Several years ago, we built and erected a couple of nest boxes specifically for barn owls.
The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is found throughout the northern hemisphere, meaning our barn owl here in the US is exactly the same species as those found in Northern Europe, (yes, to include Britain, ) Russia, Northern China, Korea, and Canada. Australia has a closely related species, as well.
I was tickled beyond belief when, within two weeks of installing one of the boxes, (the other we gave to a friend), we had a pair of barn owls take possession of the box and begin raising broods.
That was..oh, 2005, I think?
And almost every year, we’ve had owls come to nest. That doesn’t mean they were always successful. One year the crows managed to kill one of the adults, and the other had to abandon the nest. It’s heartbreaking when your neighbor calls you, knowing you’re a birder, and wants you to identify this ‘big white bird that’s in pieces”, and you recognize the remains as one of your adult barn owls. It’s even more heart rending when you begin to find dead and weak baby owls everywhere, desperately trying to survive an almost unsurvivable situation. They’d jumped out before they were ready and physically capable of flying, because they’d been abandoned.
Now I know that, even when I took the babies to a wildlife rehabber, they probably didn’t survive. Barn owls take an awfully long time to become independent. Even when they’re able to fly, they are dependent on their parents for food and protection. For, even though the crows don’t come around after dark, a fearsome predator…the Great Horned owl (Bubo virginianus) DOES hunt at night…and specializes in other owls.
Once we moved the box closer to the house, where we could protect it from the murderous crows, the barn owls have been successful. Last summer, there were, at one time or another, five baby owls, all playing like puppies. They hang around the nest box for many weeks, as they gain weight, experience with their wings, and learning how to be owls.
This spring, once again, I saw a trio of thugs (crows) harassing a barn owl in the daylight. I found eggshells littering the ground beneath the box. I thought, damn it, no owls this year.
I was wrong. The crows may have gotten the eggs, but, birds will tell you, eggs are easy to make.
This time, the barn owls were far more circumspect. They didn’t come out until long after sundown. We didn’t know if they’d re-nested..until a few days ago.
We began to hear muffled hissing in the box. Barn owls, by the way, don’t hoot. They have a loud, hissing shriek, a sound you’d imagine a ghost would make. In fact, I’d bet my boots that the white, swooping silent flight of a barn owl, coupled with blood curdling shrieks coming out of the night, is the inspiration for the belief in ‘ghosts’. Even if you know it’s only an owl, it’s a very scary sound.
We believe there are only three babies this summer, but that’s okay. Unlike last year’s brood, who ventured out of the box before sundown, these three stay put until it’s almost too dark to see them.
I said ‘almost’. Here’s two pictures of this year’s batch.
See those talons? They’re three inches long and razor sharp. I know, because when we had the ‘fallout’ of baby owls, my husband and I tried to catch them. We only caught two. We didn’t find the rest until far too late. I picked them up with a towel, and discovered that, despite those fearsome talons inches from my wrist, they were as docile as lambs. And there’s nothing to them…they’re all wing. Not even much of a tail…look at that stub!
The most encouraging thing, though, is that these birds appear to be fat as pigs. Mom and Dad (I believe it’s the same pair) are very good providers.
Which is nice for us, because we don’t have a rodent problem here. Ever.