Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Barn Owl

The scientific name is derived from the Greek word "tuto", meaning owl or, more specifically, night-owl & the latin word for "white", so literally means "white night owl".

The Barn Owl is amongst the most widely distributed of the land birds. They are found throughout North America (up to Canada), throughout Central & South America, Europe, most of Africa, India & Australia. The conspicuous absence of Barn Owls from regions far North & South of the Equator is probably due to its poor adaptation to cold. Compared to other owls of similar size, the Barn Owl has a much higher metabolic rate, requiring relatively more food. In addition, its feathers provide a much less efficient insulation, causing greater loss of body heat, in extremely cold weather in its normal habitat, mortality rates rise dramatically.

There are 35 sub-species of Barn Owl.

Barn Owls do not build nests themselves, but rely on a variety of nesting sites for laying their eggs. Tree cavities, rock ledges, chimneys & ledges in barns are among the sites that may be used & Barn Owls have sometimes been known to make their own burrows in riverbanks. Nest sites may be used by other owls over the years.

Barn Owls are monogamous, & because of their short life, often only breed once or twice. Eggs are laid mainly in spring, though in areas & times when food is plentiful, egg-laying may occur all through the year, between 3 & 12 eggs may be laid in a brood, being laid every other day. The young are dependent on the parents for fairly long time - it may be up to 3 months from the time of laying (incubation around 33 days) before the young are independent, and, occasionally, second broods may be begun, before the first leave. Both parents are fully involved in rearing the young, before the young may be left uncovered, the male gathers the food, while the females do the incubating & brooding, joining in food collection when the young may be left. This does mean that the nesting can fail if either parent dies before the young can be left uncovered (around 3 weeks after hatching). The baby barn owls are able to eat their own body weight in food every night.

Once settled, Barn Owls rarely move far from their nesting sites, & migratory populations are fairly rare. But there is a fairly big dispersal of the birds once they become independent from their parents & go in search of their own territory, there is some evidence of young Barn Owls travelling up to 1000 miles from the original nesting site.

The Barn Owl is predominantly nocturnal, roosting during the daytime, hunting mice, shrews & rats by night. Other small prey, such as birds, bats & reptiles will also be taken. Barn Owls breed rapidly in response to large amounts of prey (e.g. a plague of mice) & act as a natural population control. To catch their prey they rely on their very acute hearing (as they are hunting in very low light conditions) & silent flight for surprise attack. Detection of their prey is by still-hunting or quartering the area in silent flight. During the 3 month breeding season, it is estimated that a pair of Barn Owls will take over 1000 rodents. Although normally silent in flight, Barn Owls have been observed flying low over hedgerows beating their wings to disturb & flush out their prey, particularly roosting songbirds (so have Tawny Owls & Long-Eared Owls).

In the wild, Barn Owls are relatively short-lived with many dying in their first year, their average life expectancy is around 2-3 years, though the European record in the Netherlands (from a ringing study) is nearly 18 years. In captivity the birds can live significantly longer the average, some exceeding 20 years.

The current UK population estimated at between 3,000 to 5,000 breeding pairs, though there is evidence that, like the Kestrel, this is currently declining. There may be up to 1/3 as many again non-breeding individuals giving a total population of between 7500 - 10500. The Barn Owl is a species protected by special penalties in the UK. Once welcomed by farmers as one form of pest control, the population is now under threat from modern farming techniques, e.g. the destruction of hedgerows & meadowland, which affect their prey to the removal of old barns & buildings, which were their nesting places.

Unfortunately, Barn Owls are very easily & cheaply available as pets, there are no restrictions on their sale (as long as they are legally captive bred & ringed) & they are often purchased by people with no idea at all about the birds needs. The are stories about the birds being kept in shoe-boxes under peoples beds, because they think they like the dark. Some very irresponsible owners will release the birds into the wild, with the expectation that they will be able to look after themselves. They do not realise that captive bred birds do not have the ability, that this is taught them by their parents in the wild, & they are dependent on people for food. The owls can also be very noisy at night, causing a disturbance to neighbours.

Mythology & Folklore :

The American Indian Newuk tribe believed that when a wicked person died, he would become a Barn Owl. (If he were virtuous & good, he would become a Great Horned Owl).

In British folklore, a screeching Barn Owl is believed to predict that a storm or cold weather was imminent. During a storm, if a Barn Owl was heard, it indicated that the storm was nearly over. In Yorkshire, it was believed that a broth made out of Barn Owls was a cure for whooping cough & that the powdered, charred, hard-boiled eggs improved eye-sight.

I have seen one suggestion that a Barn Owl's breath may glow in the dark &, coupled with its silent flight, could account for some UFO sightings. I haven't been able to confirm whether or not the Barn Owls breath can glow, but think it unlikely. Another theory is that the glowing comes from the body and is due to luminous mould/fungi brushing off onto its plumage.

IUCN Red List Status :

Least Concern (LC)

AOU Data :

Species Number : 365.0
Alpha Code : BNOW
Common Name : Barn Owl
Longevity Record : 15yrs 5months

Also Called :

Monkey-Faced Owl
Golden Owl
White Owl
White-Breasted Owl
Ghost Owl
Billy Wise
Billy Wix
White Hoolet
Jenny Howlet
Madge Howlet
Gill Howter
Ivy Owl
Church Owl
Hissing Owl
Hobby Owl
Jenny Owl
Pudge Owl
Screaming Owl
Screech Owl
Scritch Owl
Silver Owl
Yellow Owl
Dylluan wen
Tylluan wen
Cailleach-oidhche gheal (White Owl or lit. White Old Wife/Crone Of The Night)
Cailleach-bhàn (White Owl or lit. White hag) (also used for Snowy Owl)
Comhachag (Owl)
Scréachóg reilige
Creabhar (Devil)
Corr scréacha (Screech Heron)
Corr screadóige (Screech Heron)
Corr scréachóg (Screech Heron)
Catalan Oùliba
Danish Slørugle
Dutch Kerkuil
Esperanto turstrigo
Estonian Loorkakk
Færoese Hjartaugla
Finnish Tornipöllö
Chouette Effraie (Frightening Owl ??)
Effraie des clochers
Dame blanche (White Lady)
German Schleiereule (Veiled Owl)
Hungarian Gyöngybagoly
Icelandic Turnugla
Italian Barbagianni
Pūce, plīvu
Norwegian Tårnugle
Polish Płomykówka
Romanian Striga
Russian Сипуxа (Sipukha)
Spanish Lechuza común
Swedish Tornuggla
Japanese men-fukuroo (Masked Owl)
Vietnamese cú lón lóng nám (Grey-Backed Pig Owl)
Samoa/Fiji Lulu
Dominican Republic Lechuza Blanca

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