Guess what, friends? The weekly featured bird profiles are returning!
I used to write a weekly bird profile column, each season about a different family (such as Migration Monday, Waterfowl Wednesday, etc, links are to the right on this page). I stopped these in the spring (not intentionally, things just got super busy!), but now they’re back. This autumn’s featured family: Owls!
I was inspired to do an autumn owl feature for two reasons: 1. I just love owls and 2. Dave bought me the Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean by Scott Weidensaul for my birthday. He also bought me Hummingbirds: A Life-size Guide to Every Species by Fogden, Taylor, and Williamson, but we’ll save that for another season. (Fun fact: owls are more closely related to hummingbirds than they are hawks/falcons). I also recently purchased this lovely Barn Owl print by David Kiehm of Dead Studio. So without further ado, let’s talk about Barn Owls!
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Barn Owls are one the most distinctive owls in the world. Their heart-shaped faces and pale bodies give them a ghost-like appearance as they silently fly through the night. Barn Owls have long legs and round wings combined with short tails. Their heads and upperparts are a tawny brown while their underparts are pale and mottled. Males and females look similar, but females tend to be more heavily spotted. They have large black eyes and lack ear tufts. Barn Owls have a pectinate middle claw; a modified comb-like talon mainly used for preening and parasite control.
Barn Owl chicks go through two downs coats. A white natal coat is later replaced by a thicker gray coat. It takes about three molt cycles for young owlets to replace all their juvenal flight feathers.
Barn Owls are the most widespread raptors found on the planet. They can be found all across the continental United States, Mexico, and South America. They also live in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.
Open land; grasslands, marshes, fields, open woodlands, farms, prairies, and desert. Generally avoids dense forests.
90% rodents. Rat, voles, mice, shrews, lemming, rabbits, and bats are common prey items. Occasionally eats birds. Barn Owls swallow their prey whole and cough up pellets twice a day with undigested materials. While nesting, they will cache prey items for later use. A nocturnal hunter that tends to stay low to the ground and moves slowly.
Barn Owls are generally monogamous and mate for life (although polygamy has been observed sometimes). Males will attract females by doing flight displays, and when a nest location is selected, will bring prey to the female. Barn Owls nest in cavities and will use artificial nest boxes. The female will line the nest with shredded regurgitated pellets before laying 3-8 eggs (but usually 4-6). A new egg is laid every 2-3 days. This means that chicks will hatch 2-3 days apart putting the older owlets at an advantage. Eggs are incubated between 29-34 days, with young fledging about 50-60 days post-hatch.
The mortality rate of Barn Owls in fairly high. Competition for food among 4-6 owlets is fierce, and often times younger chicks will not survive if food sources are scarce. It is possible however that the younger owlets can survive if prey is abundant. Barn Owls can have up to 3 possibly broods per year and can breed at any point during the year, even in their Northern-most range.
Hair-raising, high-pitched screams, hisses, and screeches. Can have between 4-15 different vocalizations
Populations are hard to track, but may have slightly increased in some areas and listed as a “special-concern” species in other areas. Sensitive in changes to agricultural practices, suburban/urban development, and pesticides. Often struck by cars. Nest boxes have helped numbers improve in many areas.
- Barn Owls are the only species in the family Tytonidae, while the other North American owls are in the family Strigidae. There are 46 races of Barn Owls worldwide. The North American race Tyto alba pratincola is the largest, while the Galapagos Island race is the smallest.
- Barn Owls, unlike many other birds, will roost in their cavities all year, not just during breeding season.
- Barn Owls have excellent hearing to help aid in hunting, but also have great low-light vision.
- Barn Owl mates form strong pair-bonds. They will often call to one another, allopreen (preen each other), and link beaks to strengthen their bond.