Barn owl guide: how they hunt and where to see in the UK

Learn about barn owl, including how they hunt silently, what they eat and best places to see in the UK.

Barn owl (Tyto alba) in flight at sunset

Britain’s favourite farmland bird

The barn owl was voted Britain’s favourite farmland bird by the public in an RSPB poll in July 2007.




How rare are barn owls?

Historically, the barn owl was Britain’s most common owl species, but today only one farm in about 75 can boast a barn owl nest.

Barn owl (Tyto alba) in hollow tree
Barn owl in a hollow tree. © Alan Walker/Getty

What sounds do barn owls make?

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.

Barn owl (Tyto alba) perched on post in field
Barn owl. © Zahoor Salmi/Getty

How do barn owls fly silently?

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!

Close up of a barn owl in flight during the day time (Tyto alba)
Barn owls will sometimes hunt during the day, especially in winter. © Mark Smith/Getty

What do barn owls eat?

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 Owl (Tyto alba) in flight carrying its prey
Barn Owl carrying its prey. © Kirk Norbury/Getty

How big are barn owls?

Barn owls are medium-sized predators, averaging about 36cm in length. The barn owl’s wingspan is usually between 80-95cm, but there’s a lot of variation across their range.

The largest barn owls live in Jamaica and Cuba, while the smallest are on the Galapagos Islands, where barn owls might weigh as little as a third as much as their larger Caribbean cousins.

Barn owl in the window of a barn, getting ready to hunt.
Barn owls get their name from their habit of hunting on farms and nesting in barns. © Gavin Bickerton-Jones/Getty

Do barn owls mate for life?

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.

Baby barn owls being fed a mouse by a parent
Baby barn owls being fed a mouse by a parent. © Hans Lang/Getty

How many chicks do barn owls have?

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.

Barn owl flying over typical winter habitat in Norfolk
Barn owl flying over typical winter habitat. © Dale Sutton/Getty

How long do barn owls live?

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.

Barn owl (Tyto alba) in flight
Barn owl in flight. © M Reinhardt/Getty

What threats do barn owls face?

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.

Barn owl dead after car collision, Tyto alba
Barn owl killed in a car collision. © Frans Lanting/Mint Images/Getty

What can you do to help barn owls?

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.

Barn owl in front of barn owl nest box
Putting up a barn owl nest box can be a huge help to your local barn owls. © gemredding/Getty

The Barn Owl Trust (BOT) is a small grassroots charity, and a great source of high-quality information about the species.