Barn owls are medium-sized owls with long legs that have feathers all the way down to their grey toes. They have large, round heads without ear tufts. Barn owls have rounded wings and a short tail that is covered with white or light-brown, downy feathers. They have a light brown spotted head and back, and a light grayish belly. Females are larger than males. They weigh 570 grams, while males weigh around 470 grams. Females also have a slightly longer body length (34 to 40 cm for females, 32 to 38 cm for males) and wingspan than males. The wingspan of barn owls ranges from 107 to 110 cm.
Barn owls are the most widespread of all owl species, and are found on every continent except Antarctica. In the Americas, barn owls occur in suitable habitat throughout South and Central America, and in North America as far north as the northern United States and southwestern British Columbia. In Europe, barn owls range from southern Spain to southern Sweden and east to Russia. They are also found throughout Africa, across central and southern Asia, and throughout Australia. Barn owls have been introduced to some oceanic islands to control rodent pests.
Barn owls are found in a variety of habitats from cities to rural areas. They are usually found at low elevations in open habitats, such as grasslands, deserts, marshes and agricultural fields. They need cavities for nesting, such as hollow trees, cavities in cliffs and riverbanks, nest boxes, caves, church steeples, barn lofts, and hay stacks. (Marti, 1992)
Barn owls are monogamous. Mated pairs usually stay together as long as both owls are alive.
Courtship begins with display flights by males which are accompanied by advertising calls and chasing the female. During the chase, both the male and the female screech. The male will also hover with feet dangling in front of the perched female for several seconds; these are known as moth flights.
Barn owls breed once per year. They can breed almost any time of the year, depending upon the food supply. Most barn owls first breed when they are 1 year old. Most barn owls raise one brood per year, but some pairs have raised up to three broods in one year
Barn owl pairs often use an old nest instead of building a new one. The female lines the nest with shredded pellets to make a soft surface for the eggs. She lays 2 to 18 eggs (usually 4 to 7). The female incubates the eggs for 29 to 34 days. The chicks are altricial, and must be brooded by the female for about 25 days after hatching. They leave the nest on their first flight 50 to 70 days after hatching, but they return to the nest to roost for 7 to 8 weeks. The chicks usually become independent from the parents 3 to 5 weeks after they begin flying. (Marti, 1992)
Female barn owls incubate the eggs and brood the chicks until the oldest chick is about 25 days old. The male brings food to the female and the chicks. The female tears up the food to feed it to the chicks. The female also keeps the nest clean by eats the feces of the chicks for the first few weeks after they hatch. The parents feed the chicks for up to 5 weeks after they fledge. (Marti, 1992)
Most barn owls do not live very long. Many only survive one breeding season. However, some individuals do live for many years. The oldest wild barn owl lived 34 years. (Marti, 1992)
Barn owls are solitary, or found in pairs. They are nocturnal, and roost during the day in tree cavities, cliff crevices, riverbanks, barns, nest boxes, churches steeples, and other man-made structures.
Barn owls are very efficient hunters. It is suspected that they spend much of their time loafing. Most barn owls are sedentary, though some individuals in the northern part of the range are migratory. (Marti, 1992)
In a study of barn owls in New Jersey, the average home range was 7.17 square kilometers. (Marti, 1992)
Barn owls communicate with vocalizations and physical displays. Owl chicks in the nest make several different calls. Chicks use a “twitter” call to express discomfort, to seek attention, and when quarreling with other chicks in the nest. They also give a raspy snoring food call.
Adults use a variety of vocalizations. Their common drawn-out gargling scream is an advertising call. They also use twitters to greet their mate and during courtship activities. Barn owls are vocal while breeding, but quiet during the rest of the year.
Barn owls have an amazing ability to locate prey by sound. They are better at this than any other animal that has been tested. Barn owls are so good at finding prey by hearing, that they capture prey that is hidden under vegetation or snow. Their ears are extremely sensitive and can be closed by small feathered flaps if the noise level is too loud. Barn owls also have excellent vision for seeing at night.
Barn owls begin hunting alone after sunset. They have excellent eyesight in near-darkness. When it is completely dark, owls use their excellent hearing to find prey. Owls have special feathers the make them very quiet fliers. They can attack an animal without being heard, which helps them hunt successfully. Barn owls attack their prey by flying low above the ground (1.5m-4.5 meters above the ground) and grabbing the prey with their feet. They use their bill to nip the prey through the back of the head to kill it, and then they swallow it whole. Barn owls save extra food to eat later, especially during the breeding season. (Marti, 1992)
Barn owls do not have many predators. Nestlings are sometimes taken by stoats and snakes. Adults may be killed by great horned owls occasionally. Barn owls in western Europe are much smaller than those in North America. These owls are sometimes killed by golden eagles, red kites, goshawks, buzzards, peregrine falcons, lanners, eagle owls and tawny owls.
When facing an intruder, barn owls squint their eyes, spread their wings and sway their head back and forth while hissing. If the intruder is not scared away by this display, the owl falls on its back and strikes at the intruder with its feet. (Marti, 1992)
Barn owls affect the populations of the mammal and bird species that they prey upon. They also provide food for those species that prey upon them. Barn owls are also host to several parasites. (Marti, 1992)
There are no negative impacts of barn owls on humans.
Barn owls limit rodent pest populations, benefiting farmers and others.
Barn owl populations are decreasing in some areas. In some northern regions, snow is staying on the ground longer. This makes it difficult for barn owl to find food and survive the winter. Barn owls are also poisoned by pesticides that are used to kill weeds or crop pests. Finally, barn owls used to be able to nest successfully on many farms. However, newer farms have fewer buildings for nesting and fewer rodents for food, so they are not very good habitat for barn owls.
Barn owls are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act and under CITES Appendix II. They are not federally threatened or endangered in the United States, but they are protected in some U.S. states--including Michigan, where they are considered endangered. (Marti, 1992)
Kathleen Bachynski (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Marie S. Harris (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
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2003. "The Owl Pages" (On-line). Accessed January 26, 2004 at http://www.owlpages.com/species/tyto/alba/Default.htm.
Marti, C. 1992. Barn Owl. Pp. 1-15 in A Poole, P Stettenheim, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 1. Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington DC: The American Ornithologists' Union.