The Barn Owl is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world. It is found on every continent except Antarctica.
Barn owls are birds of open country rather than woodlands. They inhabit open grasslands, wetlands, and semi-desert. In this country, they are especially plentiful in southern California.
At The Maryland Zoo, you can see a barn owl on exhibit in the loft of the Farmyard barn.
Barn owls rest by day and do most of their hunting at night, under cover of darkness. They roost in barns, old buildings, caves, or tree hollows during the day. They wake at dusk and start to hunt. They are solitary birds that hunt and live alone, except when nesting. They fly lightly and silently, with a fluttery flight pattern like that of a moth. They hunt over fields, meadows, roads, and clearings, and around barns, granaries, and buildings in towns and cities. They are very well adapted for nighttime hunting. They have excellent night-time vision, and their ability to locate prey by sound alone is the best of any animal ever tested, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Barn owls prey mainly on rodents such as mice, moles, shrews, rats, gophers, and squirrels. They may also take rabbits, birds, bats, frogs, toads, snakes, and insects. Basically, they take prey that is small enough to catch and kill, and will hunt whatever is readily available.
Barn owls aren’t easily seen because they stay hidden during the day, hunt in the dark, and move so silently. Their call – a drawn-out, hissing scream – makes a lasting impression, though! They also leave traces of themselves behind. Like other owl species, they cough up pellets that contain undigested parts of prey. They help control rodent populations on farms and in more urban areas.
Great horned owls and prairie falcons sometimes take barn owls as prey. These night-time hunters are also vulnerable to traffic accidents. Many are killed by cars when flying low across roads at night. Many are also illegally shot.
Barn owls are monogamous as a general rule. They mate for life, and when one partner dies, the other will accept a new mate.
In North America, barn owls breed from late February or March to November. A female lays 2 to 11 eggs per clutch, and 4-7 eggs on average. The eggs are laid every two to three days, which means that it can take up to 3 weeks for all of the nestlings to hatch out. Incubation begins with the laying of the first egg and each egg hatches after an incubation period of 30-31 days. The baby owls fledge after about 2 months. Only about ¼ of “young of the year” will survive their first winter.
The status of the Barn Owl varies by local region. Although their overall global population is stable, populations in some areas have plummeted and they may be considered threatened or endangered in those locales. Some states in the U.S. list the Barn Owl as endangered.
“The wisdom of old owls,” special to The Baltimore Examiner, 1/1/2007, p. 30.