This weekend’s critter is the barn owl (Tyto Alba), one of the most widespread birds in the world, but one not commonly seen here in Ohio or West Virginia.
Barn owls have a distinctive, white, heart-shaped face with large black eyes, a light tan and gray back and wings, and a nearly white belly. Adults can reach 13-14 inches long with a wingspan of three-and-a-half to four feet.
As you can probably guess by the name, barn owls can be found in barns, old abandoned houses, farm silos, church steeples and similar places. The locations that barn owls prefer to haunt, their nocturnal habits and vocalizations have no doubt lent credence to many a “haunted” old barn or abandoned house story.
For one thing, a barn owl isn’t going to hoot at you if you disturb it. A hoot is not part of a barn owl’s repertoire – if something hoots at you it isn’t a barn owl. What is part of a barn owls vocabulary, however, is an unearthly, bone-chilling shriek, undoubtedly causing many people to beat a hasty, full-fledged retreat (or a tactical advance to the rear, if you prefer).
Owls in general are the subject of much folklore, considered good luck by some, and bad luck by others. In more superstitious times, the owl’s nocturnal and stealthy nature caused them to be feared and associated with witchcraft – the hoot of an owl presaged imminent death (including the death of Julius Caesar, according to William Shakespeare). Of course if people in medieval Europe had better understood the nature of infectious diseases and how they are transmitted, they may have valued owls and encouraged their presence since they eat the rodents that can carry diseases.
The barn owl is rare in Ohio where it is currently listed as threatened. In West Virginia it is listed as “imperiled.” In other parts of its range, the barn owl is common.
The barn owl, like the bobwhite quail, wasn’t typically found in pre-settlement Ohio. Barn owls moved into Ohio during the late 1800s after much of Ohio’s original forests were cut down. Wooden barns and silos made nearly perfect nesting sites for the owls, and the grasslands, hayfields and pastures made ideal hunting sites. The first reported sighting of a barn owl was in 1861 and their population peaked in the 1930s, according to the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Changes in agriculture, transitioning from grass to row crops, reforestation, and other factors played a role in the decline.
The barn owl, despite its spooky nature, is more of a benefit than a bane, and savvy farmers will encourage them to nest in their barns knowing that an individual barn owl will eat a couple of thousand voles each year, with a family devouring about 6,000 voles or mouse-sized rodents per year. Instructions for constructing and installing barn owl nest boxes can be easily found on the internet.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife has been tracking barn owl nest boxes over the past several years, and recently installed three nest boxes in three townships in Meigs County that were identified as having suitable barn owl habitat. My part in this was helping locate willing farmers, who were more than willing to host a critter that will eat scores of field mice and voles.
Predators of the Barn Owl include large opossums, raccoons and similar carnivorous mammals, as well as hawks, eagles and other owls. As you may expect, the biggest threats are humans (cars, etc.) and their pets, in particular house or feral cats.
The ODNR Division of Wildlife continues to track barn owl nests. Please call the ODNR Division of Wildlife at 1-800-WILDLIFE (945-3543) or email firstname.lastname@example.org to report a barn owl nesting or living near you. In West Virginia, email DNR Wildlife Resources Section biologist Rich Bailey at email@example.com
In addition, WVDNR is looking for help in locating whippoorwills. People who see or hear whippoorwills in West Virginia through July 31 are encouraged to contact Bailey at the above email address giving him the date and specific location, whether you saw or heard the bird, your name and telephone number.
Jim Freeman is wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org