Barn Owls

by Will Samis, OBP Director, Applehill Farm, Iron Bridge.

An owl hole cut in my grandfather’s barn, circa 1860s, near Coburg.

It’s an old barn to us…. but it’s home to them.

Less than a handful of bird species are as widely distributed around the world as the Barn Owl (Tyto Alba) and few species have as precarious a toehold in Ontario.

Barn Owls inhabit all the world’s continents except Antarctica while the Ontario population is currently estimated at 5 to 10 breeding pairs.

Typical Year-round Barn Owl Range:
from All About Birds by The Cornell Lab, map by Birds of the World

They occur most frequently along the north shore of Lake Erie but have been documented recently as far north as the northern part of Wellington County. A northerly occurrence that I’m aware of was a resident barn owl in an abandoned log barn about 10 kms north of where I live in the Bolton River Valley near Iron Bridge. It was documented in the late 70’s or early 80’s by an old friend, Sam Rosa, who was a Conservation Officer in this part of the world. That barn’s roof has now collapsed and the excellent open field hunting habitat nearby has largely grown up to early succession tree species making it unattractive for Barn Owls. Another northern occurrence is a specimen in the Royal Ontario Museum that was collected as a highway casualty in the Thunder Bay area.

Barn Owls are nocturnal, ghostly-appearing critters that are often overlooked but are at the same time closely associated with humans through their use of barns, church steeples, silos etc. as nesting habitat. They do not hoot like other owls and are very secretive. They disperse widely upon fledging but are not considered a migratory species. They bear some resemblance to the Snowy Owl but they differ greatly in their adaptability to winter. They don’t tolerate cold very well and do best in Ontario if inhabiting the upper parts of barns that have some source of heat, such as livestock, in the lower areas.

from Audubon Field Guide, photo by Stacy Howell

They are difficult to document as they often remain motionless during the day, roosting in the highest parts of barns. They typically need and favour pastures, hayfields, marshes and other grassy habitats that support good populations of mice and voles.

Barn Owls are a farmer’s friend. A family eats up to 4000 mice and small rodents in a year. In Europe, farmers often built an opening into the gable of their barn to allow and even encourage Barn Owls to enter and nest as they were considered an important part of the rodent control program in the barn and on adjacent fields. I’m not sure how barn cats and Barn Owls divided up the in-barn activities.

photo credit: R.J. Barlow

 Mrs. Edith Wolgemuth who with her husband Lorne owned a large barn near Sowerby told me that back in the early 50’s, the nearby Shewfelt’s General Store in Sowerby closed including their farm feed business. The Wolgemuth barn was suddenly over-run with rats. She said that owls moved into their barn through the owl holes in the gable and eventually cleaned out the rats for them.

These owl holes often were decorative in shape and there is debate among barn folks as to whether functional owl holes morphed into gable embellishments or whether the embellishments just happened to be of use to owls. I’m with the owls on this one.

Barn Owls are known world wide to be grassland hunters. The peak habitat era for Barn Owls in Ontario occurred a couple generations ago when most farms were mixed farms, and grain, which attracted rodents, was stored in the barn. There were livestock and lots of grassy meadows.

 Unfortunately, the demise of older barns, where owls would have ready access, is probably the greatest in the very area of Ontario where the climate is most suitable for these owls.

Several groups have collaborated on an Ontario Barn Owl Recovery Plan. They felt initially that old barn habitat was the limiting factor but now feel that adjacent open grassland habitat is equally important.

If you have an older barn and have grassland habitat nearby then you have a potential Barn Owl nesting site. The farther you are from a busy highway the better, as Barn Owls seem to have a higher than normal vehicle collision incidence. They have not adapted to look both ways when crossing the road. The grassy medians and the strip between the pavement and the fence seem to be ideal hunting habitat for them. The fence posts are perfect for perching while they scan for rodents.

If you see a barn owl or suspect they are nesting in or using your barn please call your local Ministry of Natural Resources office with the information. They are members of the recovery team. A site visit will probably be arranged.

I have routinely tried to keep pigeons out of our two heritage barns but I’m going to do a U-turn on that practise after preparing this blog. I’d like to think that the owl descendants of that old log barn just north of my farmstead might find our barn and the associated mixed farming operation to their liking. I may even cut an owl hole in the gable ends…maybe copying the owl shaped cut-out in an old Samis barn near Cobourg, Ontario. Oh Yeah! … my apologies to our resident rodents.

from Audubon Field Guide, photo by Pamela Dimeler

For a demonstration of the incredibly silent flying skills of barn owls, please see this short video by the BBC Earth: Super Powered Owls (photo credit to the same for this blog’s leading title image).

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