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Barn Owls- A Global Raptor

The Common Barn Owl, Tyto alba, is one of only three global species of raptors. The two others are the Peregrine Falcon and the Osprey. First recorded in 1769 by Giovanni Scopoli, the barn owl is one of the most widely-recognized owls, and has several other names used in certain local areas, including 'death owl', 'stone owl', and 'dobby owl'. The barn owl tends to nest high in holes in trees, and in Europe and North America especially, in barn-like structures, hence its name. It is interesting that in North America, tree cavity nests tend to be higher than those in Europe, which is likely due to the prevalence of raccoon hunting at the nest in North America.

This owl has a white face, a gray to brown head and upper body, light brown wings with darker bands, and a white to buffy color on the chest with dark speckles. Males tend to have fewer speckles and overall be lighter in color that their female counterparts. The North American subspecies, taxonomically called pratincola, is on the larger side of the species, and tends to have a lighter white to orange underside on the spectrum of barn owl coloration. It is slightly lighter than the guttata subspecies, which resides in Central Europe ranging from Germany down to Greece and the Balkan Islands.

Unlike the public perception of this owl, it does not hoot. INstead, it emits a long screeching sound and often clicks when presented with a threat. It is difficult to hear this owl in general because they are silent fliers- due to the serration on the edges of their flight feathers, air is able to flow over the wings of the bird silently. This makes them an intense predator, as their prey is not able to anticipate their arrival based on noise, especially since the barn owl has been proven to be able to hear a small rodent underneath a foot of snow.

These owls tend to hunt at twilight or at night, which is possible due to their excellent sense of hearing and their large pupils, which allow them to absorb as much light into their retinas as is possible. Their main prey is mostly small rodents, but also includes small birds, lizards, insects, and amphibians, dependent on the prey that is available.

While in North America there is a distinct nesting season for the barn owl (March to June), other areas have barn owl nesting that is related to the wet and dry seasons, with nesting tending to occur during the dry season and the raising and fledging of the babies during the wet season, which allows for plenty of food for the parents to feed to their clutch. It is common for barn owls to have 2 clutches of babies yearly. These owls also tend to be monogamous, and will not mate with a new partner unless the old partner has died.

The average lifespan of a barn owl is 4 years in the wild, though the longest living wild barn owl was 17 years and 10 months in the Netherlands. In captivity, the average lifespan is 20, with the oldest being 25 in England.

Our barn owl, Joe Z., is between 2 and 3 years of age. He was rescued after falling from a nest in St. Petersburg, FL, and has lived in captivity ever since. Come visit us to see him and the other resident birds at Moccasin Lake Raptor Sanctuary, and click here to register for our upcoming International Owl Day Celebration on August 8th!

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Cheryl Van Beek
Cheryl Van Beek
Jul 18, 2021

So interesting especially about the effects of their serrated wings and large pupils, thanks for sharing this informative article.

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