species, as the birds can raise young in these specialist homes easily. 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 discover roosting sites close to their hunting ground to rest 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 some time to stagger hatching. This means that the eldest can feed and grow 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 food source for the eldest in tough times. There is the potential for this with the barn owl, but barn owl cannibalism here is rare. There are accounts of barn owl siblings communicating and sharing their food so that the most hungry among them get 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 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.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.