Few bird species occur in as many countries around the world as the 28 subspecies of Barn Owl. Changes to habitat and agricultural practices have reduced populations in some areas, but providing artificial nest boxes has helped Barn Owl populations in other areas.
The left and right ears of Barn Owls are not at the same height on their skull. This unusual placement of their ears allows Barn Owls to locate and capture mice and other prey by sound alone, even in total darkness.
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Description of the Barn Owl
The Barn Owl has tawny and gray upperparts, a large, heart-shaped pale face with dark eyes, and long legs. Length: 16 in. Wingspan: 42 in.
Females have tawny underparts.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles wear a second covering of natal down, grayish-white or buffy in color.
Barn Owls inhabit semi-open country with barns and scattered trees.
Barn Owls eat rodents.
Barn Owls forage at night, flying low and listening for prey.
Barn Owls are resident throughout much of the U.S., except for some northern and central portions. It is a cosmopolitan species, occurring on six continents. The population is declining.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Barn Owl.
Barn Owls have asymmetrically placed ears for triangulating sound, allowing them to catch rodents in pitch darkness.
Barn Owls can nest at any time of year in some locations if food supplies are plentiful.
A common call consists of a rasping shriek.
The Barn Owl does not construct a nest, though it may excavate a tunnel into a dirt bank. It frequently nests in old barns, dry wells, church steeples, or nest boxes.
Number: usually 4-8.
Color: White in color.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 30 days, and leave the nest in about another 45-60 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Barn Owl
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Barn Owl – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
AMERICAN BARN OWL
TYTO ALBA PRATINCOLA (Bonaparte)HABITS
The North American form of this world-wide species is widely distributed throughout the warmer portions of the United States; it is rare in the northern tier of States, north of latitude 410, but it increases in abundance southward and is especially abundant in southern California. It is widely known locally as the “monkey-faced owl” and has also been called “white owl”, “stone owl”, and “golden owl”, the last a pretty and appropriate name.
Owls have always been victims of ignorance and superstition, believed to be birds of ill omen and harbingers of misfortune and death; and the barn owl, in particular, has been responsible for many reports of haunted houses. But, in spite of its sinister appearance and its ghostlike habits, this curious owl is one of our best feathered friends, most worthy of encouragement and protection, as a most efficient living mousetrap.
Nesting: As I have had ‘very little experience with the barn owl, I quote the following comprehensive statement by Bendire (1892):
Their nesting sites are quite variable and include all sorts of places, such as natural hollows in trees, holes and cavities in clay banks or cliffs, burrows under ground enlarged to suit their needs, in the sides of old wells, abandoned mining shafts, dovecots, barns, church steeples, etc., and sometimes, though rarely, in perfectly exposed and unprotected situations, such as the flat roof of an occupied dwelling-house in the midst of a village.
Mr. W. 0. Emerson, of Haywards, California, writes me: “A pair of Barn Owls nested the past season (1889) on the bare tin roof running around a cupola of a neighbor’s house, which was surrounded by a low railing. Not less than twenty-four eggs were laid and none of them were taken away at any time. There was no nesting material on which the eggs were placed, not even a single twig, and they naturally rolled around on the roof, as it was impossible for the bird to cover them all. When taken down finally and examined, it was found they were all rotten, caused, no doubt, by the intense heat from the sun’s reflection on the tin roof.”
Writing of his experience with the barn owl in Arizona, Major Bendire (1892) says: “In this vicinity I believe they nest mostly in deserted burrows of badgers, at any rate more than once I saw them sitting in the mouth of such burrows.”
The only nest of a barn owl that I have ever examined was shown to me by E. Lowell Sumner, Jr., near Claremont, Calif., on February 28, 1929 (p1. 26). It was in a large, horizontal, natural cavity, about 12 feet from the ground, in a thick, gnarled branch of a low-spreading live oak; the owl flew out, as I climbed to the nest, and did not appear again; the cavity was so deep that I could barely reach the eight eggs that lay at the farther end on a bed of rotten chips, rubbish, and bits of down. The nest had been occupied on previous occasions.
As far as I can learn, from the experiences of others, the barn owl shows a decided preference, in California at least and apparently in Texas also, for nesting in cavities, holes, or burrows, in cliffs or steep banks, which are easily found or made in the numerous branches or gullies to be found in that region. Dr. B. W. Evermann (1882) says:
The site selected for the nest is most usually a hole or crack in the wall of a baranca or cliff. During the past season, I examined more than thirty nests, at least five-sixths of which were thus located. The entrance to these holes, if in branches, is usually eight to ten feet from the surface of the ground; if in cliffs, any suitable place on the face is selected. The cavity usually extends inward nearly horizontally for a foot or more, then bends down slightly, continuing at that angle for two to three feet, slightly widening to the end where it is quite commodious, being often as much as two feet in diameter. For some time it was a perplexing question to me as to how and by what these holes were excavated. After careful investigation, I am convinced that the owls themselves make many of them. A slight crevice or squirrel hole is selected, and, with their powerful claws, they hollow it out to proper dimensions. Both birds are frequently found occupying the cavity during the day,: the male to one side of the nest.
* * * We visited a deep baranca a few miles east of Santa Paula, where we knew them to be abundant. * * * We dug down to eleven nests altogether, from six of which we got forty-four eggs, ranging from six to ten eggs to the nest.
But the burrows are not always selected. Two nests were found in holes in oak trees, one was found in a barn, * * * and in April, 1880, I found a pair occupying the deserted nest of a crow, which was placed about twenty feet from the ground in a cottonwood. I visited this nest at two different times before taking the eggs (five in number), and drove the female from the nest on each occasion. The use of a nest of this kind by the Barn Owl is very rare, I think; careful search failed to discover a second instance of this kind.
* * * As to whether it constructs any nest seems to depend entirely where it nests; if in holes in cliffs, trees, or walls, no lining is used; if in barns or houses, it constructs a rude nest of sticks or other rubbish easily brought together.
Julian K. Potter and John A. Gillespie (1925) made some extensive studies of the home life of a pair of barn owls near Gloucester, N. J. The nesting site was in an old tower (p1. 27), “a frame building of three stories shaped like a truncated pyramid, with a water tank at the top. It was in an extremely dilapidated state of repair, and the window panes were entirely missing.” The nest was in a “hole in the floor just in front of the stairway leading to the roof and about three feet from the open window. * * * The nest cavity was approximately twenty inches deep, fifteen inches wide and eight inches high, the sides being formed by vertical floor beams, and the top and bottom by the floor and the ceiling of the room below. * * * No nesting material of any description was in evidence except a small clump of black feathers which possibly once belonged to a Starling.”
Ivan R. Tomkins writes to me that “a nest of the barn owl was found in one of the steel range lights on the Savannah River, March 30, 1929, with five eggs (p1. 27). The nest was in a steel box about 2 feet square, with part of the west side open to the sun, under the light, and was liberally carpeted with pellets. The keeper of the light says the owl has nested there for about four years.”
A. B. Howell (1912), referring to the Todos Santos Islands, writes: “April 16 I found a nest in a deep cleft in the rocks, twenty feet above the sea, which contained a single nestling two-thirds grown. This site was newly occupied, but on a ledge four feet above the floor of a cave on the higher ground was a nest that must have been used for generations. Beneath it was a pile of refuse and pellets two or three feet high.”
W. E. D. Scott (1892) reports “a pair breeding on the hull of an abandoned dredge that had belonged to the company engaged in draining and reclaiming land in the vicinity of Lake Okeechobee.”
Eggs: Major Bendire (1892) says: “The average number of eggs laid by this species is from five to seven, seldom less. Larger sets containing from nine to eleven eggs are by no means uncommon; it is questionable, however, if every egg in such large sets is usually hatched.
“In shape the eggs are mostly ovate, a few are elliptical ovate, and a single specimen before me is elongate ovate. They are pure dead white in color, the shell is finely granulated, and they are decidedly more pointed than Owls’ eggs in general.”
The measurements of 59 eggs average 43.1 by 33 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 48.8 by 32.5, 43.5 by 35, 39.8 by 33.3, and 40.5 by 27.5 millimeters.
Young: The eggs are laid at intervals of two or three days, and incubation begins soon after the first egg is laid; consequently the young hatch at similar intervals and vary greatly in size. The period of incubation is said to be from 21 to 24 days. Bendire (1892) says that “both sexes assist in incubation, and the pair may be sometimes found sitting side by side, each with a portion of the eggs under them.”
E. L. Sumner, Jr. (1929) has made some intensive studies of young barn owls. On March 4, 1928, he found that three of a set of eight eggs had hatched, and says in his notes: “All three whimper continually, in feeble tones. The oldest is able to stand up, although weakly and with nodding head.” On March 10, only two eggs remained unhatched. On the 17th, the oldest “hisses harshly when handled, but is still quite docile. It stands up and walks about with ease.” March 26: “The youngsters are quite lively, even the smallest. When set down in the long grass they stand up to their fullest height and crane their necks in search of a hiding place. As yet, all the birds can be handled without danger. When disturbed, a and b (the oldest two) hiss harshly and sway from side to side with heads lowered and extended wings inverted, after the manner of owls. If further provoked they throw themselves on their backs and strike out with both feet.” April 16: “Youngsters more active and aggressive than ever. When placed on the ground they strike at each other, as well as at any other object that comes within range, and at times they even assume the offensive; running toward me with open beaks and upraised, inverted wings.”
From that time on, the young became more pugnacious, until, on April 27, he called the “actions of young positively unprintable”; and on the 6th of May, he had to tie them down to keep them from flying away. On May 27, the youngest bird left the nest. An interesting discovery was that, when between six and seven weeks old, every one of the birds began to lose weight, though before that they had exceeded the average weight of adults.
Messrs. Potter and Gillespie (1925) made several visits to the barn owl’s nest in the old tower, referred to above. On their second visit, on May 13, 1924, the nest contained seven young, three days to two weeks old. The youngest “was a pitiful, bedraggled and filthy little fellow, having evidently been trampled on by the others. In size he was little larger than a baby chick, and at times he uttered a faint, tremulous whine. The rest were of assorted sizes, the largest about the size of a Pigeon. Dark colored pin feathers were in evidence in the wings of the two largest. * * * The cavity was inspected and was found to be in an exceedingly filthy condition,: the floor covered with a layer of casts powdered into a furry mass by the feet of the young. Yet in such unsanitary surroundings the fledglings, with the exception of the smallest, were clean, except their feet, which were quite filthy.”
On June 9, “dusk was falling, but it was still light at eight p. m. when one of the young ones made the initial call for food. This is a rasping, sucking noise, and can readily be imitated by drawing in the breath sharply through the corner of the mouth, keeping the teeth closed. This is, no doubt, the ‘snoring’ call described by Dresser (Knowlton, ‘Birds of the World,’ page 516). It might also be likened to the sound made by an ill-mannered person eating soup! It actually sounds as if the bird’s mouth were watering in anticipation of food, and it kept sucking back the saliva. The others soon joined in the call, which by eight-fifteen was very insistent.”
At 9.00 p. in., “adult Owl drops on window-sill and then to floor as before. We flash light on her. She stands at entrance to nest peering down. Either a pine or a short-tailed field mouse hangs from her bill by the back of its neck. She appears to be waiting for the young to take the mouse, but they are raising a great racket under the floor, apparently afraid of the light. The adult bird disappears into the cavity, feeds the young and reappears. The light seems to daze her as she looks toward us with black, blinking eyes. * * * Suddenly she jumps and flies directly toward us, lighting on the stairs about seven feet from where we sit. * * * Then she seems to spy the window and silently glides out into the night.”
Another, similar feeding was observed at 9.18. Summing up their observations, they say: “Both adults participated in the feeding. Female an ‘earlier riser,’ her earliest visit made at 8.20 P. M. while male put in his initial appearance at 9.45 P. M. Under normal conditions the feedings no doubt continue throughout the night, but during our observation the adults were frightened and paid fewer visits. Feedings were in the ratio of two by the female to one by the male. The first evening the bringing of food was witnessed, the female, obviously suspicious of our presence but not alarmed, brought three mice within a period of fifty-three minutes.”
They learned by subsequent observations that the young owls were ready to leave the nest and fly out into the world “seven and one-half to eight weeks subsequent to hatching.” And they inferred, from the sounds heard and the behavior of the adults, that the young lived in the surrounding trees and were fed by their parents for some time after leaving the nest. They describe the following calls of the young:
(1) A high-pitched quavering whine uttered by recently hatched fledgling before eyes were open.
(2) A loud hiss uttered through the open mouth, expressing alarm. As the fledglings develop in size this hiss gradually changes into a throaty, hissing scream devoid of tone, which presumably later becomes the adult “scream.”
(3) A short rasping call, or “snore” (Dresser). This is the food call and varies considerably in pitch.
(4) A discordant scream, similar to that of the adult, but of shorter duration and higher pitch. Uttered on the wing at age of approximately 10~ weeks.
A young bird handled by Howard H. Cleaves (1910) uttered “a plaintive chi-le-le-le, chi-le-1-Ie, chi-le-le-le, repeated very rapidly.”
Plumages: The young barn owl is easily recognized at any age by its much prolonged and pointed face, exceeding all other owls in this respect. It also differs from other owls in its sequence of downs, having at first a fuzzy, white down, which is followed by a woolly, buffy-white down; it never acquires a long, fluffy, soft, juvenal plumage, so characteristic of other young owls; this is probably due to the fact that the first winter plumage is acquired at a very early age and is nearly complete when the bird leaves the nest. E. Lowell Sumner, Jr. (1933) has described this very well as follows:
The fuzzy white nestling down is the only covering of the young barn owl until about the sixth day. At this time the buff-colored second downy plumage begins to appear, and carries the earlier down away on its tips. This second down rapidly develops Into the thick, woolly covering which is so characteristic of young barn owls, and remains as a conspicuous feature until the bird is about fifty days of age. At this time close examination reveals traces of the short nestling down still adhering to the tips of the second coat through which, on the wings, the dark tips of the developing primaries are beginning to push their way. The rest of the contour feathers are as yet invisible and have not emerged from the follicles.
Mr. Sumner’s plates (1933) show that at an age of 26 days the primary quills are beginning to burst their sheaths, but the wing coverts are still downy; at 44 days the primaries are well advanced, and the down is rubbing off, disclosing the first winter plumage; at 66 days the development of the wing is practically complete.
Potter and Gillespie (1925) describe the development of their young barn owls as follows: “Pin feathers in wings appeared in approximately twelve days. Primaries and tail feathers acquired in approximately three weeks. Complete wing and tail feathers acquired in five to five and a half weeks. Complete adult plumage acquired in approximately seven and a half weeks.”
Most authors state that the first winter plumage, which is the first real plumage, is like that of the adult, but it seems to me that there are some slight differences; the gray “pepper and salt” markings on the upper parts are less extensive and more mixed with buffy tints; the crown and hind neck, which are uniform with the back in adults, vary from “cinnamon-buff” to “cream-buff”, sparingly spotted with the black and gray spots.
This plumage is worn, without molt and with very little abrasion, until the annual, complete molt, which takes place in both young and adult from July to November. There seem to be two color phases in adults, which Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1905) describe as follows: “Darkest: There is no white whatever on the plumage, the lower parts being continuous light ochraceous; the tibiae have numerous round spots of blackish. Lightest: Face and entire lower parts immaculate snowy-white; facial circle white, with the tips of the feathers orange; the secondaries, primaries, and tail show no bars, their surface being uniformly and finely mottled. * * * The variations of plumage noted above appear to be of a purely individual nature, since they do not depend upon the locality; nor, as far as we can learn, to any considerable extent, upon age or sex.”
However, in a large series that I examined, I noted that the males averaged lighter above and whiter below, often pure white below, with only a few scattered small spots of sepia, and with whiter faces. The females, on the other hand, averaged darker everywhere, the breasts, flanks, and tibiae being often “cinnamon-buff”, deepest on the tibiae, with more, larger, and darker spots; and the faces were more tinged with brownish. As this was not a universal rule, however, it may mean only individual variation, or indicate two color phases. Similar variations were evident in the younger birds, so it is not an age character.
Food: All authorities agree that the barn owl is one of our most useful birds of prey, as its food consists almost entirely of various species of rodents that, from their abundance and destructive habits, are a curse to agriculture and other human interests. Dr. A. K.
Fisher (1893b) reports that “of 39 stomachs examined, 1 contained poultry (pigeon); 3, other birds; 17, mice; 17, other mammals; 4, insects, and 7 were empty.” He says that “in California the favorite food of the Barn Owl is a species of pouched gopher. The pouched gopher is one of the most destructive of this group, not only to vegetable and grain crops, but also to shade and fruit trees. The depredations in the latter case, which consist in the gnawing or entire removal of the roots, are the most serious as they often result in the total destruction of groves and orchards. All the stomachs and pellets which we have received from that State contained the remains of this animal.”
He quotes Dr. B. W. Evermann (1882) as follows: “Their food consists principally of the gopher (Thomomya talpoides bulbivorus) and the California ground squirrel (Spermophilus grammurus beecheyi), both of which are so destructive to growing crops and fruit trees on the Pacific coast. Other small mammals, particularly rabbits, birds, and insects go to make up its bill of fare. * * * This owl is not large, yet it must be a very strong and courageous bird, as evinced by the fact that I have often found in its burrows portions of the large jackass hare (Lepus californieus) or ‘narrow-gauged mule,’ as popularly known in California.”
In the East the barn owl lives largely on rats and mice, and in the South, where the cotton rat is abundant and very destructive, its food, according to several observers, consists almost exclusively of this rat.
Dr. Fisher (1893b) examined the nesting site of a pair of barn owls in one of the towers of the Smithsonian Building in Washington, and says:
“The floor was strewn with pellets, and the nest, which was in one corner, was composed of a mass of broken-down ones. An examination of 200 of these pellets gave a total of 454 skulls. Of these, 225 were meadow mice; 2, pine mice; 179, house mice; 20, rats; 6, jumping mice; 20, shrews; 1, star-nosed mole, and 1, vesper sparrow (Poocaetes gramineus) ” Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1926) reports that 56 pellets of the barn owl, found in the attic of an old rice mill near Charleston, S. C., contained the remains of the following mammals and birds: 2 small shrews, 65 rice rats, 1 cotton rat, 7 red-winged blackbirds, 12 sora rails, and 4 clapper rails. Commenting on this unusually large percentage of birds, Dr. A. K. Fisher wrote to him: “Although the matter can not be proved, I am wondering whether rails and other birds that in a way simulate the movements of rats and mice in the thick foliage might not be taken by accident rather than intentionally by the Owls. This theory would seem to have some weight because they do not molest pigeons that are breeding in adjoining apartments or any species that are not found on the ground around marshes or fields.”
Paul Bonnot (1928) tells another bird-killing story, of a pair of barn owls on an island off the coast of California, as follows: “There was an old cabin on the Island which had fallen partly to ruin. Under a built-in wooden bedstead was the nest of a Barn Owl. * * * The area covered by the bed was three inches deep with feathers, wings and bodies of Beal Leach Petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa beau). These little birds were evidently so easily caught that there were numbers of bodies with only the heads removed, and I collected for study three specimens with hardly a feather misplaced. A good number of the bodies of the petrels were rotting and inhabited by fly larvae.”
It is when the young are being fed in the nest that these owls do their best work in the destruction of rats and mice, for the young require an enormous amount of food. W. L. Dawson (1923) writes: “Tyler, of Fresno, found a nest containing four very small birds and six eggs, for which the following provision had been made: five Pocket Gophers (Thomomys), five Kangaroo Rats (Perodipus), one Pocket Mouse (Perognafhus), and two White-footed Mice (Perom yecue).” And W. L. Finley (1906) says:
An old owl will capture as much or more food than a dozen cats in a night. The owlets are always hungry; they will eat their own weight in food every night and more if they could get it. A case is on record where a half grown owl was given all the mice it could eat. It swallowed eight in rapid succession. The ninth followed all but the tail which for some time hung out of the bird’s mouth. The rapid digestion of the Raptors is shown by the fact that in three hours the little glutton was ready for a second meal and swallowed four additional mice. If this is the performance of a single bird, the effect that a whole nestful of owls would have on the vermin of a community is self-evident.
Mrs. Trene G. Wheelock (1904) writes: “When the sun sinks behind the oak trees and the shadows creep over the valleys, the Barn Owl hurries to the nearest meadow or marsh land on a hunting trip. If it has young at home in the nest, its flight will be swift and noiseless, as it crosses the intervening fields at short intervals, carrying mice, gophers, and ground squirrels. Nine mice form a meal for the brood, and sixteen mice have been carried to the nest in twenty-five minutes, besides three gophers, a squirrel, and a good-sized rat.”
The following items have been recorded in the food of the barn owl: Various mice and rats, nearly every available species, pocket gophers, shrews, bats, moles, muskrats, spotted skunk (Spilogale), and young rabbits; though birds form a small part of the food, a number of species have been found, such as various sparrows, blackbirds, grackles, starling, cowbird, Abert’s towhee, bobolink, swallows, warblers, wrens, red-shafted flicker, sora and clapper rails, meadowlark, green heron, and blue jay; a few insects, such as grasshoppers, beetles, Jerusalem cricket, and katydid, as well as an occasional frog, should be added to the list.
Behavior: The flight of the barn owl is light, graceful, rather swift at times, and always noiseless; its long, broad wings support its light body with ease and enable it to dash quickly on its prey. It is more strictly nocturnal than some other owls; when pressed for food to feed a hungry brood, it starts to hunt at twilight, but, at other seasons, I believe it prefers to hunt during the darker hours and perhaps all through the night; its food consists mainly of such small mammals as are active only at night. Its sense of hearing is exceedingly acute, enabling it to detect the sound caused by the slightest movement of its quarry; its eyes too are well adapted to night hunting; it seems bewildered in daylight and seems to dislike and shrink from any bright light. It is very inactive during the day, spending the daylight hours in a dark corner in some old or unfrequented building, in a cave, burrow, or hollow tree, in the thick foliage of some tree, or even among the scattered, dead leaves of a more open tree, where its motionless attitude and its concealing coloration make it inconspicuous. In such a situation it remains drowsily inactive all day, and often sleeps so soundly that it is not easily aroused, until the shadows of dusk awaken it into action again.
J. Harris Reed (1897) writes:
During the fall and winter months I have found them roosting both singly and in colonies, depending on the size of their roosting places, and often occupying separate cavities of the same tree. An example of this may be found located in the woods at Olenolden, Delaware County, Pa., which has been a favorite roosting and nesting place for several years. * * *
On January 31, 1891, * * * I visited this tree nod from the numerous holes in its branches counted fourteen Owls fly out during the evening. * * * Again on September 25, 1892, I paid the place a visit, hut, arriving a little late in the evening, I saw only four Owls. * * * The Owls leave the roost very early in the evening, often a long time before sunset, departing singly, several minutes elapsing after the exit of one before the appearance of another, each circling around the tree several times before leaving, emitting a note similar to the clucking of a squirrel, probably a call note to their companions. This habit of leaving the roost before sunset, is more noticeable during the breeding season when the days are long and the nestlings require food, and this no doubt accounts for their being seen occasionally during cloudy days searching for food.
Barn owls are distinctly birds of the open country, rather than woodland birds, and they are less inclined than other owls to shun the haunts of man; they find their best food supplies in the open fields and meadows, and about the barns, granaries, and other buildings in villages, towns, and even cities. Their apparent familiarity with human beings is, doubtless, due to the fact that they are so strictly nocturnal in their habits and so retiring during the day that they are seldom disturbed or even seen by humans. Their silent coming and going is seldom observed; it is surprising how often a pair of these owls has long remained unnoticed in a thickly settled community; and it is well that it is so, for, otherwise, the long-established prejudice against all owls, or the craze to kill a curious bird, might lead some thoughtless man or boy to destroy one of their most useful friends.
Voice: Potter and Gillespie (1925) record three different calls of the adult barn owl: “(1) A discordant scream expressing alarm. (2) A snapping of the bill expressing suspicion and alarm. (3) A flight call, resembling ‘ick-ick-ick-ick’, apparently signifying the bringing of food.”
Grinnell and Storer (1924) say: “The notes of the Barn Owl are of two kinds: One is a single, loud, prolonged, rasping sksch, uttered only at long intervals; the other, a series of notes click, click, click, click, click, resembling in character the notes of a katydid, but delivered with diminishing emphasis and shortening intervals toward the end of the series. From the changing direction of the sounds, it is evident that the notes are uttered in flight as one bird closely follows another.”
Bendire (1892) says: “Besides the peevish scream already mentioned, they utter at times a feeble querulous note like ‘quilek-quitek,’ or ‘ii~ek-iiek,’ sounding somewhat like the call of the Night Hawk (Chordeiles virginianus), frequently repeated, only not so loud.”
Joseph W. Lippincott (1917) gives his impressions of the weird notes of the barn owl as follows:
After listening night after night to the harsh screams, and even louder growling, rattling noise he can make, sounds which in the dark hours fairly make the shivers jump up and down one’s spine, I can well imagine that woods could seem haunted and that, in the silent flopping flight of the big whitish bird, any superstitious person could see a ghost or almost any uncanny being of the visionary world. * * *
It is one of the old Owls that makes the growling rattle which, reverberating among tree trunks, sounds almost like a menagerie let loose. The sound seems usually to be made while the bird is flying with, or to, its mate. When coming toward one it is truly terrifying, particularly if in some gloomy recess of a wood.
Enemies: The barn owl has few enemies other than its arch enemy, man; it is deplorable that these interesting and useful birds are so often killed because of their supposed destruction of game birds or poultry, of which they are seldom guilty, or because they make interesting specimens to mount.
The great horned owl seems to be their chief natural enemy. These large, fierce, and powerful owls have been recorded several times as killing and devouring the gentle and weaker barn owl, which seems to be incapable of defending itself against such a formidable foe. Dawson (1923) says of the prairie falcon: “The Falcon is a heartless tyrant, and in this hour of his anxiety, he rejoices in a chance to vent his spite upon an innocent Barn Owl. Only luck can save the Owl. Some I have seen smashed in midair, and others merely bowled over, to rise wrathful but silent, and scramble into cover before a second bolt should fall.”
Field marks: The barn owl should be easily recognized anywhere and at any time by its unique shape and color. Forbush (1927) says:
“If seen sitting, may be recognized by its pale colors, long legs and long, white, nearly heart-shaped face. If seen in flight, it may be told by buffy upper plumage, light or white under plumage and long wings; flies very lightly, often reeling from side to side.”
Fall: Throughout most of its range the barn owl is a permanent resident, but from the extreme northern portion it withdraws to some extent. It is also inclined to wander about more or less irregularly in fall.
Thomas Mason Earl (1934) writes: “A curious flight of Barn Owls was noted in 1917 just previous to the cold winter of 1917: 1918. Two or three times a day for several weeks during the November hunting season Barn Owls were brought in for mounting. Other taxidermists had the same experience as I and I believe by a conservative estimate 200 Barn Owls were killed in Central Ohio by hunters, who encountered them everywhere.”
Dr. Evermann (1882) says:
This owl is resident in Southern California, being somewhat gregarious in Fall and Winter, during which seasons they frequent, in day time, the dense foliage of the Live Oaks which abound in the lesser canons and fringe the lower slopes of the foothills. On one occasion I drove more than fifty of these owls from a clump of oaks in Canada de Largo, and I have often seen from eight to twelve dozing quietly in one tree. The cross-beams under bridges form a favorite resort for them. Between Santa Paula and San Buenaventura, a distance of sixteen miles, there are bridges over as many as six branches. * * *
In passing over this road, I have often taken the trouble to look under these bridges, and I hardly ever failed to find from two to six Barn Owls sitting on the cross-timbers, or on projecting portions of the walls.
Alexander Sprunt, Jr. (1932) saw one come aboard a vessel 12 or 15 miles off the coast of North Carolina at 11 a. m. on November 1,1931; as there was a strong offshore wind blowing at the time, the bird may have been blown away from the land, to which it was evidently struggling to return.
Winter: Barn owls that linger too far north during severe winters have been known to perish, perhaps from the intense cold, but more likely from the lack of sufficient food to resist the low temperature. Dr. Paul L. Errington (1931) records such a case. In a quarry near Madison, Wis., on February 10, 1930, he found one of these owls lying dead, and a few days later another. He says:
They were lying on the ground at the base of the quarry face, in the crevices of which face they had been accustomed to roost. A careful post-mortem disclosed that these birds bad not met death from shooting or from direct mechanical injury of any sort. Though lean, they were not emaciated. Their alimentary tracts were quite empty, except for a small amount of fecal matter in the intestine of one of them.
* * * The presence of these two in the quarry had been known for some months, and their pellet accumulations had been gathered from time to time for food habits study. It had been noted, as the winter had progressed, that the pellets had been becoming smaller, due presumably to the protection afforded mice and shrews by the snow. Many of the pellets last deposited contained the remains of but a single meadow mouse (Microtus), instead of the three to six small mammals making up a full size pellet. The owls were apparently unable to take advantage of the winter population of small birds; at least they had not done so.
Ivan R. Tomkins writes to me that in Georgia he has “often flushed this species from dense cedar trees in winter and sometimes from dry grass clumps.”
Range: Southern Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Allied races occur in many parts of the world.
The range of the barn owl extends north to southern British Columbia (Ladner); North Dakota (Gilby and Grand Forks); Minnesota (Fairmont and Waterville); Wisconsin (Madison and Dodge County); southern Michigan (Vicksburg, Ann Arbor, and South Lyon); southern Ontario (Chatham, Hamilton, Toronto, and Kingston); southern Vermont (Bennington); and Massachusetts (Wenham). East to Massachusetts (Wenham, Lynn, Dedham, and Chilmark); New York (Montauk, Jamaica, and Staten Island); New Jersey (Lawrenceville and Camden); Maryland (Easton); Virginia (Toano); South Carolina (Waverly Mills, Cooper River, Charleston, and St. Helena Island); Georgia (Savannah and Blackbeard Island); Florida (Fernandina, St. Augustine, Longwood, Cape Canaveral, and Key West); and Yucatan (Chichen-Itza). South to Yucatan (ChichenItza); Tabasco (Macuspana); Oaxaca (Tehuantepec); southern Sinaloa (Esquinapa); and Baja California (San Jose del Cabo). West to Baja California (San Juan del Cabo, Mira Flores, San Andres, and Todos Santos Island); California (San Diego, Escondido, San Onofre, Los Angeles, Santa Paula, Bakersfield, Shandon, Watsonville, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Nicasio, and Ferndale); Oregon (Klamath Falls and Tillamook); Washington (Chinook, Point Chehalis, Puyallup, and Tacoma); and British Columbia (Ladner).
The range as above outlined includes the regions of more or less regular occurrence. Actual breeding, however, has been recorded only as far north as northern California (Ferndale); Nebraska (Omaha); Iowa (Sioux City and Laporte City); southern Michigan (Vicksburg and Ann Arbor); southern Ontario (Chatham); Connecticut (Winsted); and Massachusetts (Chilmark). The record from Ladner, British Columbia, is for a female in breeding condition, and it appears probable that other records in the northern part of the range may be of nesting birds.
Migration: Records of the recovery of banded barn owls show that certain individuals make lengthy flights that appear to be more or less seasonal. These data are more numerous from the eastern part of the range and thus far the evidence pertains only to travels from breeding grounds to more southern points. In practically every case the record concerns a bird banded as a fledgling in its nest. For example, a bird banded in New Jersey at Westville on May 20, 1925, and another at Oradell on June 22, 1925, were recovered at Wilmington, N. C., on November 16, 1925, and at Savannah, Ga., on January 14, 1926, respectively. A third, also banded at Westvile, N. J., on November 14, 1925, was retaken at Trappe, Md., on April 5, 1926. Two others banded in New Jersey were recovered at southern points, but in both cases the elapsed time was a year or more, as follows: One banded at Westville on June 4, 1926, was recaptured in Jasper County, S. C., in February 1928, and the other, banded at Riverton on June 13, 1929, was recovered at Berea, N. C., on November 15, 1930.
The files of the Biological Survey contain many other recovery records covering the details of flights of banded barn owls, as: from Wisconsin to Arkansas, from Illinois to Mississippi, from Ohio to Arkansas and Alabama, and from Pennsylvania to Georgia, the dates in some cases being strongly suggestive of regular seasonal migration. On the other hand, there also are records of birds that obviously remained in the north and were recovered in midwinter not far from the point of banding. About 20 cases are available of barn owls banded in California, all of which were recovered in the general vicinity where they were banded.
To sum up, it appears that in the eastern part of the country some young barn owls make extensive journeys southward that have some characteristics of true migration. This apparently is not general, however, and may be similar to the post breeding season wanderings of certain herons, gulls, and other birds.
Casual records: The only record of this species of British Columbia is the breeding female captured at Ladners Landing, near the mouth of the Fraser River, about April 7, 1909. In addition to a specimen obtained at Aylesbury, Saskatchewan, on May 5, 1924, there probably are one or two other sight records for that Province. There are two records for Manitoba, one taken at St. Annes on November 6, 1912, and another near Doleraine early in October 1927. There are several records for Ontario, the details of the most northern occurrences being a male taken at Toronto on September 7, 1899, and two specimens reported by Young in 1900 from the vicinity of Kingston.
A specimen was taken at Lyndon in northern Vermont on June 4, 1894, and there are three records for Maine, one shot at Biddeford on October 4, 1923, a second caught alive in a garage in Portland on October 26, 1927, while the third was captured on Moshers Island, Cumberland County, about December 10, 1927.
Egg dates: California: 100 records, January 17 to June 7; 50 records, March 9 to April 16, indicating the height of the season.
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware: 40 records, February 22 to October 31, 20 records, April 9 to May 3; young, January 12.
South Carolina and Georgia: 14 records, March 17 to December 24; 7 records, March 30 to September 23. Florida: One record, December 12.