New kids on the block

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.

These two fledged the same day.

These two fledged the same day.

This one fledged two days later.

One of the two pictured above.

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.




About subodai213

Retired U.N.C.L.E agent. Living in Laurasia.
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4 Responses to New kids on the block

  1. bronxboy55 says:

    Your theory about the connection between owls and ghosts seems plausible, especially when I imagine seeing those faces through the mist on a foggy night. But how do the barn owls know the nest boxes are for them? I’ve always wondered this about specific bird house designs, as well as bat boxes.

    • subodai213 says:

      Charles, birds…as are most animals…a lot smarter than people think. It IS amazing that an owl (or, for instance, a swallow (of which I have five different species living here, in boxes we erected for them) spends 9 months of the year living on the wing and perching in trees, and one day in late February, decides to fly north, thousands of miles in order to make a nest for my babies. A cavity of any sort will do for most birds, but nest boxes are usually specially designed for each type of species need. You know that old saying, build it and they will come? They will.

      Barn owls(and swallows like purple martins) have lived around humans for so long that they have become semi-dependent on our providing homes for them. At first it was a barn (hence the name). The rafters of a barn (or a hay mow) provided room for the owls, protection from predators such as crows, ravens, rats, etc, and a cafeteria (in the way of rodents). Even back in the bad old days when animals, birds, etc were merely things, farmers noticed that when one had barn owls, one didn’t have rats in his barn. The resulting litter is proof of that. I find rat/mouse/vole skulls all over the place, hacked up by my barn owls.

      Most animals, not just birds, want a place to call home.

      Let’s bring it a little closer to home. While I firmly believe that we as a species were NOT cave dwellers (nor were our cousins, the Neandertals) (because caves don’t move. The game animals do) we DID take cover in them during bad storms, snows, etc. Let’s turn it around…why did a bipedal savannah dwelling ape start making huts out of sticks and mud? Baboons, which are also savannah dwelling apes, have never been known to make a house. Chimps and gorillas, both of whom are forest dwellers, make nests to sleep in.

      So why? Because early humans (being diurnal, meaning they’re active during the day)discovered that if one slept in a hut, the chance of being eaten by a nocturnal predator such as a lion, hyena, or leopard was lessened. While the predators are smart, they are also wary of things they don’t understand. Surround that hut with a fence made from thorn bushes (a ‘boma’) and the human has a better chance of surviving.
      It comes down to comfort and safety, and the seeking of same. And, in the case of birds…they need to make a nest, because eggs roll. Keeping eggs dry, protected from the elements and predation from rats and other egg eating critters, as well as providing a playpen, so to speak, for the fledglings…a cavity (i.e. nest box) serves admirably for all of these.
      As for bats……..well, I think bats are a bit different. They’re not so much looking for a structure to reside in so much as a vertical substrate on which they can cling and hang out with other bats. It needn’t be a house..some species of bat make their nests out of leaves. I saw flying foxes (a type of fruit bat) roosting in their thousands in a fig tree in downtown Cairns, Australia.
      They are so very colonial that I don’t believe there is a bat species that roosts by itself. They prefer caves because the climate in a cave is far more uniform…the humidity stays the same, temperature stays relatively close to the same, and predators can’t scale the walls.
      By the way, bats are far more ‘picky’ about the box they will live in than birds. Greg Falxa and Bret Weinstein, two of the best bat men (you’ll forgive the pun) I have ever met, both have told me that the reason my bat boxes never attracted bats is because the bat box I have up is for one species of bat, not the ones most commonly found in my neighborhood.

      And, unless your eyes are glazing over, many birds exhibit ‘site fidelity’, meaning, they return to the same area,and the same box they were in last year, year after year. I banded a pair of violet-green swallows several years ago. They live in a box that sits right over the door to my porch. They come back every year. The female I banded failed to return a few years ago, but the male is still coming back, with a new mate. He knows that’s his box.

      You asked, Charles. I’m a biologist. I live and breathe it. I will shut down now. 😉

  2. Beautiful birds, stunning photos. Do your cats show any interest in the fledglings or are they too big when they leave the nest?

    • subodai213 says:

      Wellllllllll, first off, they’re owls, so they’re nocturnal. My cats do NOT go outdoors alone, precisely because they’re, well, cats. Cats kill birds, and I don’t want that. I didn’t work my butt off establishing habitat for birds just to have my felines eat the visitors.

      Nor do the cats go outdoors after dark. Diamond can disappear right before your eyes, even in daylight, and Sable is utterly fearless. She fears nothing and would undoubtedly tackle a coyote should one enter the yard. That’s the main predator on feral cats here, coyotes, but we also have owls, raccoons (they love cat), hawks, the occasional eagle, not to mention feral dogs and shithead boys with guns. Of them all, the last one is the most dangerous.

      Now, the smaller passerines (song birds) they DO take an interest in and we keep a very close watch on the cats when they’re outside. Right now, the yard is full of babies: American goldfinches, bluebirds, swallows, etc, so we don’t let the cats wander.
      Of course, being cats, they do a lot more sitting and watching than actually going for a ‘walk’.

      Finally, the owls are actually quite small. If you hold one in your hands, it’s not much bigger than a softball. Or a musk melon, because I don’t know if Europeans know the size of a softball. OK, how’s this: spread your hands with fingers wide and touching the opposite hand’s finger tips, then separate the two hands by about two inches. That’s the size of a baby owl.

      However, when threatened, they spread their wings out as much as possible and in a wierd way that uses their plumage to look like a giant evil face. The first time I saw it I sort of freaked..what the hell is THAT.

      Even full grown barn owls are small. It’s their wings that gives one the impression they’re eagle sized. Their wings are huge in comparison.

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