Perhaps the most beloved owl, the Barn Owl is also considered the most widespread bird on Earth. Known also for their pale-cream coloring, heart-shaped face, and blood-chilling screams in the dead of night, this owl is a treat to see.
Denver Holt for the Owl Research Institute CD Hoots, Toots, Calls, Clacks, and Hisses
BARN OWLS IN HISTORY
The Barn Owl is considered the oldest of all owls in the world. In fact, the oldest known species of Barn Owl is 25-20 million years old. Long ago, there were two enormous species of Barn Owl, one in Cuba and the other in Italy. One species was at least twice the size of the Barn Owl we are familiar with in the United States today. Some believe they were large due to the size of prey available to them.
Barn Owls appear in folklore, mythology, and superstitions from the Middle Ages in the western world. Certain people and cultures saw owls as a sign of evil. Shakespeare used owls to represent death in his famous play, Macbeth. In the play, a witch is turned into an owl and the bird’s haunting shrieks are heard offstage during the murder of a character named Duncan. It was Shakespeare who coined the term "night owl," which is still commonly used today.
Above, an owl peeks out from Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510, Museo del Prado, Madrid)
However, owls haven't only been associated with evil historically. Some admired owls and claimed they had healing and protective powers. In England, Barn Owls were killed and hung on front doors as it was believed the bird’s presence would keep their livestock safe. In certain Greek cultures, it was believed that a soup containing owl eggs - made under a waning moon - would cure epilepsy patients. Other medicinal recipes claimed that eating an owl’s egg would cure one of alcoholism.
During the Renaissance, people’s strange views of owls began to transform. Painters and sculptors began to include owls in their work. A carving of a Barn Owl in Michelangelo’s Night was constructed for the tomb of Giuliano de Medici. Michelangelo's construction of the species is so anatomically accurate that some believe he kept a Barn Owl in his studio while completing the piece. By using Barn owls in such beautiful pieces, the perception of owls as evil shifted to represent wisdom and beauty.
Left, Barn Owl featured in Michelangelo's Night for the tomb of Giuliano.
Barn Owl's habitat began to change early on. In North America, European settlers in the 1600s began clearing forests and transforming grasslands into settlements. Such expansion eliminated small mammal habitat, pushing Barn Owls out in search of food. With this change in habitat, Barn Owls flourished in many areas until the 1920s and 30s. After this, however, declines began probably because of new agricultural practices, more changes in habitat, and other factors.
Right, John J. Audubon's Barn Owl, Plate 171
BARN OWL NESTING
Male and female Barn Owl pairs often stay together year-round, as long as both live. However, if one mate dies or disappears, the other will readily find another. Males feed females while they incubate eggs and brood the chicks, and females typically prepare the nest on their own. Female Barn owls have been known to shred their own pellets and line the nest with the material before laying their eggs. Female Barn Owls consume the feces of their young for the first 10 days of the chick's lives to keep the nest clean. After this, the young usually defecate off the edge of the nest. Therefore, keeping your eyes out for owl feces, called “whitewash”, will help you find Barn Owl nest sites!
Barn Owls are typically cavity nesters; and will also nests in cliffs, banks, caves, buildings, nest boxes, or abandoned nests of other birds. Females usually lay 4-7, and occasionally up to 16, dull-white, elongated eggs, laid asynchronously every 2-3 days. The incubation period is 29-35 days.
Barn Owl chicks in a cliff nest in western Montana.
© Ly Dang
© Karsten Reis
BARN OWL HUNTING
Barn Owls are highly nocturnal, which is one reason they are rarely spotted in the wild. It's also part of the reason they became associated with evil early on. Because these birds only came out in the dark and, therefore, only vocalized at night, they were seemingly eerie, secretive, and creepy. If you have ever heard a Barn Owl’s shrill scream, you will understand why people did not always find them loveable! Be sure to listen to the Barn Owl’s call above.
Since they hunt at night, when small mammals are active, Barn Owls rely more on their hearing than their vision while searching for prey. The Barn Owl possesses asymmetrical ear openings, like many other animals. With one ear higher than the other, and tilted in opposite directions, the bird can figure out exactly where a prey item is located. If the sound enters the lower ear first, the owl will pick up on this and realize that the animal is below him/her. If the left ear picks up the sound, the bird will know that the animal is to its left. This type of map-system allows the owl to pinpoint its prey, then silently swoop down and snatch up the creature. A Barn Owl’s soft, specialized feathers aid in this. Read about an owl’s special hunting adaptations on our Adaptations page HERE >>.
Both sexes of Barn Owls hunt throughout the year. However, females usually do not hunt during the nesting season. Instead, females stay back at the nest, incubating eggs or brooding chicks. The male is responsible for hunting for the whole family, frequently delivering food to the nest for her and her nestlings.
Despite the fact that they often hunt in complete or near-complete darkness, Barn Owls are very efficient hunters. In fact, these birds are so efficient at managing rodent populations that farmers and golf course owners are using them with success in pest control strategies. Using owls to control rodents is a non-toxic alternative to rodenticides which are responsible for countless secondary-poisoning deaths of Barn Owls.
BARN OWL APPEARANCE
Another name for the Barn Owl is the “Monkey-faced Owl.” This nickname rose from the bird’s extremely prominent facial disc, which directs sound towards its ears and light towards its pupils. Not all species of owl have such a distinctive facial disc, making the Barn Owl unique in appearance and heightened abilities to hunt in complete darkness.
The Barn Owl’s face is also unique due to its downward-pointing, light colored bill. Many people feel like it has a human-like appearance: with big, round eyes, and a unique bill that resembles a nose, these owls are often portrayed expressing human emotions such as curiosity, anger, exhaustion, etc.
Female Barn Owls tend to have darker plumage with more dark lines and larger spots than males. One unique study claimed to have found a correlation between the number/density of spots on the female and the offspring’s parasite resistance. This has not yet been confirmed by other studies.
BARN OWL THREATS
Barn Owls can coexist with humans successfully in urban and rural areas providing there is sufficient prey, roosting areas, and nesting availability. At one time, there was even a pair of Barn Owls nesting in the New York Yankees Stadium!
Many human encounters with Barn Owls do not end so happily, though. Vehicular collisions are a major cause of death for Barn Owls, especially as the young Barn Owls begin leaving the nest. Another major cause of death for the Barn Owl is chemical poisoning by pesticides and rodenticides. Pesticides enter an owl's body through their prey. The majority of a Barn Owls diet is small mammals, like voles, pocket gophers, and mice. When these tiny mammals consume grain, corn, or other pesticide-ridden bait, they become sick and lethargic - an easy target for a hungry owl. Once ingested, the poison-ridden prey may transfer enough poison to kill the owl. This is called secondary poisoning. While all owls are vulnerable to secondary poisoning, Barn Owls have the highest occurrence of documented deaths. While the problem is receiving more attention today, it is not a new phenomenon. As early as 1950 researchers in England recovered carcasses of Barn Owls and concluded that 40% of the birds had died at least partially by pesticide poisoning.
Additionally, studies have shown that pesticide residues are associated with decreased shell thickness. Weakened egg shells put the nest at risk for failure; the shells may break when the female is incubating, or the egg may lose too much moisture, inhibiting development for the chick inside.
Starvation is a cause of death for some young Barn Owls, as well. Although fratricide (siblings killing siblings) has not been reported in Barn Owls, cannibalism is not uncommon. If a sibling dies of starvation or another cause, other siblings may eat the deceased owlet in order to survive themselves. When times are not so desperate, young Barn Owls spend their free time pouncing on random objects over and over again as a form of play and entertainment.
BARN OWL FACTS:
A medium-sized white to light brown owl with heart-shaped face, long ivory to pinkish colored beak, and relatively small (compared to other owls), dark eyes
Males: great variety in plumage (feather coloring), chest and belly range in color from white to buff to light brown; back is usually rusty brown with some barring and spotting
Females: often darker plumage than males
Young: white to pale gray or buff (similar to adults)
Barn Owl, Cave Owl, Death Owl, Ghost Owl, Golden Owl, Monkey-faced Owl, Night Owl, Screech Owl, Silver Owl, White Owl
Common Barn Owl
BARN OWL SIZE:
Height: Males 32 - 40 cm (13 - 16 in), Females 32 - 40 cm (13 - 16 in)
Weight: Males 440 - 510 g (1.0 lbs), Females 510 - 625 g (1.2 lbs)
Wingspan: Males 100 - 125 cm (39 - 49 in), Females 100 - 125 cm (39 - 49 in)
BARN OWL RANGE:
In North America found in parts of British Columbia, most of the U.S., and into Mexico and the Caribbean, worldwide
BARN OWL HABITAT:
Diverse habitats; prefers open land with some trees, roosts and nests in barns, buildings, cliffs, and trees
BARN OWL DIET:
Almost exclusively small mammals like voles, mice, and rats; occasionally birds; rarely reptiles, amphibians, and arthropods
BARN OWL VOICE:
A wide range of calls during breeding: screeching, wheezing, purring, snoring, twittering, hissing, and yelping
Males: typical call is a hoarse, eerie sounding hissing
screech: “shreeeee, shreeeee”
Females: usually lower-pitched
BARN OWL NESTING:
Nest Site: usually a cavity nester; also nests in cliffs, banks, caves, buildings, nestboxes, or abandoned nests of other birds
Eggs: usually 4-7 (sometimes up to 16) dull-white, elongated eggs, laid asynchronously every 2-3 days
Incubation: 29-35 days
BARN OWL HUNTING HABITS:
Typically nocturnal; hunts mostly by low quartering flight over open habitats, occasionally from perch. Detects prey using excellent hearing and low-light vision
BARN OWL CONSERVATION STATUS:
Not globally threatened; decline in many areas.
BARN OWL RESEARCH:
See RESEARCH for The Owl Research Institute's study on Barn Owls
BARN OWL CLASSIFICATION
The Barn Owl is in a class of its own, literally!
Or to be more precise, the Barn Owl is in a family of its own. Not only does the Barn Owl look different than other owls, due to its heart-shaped face, short tail, and small eyes, it is actually classified in a different group than all other North American owls.
Scientists classify plant and animal species with a system called taxonomy, grouping species with similar characteristics into the same family. Most of the North American owl species are grouped together in a family called Strigidae, a.k.a. the “typical owls”. Barn Owls, however, belong to a family called Tytonidae, which comes from the Greek word tuto, which means, “night owl”.
BARN OWL DISTRIBUTION IN NORTH AMERICA
Maps provided by The Birds of North America Online and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Owl Research Institute, edited and arranged by Brooklin Hunt, VA, ORI Intern 2017-18.
“Barn Owl, Tyto alba”. Marti, Carl D, et al. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America. 01 June 2005. Birdsna.org
“Current Research: The Barn Owl/Rodent Project in California”. The Barn Owl Box Company. 2013-2017.
“Introducing Craves’s Giant Barn Owl, A New Species Named After Julie Craves”. Birdwatching Daily. 19 October 2015.