Barn owls are a very common species of owl. There are an estimated 4-10 million barn owls in the world. Barn owls help limit rodent populations, benefiting farmers and others. Read on for more barn owl facts!
Physical Description of Barn Owls
A medium-sized raptor, the barn owl is a nocturnal bird of prey like other owls. The barn owl has a white heart-shaped face and white chest with small brown spots. They have very long legs, toes and talons to help them to catch prey hidden under long grass.
Barn owls have extremely soft feathers that help them to hunt silently. But their feathers are not waterproof and get soaked if it rains. A barn owl is about the size of a small cat, but only weighs a pound.
Female barn owls often have darker brown feathers around the rim of their face, darker bars on the tail and small black spots on the chest and underside of the wings. Males tend to be lighter, with more white underneath.
Males usually weigh around 12 ounces, females are slightly heavier at around 13 ounces. During the early breeding season, females may weigh as much as 15 ounces before egg laying.
The barn owl is found on all continents except Antarctica making it one of the most widely distributed birds in the world. They require large areas of open land over which to hunt.
One of the cool barn owl facts is that they can live in many different types of habitats and altitudes, including deserts, grasslands, forests, agricultural fields and urban areas. They build nests in hollow trees, cliff cavities, in buildings and nest boxes.
Barn owls don’t build a true nest, but will use debris around the nest, including pellets, to form a depression. Unlike most birds, owls may use their nest sites for roosting throughout the year and the nests are often reused from year to year, often by different owls.
Barn Owl Habits
Barn owls are most commonly monogamous. Pairs typically remain together as long as both individuals live.
Barn owls primarily eat voles, shrews, mice and sometimes rats. Food is swallowed whole, and bits of fur and bone are then regurgitated (coughed up) as an owl pellet. Barn owls primarily hunt at night. They can find the smallest vole in pitch darkness using their super-sensitive hearing. A wild barn owl usually eats about 4 small mammals every night, that’s 1,460 per year!
Baby Barn Owls
Barn owls typically breed once per year. They can breed almost any time of the year, depending on food supply.
Most barn owls begin breeding at 1 year old. They usually raise one brood per year, though some pairs have been observed raising up to three broods in one year. Female barn owls make simple nests of regurgitated pellets, shredded with her feet and arranged into a cup. The female lays 2-11 eggs and incubates them for 29-34 days.
Males bring food to the nest for the female and chicks. Only the female feeds the young, tearing the food into small pieces. The eyes of the chicks remain closed for about 12 days. It takes the young about 8 weeks to fledge, or get its first coat of feathers.
At around 28 days, the tail feathers emerge and the iris turns from yellow to brown. They begin to wander around the next at 35 days old. The young start to fly at about 60 days. They return to the nest site at night for a few weeks after their first flight.
- Eumetazoa: metazoans
- Bilateria: bilaterally symmetrical animals
- Deuterostomia: deuterostomes
- Phylum: Chordata
- Craniata: craniates
- Superclass: Gnathostomata
- Euteleostomi: bony vertebrates
- Class: Sarcopterygii
- Tetrapoda: tetrapods
- Amniota: amniotes
- Class: Aves
- Subclass: Neognathae
- Infraclass: Neoaves
- Order: Strigiformes
- Family: Tytonidae
- Species: Tyto alba
About 46 different subspecies of the barn owl have been described worldwide.
Scientists believe the barn owl was a dweller in the high clay cliffs of Europe. This may be why they prefer the vertical walls of manmade structures even over trees. The barn owl then spread through all the known continents.
Barn owls first appear in the fossil record of Europe in the Middle Miocene which lasted from about 15.9 million to 11.6 million years ago. A giant barn owl fossil was found in Italy dating from around 5 million years ago. An early Tyto alba fossil was found in Morocco dating from around 2.58 million years ago.
The two best known races are the barn owl of Europe, Tyto alba alba, and the North American barn owl, Tyto alba pratincola.
Barn owls have few predators. Chicks are occasionally taken by stoats and snakes. There is also some evidence that Great Horned Owls occasionally prey upon adult barn owls.
One of the more interesting barn owl facts is that when facing a predator or intruder, Barn owls spread their wings and tilt them so that their hind surface is towards the intruder.
Then they sway their head back and forth. This threat display is accompanied with hissing, billsnaps and squinted eyes. If the intruder persists, the owl falls on its back and strikes with its feet.
A typical lifespan for a wild adult barn owl is 4 years.
What Sound Does a Barn Owl Make?
Click on this audio file to hear what a barn owl sounds like.
25 Unusual Barn Owl Facts
- The barn owls screech – they never hoot.
- Barn owls’ eyes are very sensitive. They can easily spot a mouse moving in a very gloomy barn.
- Barn owls have lop-sided ears! One is higher than the other, which helps them to pinpoint exactly where tiny sounds are coming from.
- The barn owl is silent in flight due to soft fringe-edged feathers that don't “swoosh” as they move.
- Barn owls are declining in parts of their range due to habitat loss.
- Barn owls have been introduced to some oceanic islands to control rodent pests.
- The female barn owl eats the feces of the chicks for the first few weeks after hatching in order to sanitize the nest.
- Barn owls are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act but are not considered endangered.
- Unlike other birds, barn owls do not store extra fat in their body as a reserve for harsh winter weather.
- Barn owls bob and weave their heads is to gain depth perception.
- Barn owls will often kill more than they can eat and stockpile food for later.
- Barn owls produce about two pellets per day. Pellets are the indigestible parts of their diet. This includes the fur and bones of the animals they eat which is compressed into an oblong shape.
- Owls don’t have eyeballs. Their eyes are long and shaped like a tube. This restricts them from moving them in their sockets.
- Owls can rotate their necks at 270 degrees, 135 degrees on either side.
- An owl has 3 eyelids- one for blinking, one for sleeping and one for keeping its eyes clean.
- The oldest wild barn owl lived 34 years.
- Barn owls are not territorial. Adult barn owls may live in overlapping home ranges.
- Feathers become abraded over time and need to be replaced (molting) at intervals.
- Male barn owls impress females with flight displays.
- Female barn owls with more spots get fewer parasites, may be less prone to disease and receive more food from males during nesting.
- Barn owls are often misunderstood and mistaken to be bad omens.
- Scotland has the most northerly breeding barn owls in the Northern Hemisphere.
- A group of owls is called a Parliament.
- Barn owls can become aggressive if agitated, making it dangerous to keep them as pets.
- Barn owls can fly at speeds of 10-20 mph when pursuing their prey. This is about the same speed as a black mamba snake.
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