Barn Owl 1Description

The barn owl is a medium-sized, pale-coloured owl with long wings and a short, squarish tail. There is considerable size variation across the subspecies with a typical specimen measuring about 33 to 39 cm (13 to 15 in) in overall length, with a wingspan of some 80 to 95 cm (31 to 37 in). Adult body mass is also variable with male owls from the Galapagos weighing 260 g (9.2 oz) while male Pacific barn owls average 555 g (19.6 oz). In general, owls living on small islands are smaller and lighter, perhaps because they have a higher dependence on insect prey and need to be more manoeuvrable.[16] The shape of the tail is a means of distinguishing the barn owl from typical owls when seen in the air. Other distinguishing features are the undulating flight pattern and the dangling, feathered legs. The pale face with its heart shape and black eyes give the flying bird a distinctive appearance, like a flat mask with oversized, oblique black eyeslits, the ridge of feathers above the bill somewhat resembling a nose.[17]

The bird’s head and upper body typically vary between pale brown and some shade of grey (especially on the forehead and back) in most subspecies. Some are purer, richer brown instead, and all have fine black-and-white speckles except on the remiges and rectrices (main wing feathers), which are light brown with darker bands. The heart-shaped face is usually bright white, but in some subspecies it is brown. The underparts, including the tarsometatarsal (lower leg) feathers, vary from white to reddish buff among the subspecies, and are either mostly unpatterned or bear a varying number of tiny blackish-brown speckles. It has been found that at least in the continental European populations, females with more spotting are healthier than plainer birds. This does not hold true for European males by contrast, where the spotting varies according to subspecies. The bill varies from pale horn to dark buff, corresponding to the general plumage hue, and the iris is blackish brown. The toes, like the bill, vary in colour, ranging from pink to dark pinkish-grey and the talons are black.[2][12]

On average within any one population, males tend to have fewer spots on the underside and are paler in colour than females. The latter are also larger with a strong female T. alba of a large subspecies weighing over 550 g (19.4 oz), while males are typically about 10% lighter. Nestlings are covered in white down, but the heart-shaped facial disk becomes visible soon after hatching.[18]

Contrary to popular belief, the barn owl does not hoot (such calls are made by typical owls, like the tawny owl or other members of the genus Strix). It instead produces the characteristic shree scream, ear-shattering at close range, an eerie, long-drawn-out shriek. Males in courtship give a shrill twitter. Both young and old can hiss like a snake to scare away intruders. Other sounds produced include a purring chirrup denoting pleasure, and a “kee-yak”, which resembles one of the vocalisations of the tawny owl. When captured or cornered, the barn owl throws itself on its back and flails with sharp-taloned feet, making for an effective defence. In such situations it may emit rasping sounds or clicking snaps, produced probably by the bill but possibly by the tongue.[17][19]


The barn owl is the most widespread land bird species in the world, occurring in every continent except Antarctica.[20] Its range includes all of Europe (except Fennoscandia and Malta), most of Africa apart from the Sahara, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Australia, many Pacific Islands, North, Central and South America.[20] In general it is considered to be sedentary, and indeed many individuals, having taken up residence in a particular location, remain there even when better foraging areas nearby become vacant. In the British Isles, the young seem largely to disperse along river corridors and the distance travelled from their natal site averages about 9 km (5.6 mi).[21]

In Australia there is some migration as the birds move towards the northern coast in the dry season and southward in the wet, and also nomadic movements in association with rodent plagues. Occasionally, some of these birds turn up on Norfolk Island, Lord Howe Island or New Zealand, showing that crossing the ocean is not beyond their capabilities.[2] In 2008, barn owls were recorded for the first time breeding in New Zealand.[22] 

Behaviour and ecology

Like most owls, the barn owl is nocturnal, relying on its acute sense of hearing when hunting in complete darkness. It often becomes active shortly before dusk and can sometimes be seen during the day when relocating from one roosting site to another. 

Barn owls are not particularly territorial but have a home range inside which they forage. For males in Scotland this has a radius of about 1 km (0.6 mi) from the nest site and an average size of about 300 hectares. Female home ranges largely coincide with that of their mates. Outside the breeding season, males and females usually roost separately, each one having about three favoured sites in which to conceal themselves by day, and which are also visited for short periods during the night. Roosting sites include holes in trees, fissures in cliffs, disused buildings, chimneys and haysheds and are often small in comparison to nesting sites. As the breeding season approaches, the birds move back to the vicinity of the chosen nest to roost.[25]

The barn owl is a bird of open country such as farmland or grassland with some interspersed woodland, usually at altitudes below 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) but occasionally as high as 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) in the tropics. This owl prefers to hunt along the edges of woods or in rough grass strips adjoining pasture. It has an effortless wavering flight as it quarters the ground, alert to the sounds made by potential prey. Like most owls, the barn owl flies silently; tiny serrations on the leading edges of its flight feathers and a hairlike fringe to the trailing edges help to break up the flow of air over the wings, thereby reducing turbulence and the noise that accompanies it. Hairlike extensions to the barbules of its feathers, which give the plumage a soft feel, also minimise noise produced during wingbeats.[26] 

Diet and feeding

The diet of the barn owl has been much studied; the items consumed can be ascertained from identifying the prey fragments in the pellets of indigestible matter that the bird regurgitates. Studies of diet have been made in most parts of the bird’s range, and in moist temperate areas over 90% of the prey tends to be small mammals, whereas in hot, dry, unproductive areas, the proportion is lower, and a great variety of other creatures are eaten depending on local abundance. Most prey is terrestrial but bats and birds are also taken, as well as lizards, amphibians and insects. Even when they are plentiful and other prey scarce, earthworms do not seem to be consumed.[28]

Mice and rats form the main foodstuffs in  Australia. Barn owls are usually more specialist feeders in productive areas and generalists in drier areas.[28] 

Barn Owl 2The barn owl hunts by flying slowly, quartering the ground and hovering over spots that may conceal prey. It may also use branches, fence posts or other lookouts to scan its surroundings. The bird has long, broad wings, enabling it to manoeuvre and turn abruptly. Its legs and toes are long and slender which improves its ability to forage among dense foliage or beneath the snow and gives it a wide spread of talons when attacking prey.[26] Studies have shown that an individual barn owl may eat one or more voles (or their equivalent) per night, equivalent to about twenty-three percent of the bird’s bodyweight. Excess food is often cached at roosting sites and can be used when food is scarce.[35]

Small prey is usually torn into chunks and eaten completely including bones and fur, while prey larger than about 100 g (4 oz), such as baby rabbits, Cryptomys blesmols, or Otomys vlei rats, is usually dismembered and the inedible parts discarded. Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, the barn owl does not eat domestic animals on any sort of regular basis. Regionally, non-rodent foods are used as per availability. On bird-rich islands, a barn owl might include some fifteen to twenty percent of birds in its diet, while in grassland it will gorge itself on swarming termites, or on Orthoptera such as Copiphorinae katydids, Jerusalem crickets (Stenopelmatidae) or true crickets (Gryllidae). Bats and even frogs, lizards and snakes may make a minor but significant contribution to the diet; small Soricomorpha like Suncus shrews may be a secondary prey of major importance.[14][27][32]

The barn owl has acute hearing, with ears placed asymmetrically. This improves detection of sound position and distance and the bird does not require sight to hunt. The facial disc plays a part in this process, as is shown by the fact that with the ruff feathers removed, the bird can still locate the source in azimuth but fails to do so in elevation.[36] Hunting nocturnally or crepuscularly, this bird can target its prey and dive to the ground, penetrating its talons through snow, grass or brush to seize small creatures with deadly accuracy. Compared to other owls of similar size, the barn owl has a much higher metabolic rate, requiring relatively more food. Weight for weight, barn owls consume more rodents—often regarded as pests by humans—than possibly any other creature. This makes the barn owl one of the most economically valuable wildlife animals for agriculture. Farmers often find these owls more effective than poison in keeping down rodent pests, and they can encourage barn owl habitation by providing nest sites.[37]


Barn owls living in tropical regions can breed at any time of year, but some seasonality in nesting is still evident. Where there are distinct wet and dry seasons, egg-laying usually takes place during the dry season, with increased rodent prey becoming available to the birds as the vegetation dies off. In arid parts of Australia, breeding may be irregular and may happen in wet periods, triggered by temporary increases in the populations of small mammals. In temperate climates, nesting seasons become more distinct and there are some seasons of the year when no egg-laying takes place.

Females are ready to breed at ten to eleven months of age although males sometimes wait till the following year. Barn owls are usually monogamous, sticking to one partner for life unless one of the pair dies. During the non-breeding season they may roost separately, but as the breeding season approaches they return to their established nesting site, showing considerable site fidelity. In colder climates, in harsh weather and where winter food supplies may be scarce, they may roost in farm buildings and in barns between hay bales, but they then run the risk that their selected nesting hole may be taken over by some other, earlier-nesting species. Single males may establish feeding territories, patrolling the hunting areas, occasionally stopping to hover, and perching on lofty eminences where they screech to attract a mate. Where a female has lost her mate but maintained her breeding site, she usually seems to manage to attract a new spouse.[39]

Once a pair-bond has been formed, the male will make short flights at dusk around the nesting and roosting sites and then longer circuits to establish a home range. When he is later joined by the female, there is much chasing, turning and twisting in flight, and frequent screeches, the male’s being high-pitched and tremulous and the female’s lower and harsher. At later stages of courtship, the male emerges at dusk, climbs high into the sky and then swoops back to the vicinity of the female at speed. He then sets off to forage. The female meanwhile sits in an eminent position and preens, returning to the nest a minute or two before the male arrives with food for her. Such feeding behaviour of the female by the male is common, helps build the pair-bond and increases the female’s fitness before egg-laying commences.[39]

Before commencing laying, the female spends much time near the nest and is entirely provisioned by the male. Meanwhile, the male roosts nearby and may cache any prey that is surplus to their requirements. When the female has reached peak weight, the male provides a ritual presentation of food and copulation occurs at the nest. The female lays eggs on alternate days and the clutch size averages about five eggs (range two to nine). The eggs are chalky white, somewhat elliptical and about the size of bantam’s eggs, and incubation begins as soon as the first egg is laid. While she is sitting on the nest, the male is constantly bringing more provisions and they may pile up beside the female. The incubation period is about thirty days, hatching takes place over a prolonged period and the youngest chick may be several weeks younger than its oldest sibling. In years with plentiful supplies of food, there may be a hatching success rate of about 75%. The male continues to copulate with the female when he brings food which makes the newly hatched chicks vulnerable to injury.[39]

The chicks are at first covered with greyish-white down and develop rapidly. Within a week they can hold their heads up and shuffle around in the nest. The female tears up the food brought by the male and distributes it to the chicks. Initially these make a “chittering” sound but this soon changes into a food-demanding “snore”. By two weeks old they are already half their adult weight and look naked as the amount of down is insufficient to cover their growing bodies. By three weeks old, quills are starting to push through the skin and the chicks stand, making snoring noises with wings raised and tail stumps waggling, begging for food items which are now given whole. The male is the main provider of food until all the chicks are at least four weeks old at which time the female begins to leave the nest and starts to roost elsewhere. By the sixth week the chicks are as big as the adults but have slimmed down somewhat by the ninth week when they are fully fledged and start leaving the nest briefly themselves. They are still dependent on the parent birds until about thirteen weeks and receive training from the female in finding, and eventually catching, prey.[39]

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