Grays Harbor Birds: Barn Owl

Size: 16 inches

General Description: The Barn Owl is a medium-sized owl, with a short tail, a white, heart-shaped facial disk, and long legs. The breast is also white or buffy-colored with some spotting, dark eyes, and a tawny-colored body overall. There are gray patches on the back and outlining the wings. The male and female look similar but the female tends to be more densely spotted or darker below, is slightly larger than the male and has a rounder face.

Habitat: Barn Owls are found worldwide, in open or semi-open habitat, especially in agricultural areas. In Washington, they can be found near basalt cliffs, forest openings, wetlands and marshes, and croplands. In winter they roost in dense conifers or barns. They are especially appreciated by farmers as they help keep the rodent population under control.

Behavior: Barn Owls hunt mostly at night, flying low to the ground, listening and watching for prey. Their vision is adapted for low light levels and their hearing is highly precise. They can accurately locate prey by sound and strike in total darkness. No other animal tested has as great an ability to locate prey by sound. When using sight to locate, they bob their head and weave it back and forth, zeroing in on the visual target.

Diet: When voles are abundant, they are a major source of food; if there is a shortage of voles, they will eat rats, mice, birds, and sometimes snakes. They eject pellets.

Nesting: In winter, the male attracts the female with wing-clapping and a flight display, and presents her with food during courtship. They form a pair bond that generally lasts as long as each member is alive. Nesting begins early, with egg-laying between March and May. Nests are on cliffs, in haystacks, hollow trees, burrows in irrigation canals, or in barns and old buildings. They do not build a true nest but gather pellets and other debris and form a depression. The female lays an average of 5 eggs, but can lay as many as 11 in a year of abundant food. She incubates them for 29 to 34 days, beginning as soon as the first egg is laid. The young then hatch 2 to 3 days apart. The male brings her food while she incubates, and continues to bring food to her and the owlets for about two weeks after they hatch, though she feeds the young. She then begins to leave the nest and hunt as well. The young begin to fly at about 60 days but they return to the nest site at night for a few more weeks. Barn Owls may raise more than one brood a year if food is abundant, even up to 3 broods. Barn Owls are generally resident all year, but some young birds wander great distances.

Conservation Status: Owls are difficult to survey for population status, but they are thought to be declining due to habitat loss from suburbanization. They do not do well in harsh winters and die-offs are often observed in severe winters, but their range appears to be expanding in the lower Columbia Basin. The good news is they respond well to nest-box programs, and with a family of Barn Owls killing about 1,300 rats a year, farmers are providing nesting sites to encourage them.

When and Where to Find in the Twin Harbors: In the open fields and agricultural lands of Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties; look for old barns.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon