Barn owl: Bird of the Week

This ghostly-pale bird, historically associated with magic, is easier to spot in winter when they hunt during the day.

By Ness Amaral-Rogers
Published 17 Dec 2018, 08:21 GMT
A barn owl ('Tyto alba') hunts across a field in Northumberland.
A barn owl ('Tyto alba') hunts across a field in Northumberland.
Photograph by John Bridges

With heart-shaped face, mottled buff back and wings and pure white underparts, it’s easy to see why the barn owl is also known as the ghost owl. Males tend to be much paler than females however a dark-breasted version, known as guttata, from mainland Europe can sometimes be found as a vagrant in the UK.

Barn owls live on farmland, on the edges of rough grassland and woodland where they can find their favourite prey - short-tailed voles. As one of our most distinctive and much-loved countryside birds, it’s surprising to learn of their once hunted past. Associated with magic and the macabre, specimens were once nailed spread-eagled to barn doors to ward off storms.

Living up to its name, this barn owl perches in the broken window of a barn.
Photograph by Dave Braddock

Their population plummeted throughout the 20th century when nesting habitat was lost to the removal of hedgerows, along with the conversion of old farm buildings. Pesticides also potentially posed a risk in the form of organochlorine insecticides such as DDT and rodenticides which poisoned their prey. However, the work of volunteers has helped increase numbers by installing nest boxes near prime habitat.

During the winter barn owls become more visible. The lack of food and extra calories required to keep warm throughout the cold months forces these owls to hunt during the day. You may spot them sitting on a fence post waiting for a rustling in the undergrowth before pouncing. It may seem like a laissez faire attitude to hunting but choosing to sit and wait in fact helps conserve heat as well as energy.

Sitting on a post is an energy-saving way for barn owls to hunt. They use their acute sense of hearing to listen for a rustle in the undergrowth.
Photograph by John Bridges

Landowners and farmers can look after barn owls if they have the right habitat. To find out more visit the RSPB’s website.

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