Species of the Month - August 2016: Barn owl

Barn owl in flight (image: Gary Cox)

This year, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust is running a new series taking a closer look at one key species of flora or fauna each month. For August, we are looking at the barn owl…

The barn owl (Tyto alba)

Image: Richard BowlerThe barn owl is the most widely distributed species of owl. It has a heart-shaped face, brown speckled back and white underparts. Females often have darker brown feathers around the rim of the facial disc, as well as darker bars on the tail and small black spots on the chest and underside of the wings.

Barn owls do not hoot, instead they emit a long, eerie screech. Like most owls, the barn owl is typically nocturnal, relying on its acute sense of hearing when hunting in darkness. Their feathers are especially soft for silent flight, but not very waterproof so they avoid hunting in rain.

Image: Margaret HollandThe barn owl eats mice, voles and shrews. It hunts by flying slowly, surveying the ground and hovering over spots where prey might be hiding. The bird has long, broad wings, enabling it to manoeuvre and turn abruptly. Studies have shown that an individual barn owl may eat one or more voles (or their equivalent) per night, which is about 23% of the bird's bodyweight.

Barn owls are not particularly territorial, but have a home range within which they forage. For males in Scotland, this has a radius of about one km (0.6 miles) from the nest site and an average size of about 300 hectares.

The birds usually stick with one mate for life, unless one of the pair dies. Outside the breeding season, males and females usually roost separately, each one having about three favourite sites.

Where to see them

Barn owls can be found in open country, along field edges, riverbanks and roadside verges. Roosting sites include holes in trees, fissures in cliffs, disused buildings, chimneys and hay sheds and are often small in comparison to nesting sites.

How to help barn owls to thrive

Image: Andrew MasonYou could install your own barn owl box. As the birds are sensitive to disturbance, it's best to place boxes in quiet locations, such as inside barns or on trees.

If you are a landowner, you could create additional areas of rough grassland or field margins of approximately two metres in width or wider, alongside field boundaries. These would help to create the necessary habitat needed to support voles and barn owls.

Report sightings of barn owls. There are several online barn owl surveys, and when charities know where barn owls are concentrated, they can better target help for them.

Get in touch

If you spot a barn owl – or any other species - please do let us know! You can submit records online at www.herefordshirewt.org, email them to us at records@herefordshirewt.co.uk or write to us at Lower House Farm, Ledbury Road, Hereford, HR1 1UT.