Barn Owl...

This article first published in the NORTH COLUMBIA MONTHLY, December 2015:
Ghosting over the twilit landscape, flight as quiet as a gentle snowfall, ‘Tyto alba’ the barn owl frequents the Highlands of NE Washington. These medium sized owls are easily recognizable by their overall paleness with deep dark eyes. Often it is the white face of this owl that catches one’s attention to their otherwise camouflaged markings and silent flight. Buff and gray head coloring flows down the back and upper-wings before giving way to the snow white of face, body and underwings. In twilight flight it is not uncommon to only note the over-all ‘whiteness’ of this mostly nocturnal predatory bird gliding thru the near dark. Hence the legends: Google “barn owl” and you will find mythology from all around the world. From ancient Greece to near modern cultures. Beliefs on part of isles of Great Britain gives us that “A Barn Owl screeching meant cold weather or a storm was coming.” In ancient Greece, Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom, was so impressed by the great eyes and solemn appearance of this night bird she honored it as her favorite among feathered creatures.
Barn Owls occupy habitats worldwide, and most frequently are in open or semi-open environments. Here in Washington State we are fortunate with a stable population of these owls living in forest openings, along our frequent basalt cliffs, in agricultural areas, wetlands, and other relatively large, open spaces. In winter look for these popular owls in the shelter of dense conifers or old barns or other protected places.
The behavior of these nocturnal hunters is to fly low over open ground employing their keen sense of highly precise hearing and sharp vision adapted for low light levels to listen and watch for prey. Of all nocturnal, predatory creatures studied the Barn Owl exhibits the most effective ability accurately hone in on prey entirely thru audio perception and strike effectively in total darkness. Weather plays a dominant role in the growth of food source for small mammals, and hence the Barn Owl’s brood ability in that the abundancy of voles and other small mammals (predominately rodents) affect the number of broods these owls are able to sustain. Rabbits, shrews, bats, lemmings and other small mammals, as well as the occasional blackbird, starlings and other songbirds make up this owls primary diet. During the nesting phase the Barn Owl is unique in that it will sometimes store remnants of food in the nest to feed the young hatchlings when they arrive. Thus assuring a greater chance of survivability for its offspring. Owls are also unique in that they swallow their prey whole—skin, bones, and all, although they don’t pass everything through their digestive tracts. Thus, about twice a day, they cough up pellets. Ornithologists study the pellets, which form a record of what the owls have eaten, learning about the owls and the ecosystems that sustain them.

Generally, if one is lucky enough to observe a Barn Owl in flight is the classic slow wingbeats with an apparent “buoyant” flight. But not so when the male of this species is wooing a mate. The courtship flight of males are a display to gain favor of the female. In this phase the male will often do a “moth flight” where it hovers in place in front of the potential mate with his feet dangling. If she is interested the male progresses to flights back and forth to potential nesting sites. Once the pair bond and the female remains in the selected nest location and the male strikes out on hunting forays, often providing the female with more food than she can consume, which in turn becomes the nest pantry mentioned above. While these birds mate for life the males are not necessarily monogamous and may court other females.
Barn Owl nests according to Seattle Audubon Society, “are located on cliffs, in haystacks, hollow trees, burrows in irrigation canals, or in barns, old buildings, or other cavities. Barn Owls use barns and buildings less often in eastern Washington than in other parts of their range, as many of these nesting sites have been taken over by Great Horned Owls. They do not build a true nest, but much of the debris around the nest, including pellets, is formed into a depression.” Courtship complete the egg-laying for Barn Owls in the north occurs between March, April and early May. It is not unusual to have a half a dozen or more eggs per brood. Incubation is approximately a month long process with the female being the primary nest-bird while the male continues the hunt, providing food and guarding the nest site. The male’s role as hunter is vital after the young owlets appear. He provides the female with food, she in turn feeds the hatchlings. This process will continue for the better part of two weeks, at which time the female will venture forth from the nest and begin to hunt for herself. Her absence causes the chicks to begin their first period of activity. In approximately two months the chicks will fledge and launch into their first flights. The nest remains their base of operation for the next month or so.  While it is common for the Barn Owl to raise one brood a year, abundant food sources will prompt a second and even possibly a third brood. 

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