Barn owls screech and scream, and they don’t sound anywhere near as attractive as they look. Barn owls don’t hoot – that’s tawny owls. To hear a barn owl call, screech and scream, and the sounds of other British owls, visit the Barn Owl Trust website.
The barn owl makes almost no noise when it flies. This enables it to hear the slightest sounds made by its rodent prey hidden in deep vegetation while the owl is flying up to three metres overhead.
The first important adaptation for silent flight is the overall shape of a barn owl’s wings. They’re broad and rounded with a high surface area, which means barn owls can glide for longer and don’t need to flap so much, creating less sound.
Then there’s the small-scale feather structure. Like other owls, barn owls have specially adapted primary flight feathers, which have a serrated leading edge to disrupt turbulence and prevent it from making any noise. All of this makes a barn owl in flight a perfect stealthy predator.
How good is a barn owl’s hearing?
The barn owl’s heart-shaped face collects sound in the same way as human ears. A barn owl’s hearing is the most sensitive of any creature tested, and it has ears (hidden beneath feathers) at slightly different heights to help calculate the precise source of tiny noises made by mice.
Are barn owls territorial?
Barn owls are not territorial. Adults live in overlapping home ranges, each one covering approximately 5,000 hectares. That’s a staggering 12,500 acres or 7,100 football pitches!
In order to live and breed, a pair of barn owls needs to eat around 5,000 prey items a year. These are mainly field voles, wood mice, and common shrews. On a good night outside of the breeding season, a barn owl will catch four or five tasty rodents.
However, barn owls will eat some other foods as well. Perhaps most surprisingly, it’s not uncommon for barn owl chicks in the nest to eat each other, which is incredibly rare behaviour in birds. This is only possible because the chicks don’t all hatch at the same time, so some will be significantly bigger than others.
Barn owls are usually monogamous, staying faithful to their partner until one of them dies. They often use the same nest site every year and have an elaborate courtship ritual to reestablish the pair bond every spring.
Though barn owls are capable of producing three broods of five to seven young each year, most breed only once and produce, on average, only two and a half young. Twenty-nine per cent of nests produce no young at all.
Where do barn owls live?
Because they mostly eat small rodents, barn owls are tied to the areas richest in small mammals – the perfect barn owl habitat is tussocky, unimproved grassland. And most people stand a good chance of being able to see one, as they’re one of the most widespread birds in the world. If you don’t live in a polar region or a desert, in Indonesia or in Asia north of the Himalayas, then there are probably barn owls somewhere nearby.
Seeing a barn owl requires luck at the best of times, and their populations tend to undergo a boom and bust cycle that follows the vole population, and can also be severely impacted by extremely cold or wet weather. Your best bet of seeing a barn owl is to stake out a vantage point with panoramic views of rough grassland or fen an hour before dusk on a calm evening, and sit tight to keep a low profile. Then bide your time.
Some of the best places to see barn owls in the UK are Dumfries & Galloway, north Norfolk, the Somerset levels and the Suffolk coast.
Captive barn owls have lived for as long as 25 years, which is likely the barn owl’s true lifespan, but the majority of wild barn owls don’t survive more than 10 years. In fact, only a third of barn owls survive long enough to reach breeding age, with predation by larger birds, starvation during lean winters and car collisions all posing a serious challenge to barn owls.
Ninety one per cent of barn owls that underwent a post-mortem were found to contain rat poison. Some owls die as a direct result of consuming rodenticides, but most contain sub-lethal doses. The effects of this remain unknown.
In a typical year, around 3,000 juvenile barn owls are killed on Britain’s motorways, dual carriageways and other trunk roads, which is about a third of all the young that fledge.
Add in modern intensive farming practises that don’t provide much habitat for prey species like mice and voles, and it’s no wonder that barn owl populations have declined so dramatically in recent years.
Everyone can help barn owls. Leave a patch of rough grassland to grow wild thus creating habitat for voles, erect a super-safe barn owl nest box, volunteer for your local barn owl group, switch to non-toxic rodent control and support charities working to conserve the barn owl.