Barn Owl UK, a look at this magnificent bird and its conservation status.

Putting to one side what man is capable of, there is little to fear in the British countryside. Sometimes my forays into the great outdoors requires me to go out when darkness cloaks the countryside. One one such occasion I was following a woodland path in poor light shed by a decresent moon. There was no wind and from within the silence of the trees rose the smell of earth made stronger by the earlier rainfall.

Then without warning, came a high pitched shriek which was amplified by the general silence of the night. This inhuman shreech is not a pleasant sound to be endured at such close quarters, particularly when so unexpected. Once my heart rate had returned to near normal, I realised the culprit was the barn owl which was patrolling its territory and was probably flying over the narrow woodland to reach the rough, open grassland nearby. Nevertheless it was a heart stopping moment. I suppose I should count I should count myself as being fortunate to have had this close encounter, for this beautiful bird is much rarer now than it once was.

Description of the Barn Owl Tyto alba.

This in many peoples opinion is the most handsome and most loved of all the British owls. This silent white hunter offers only glimpses of its ghostly figure as it glides in the moonlight. Although one of our most popular owls many people will never see one in the wild, this because they are in the main nocturnal and secondly because their population numbers are in decline {see conservation status below}

The flight of the barn owl tends to be ponderous with its head constantly looking for movement in the grass below. The barn owl will then fly a little higher and turns back to cover the land it has just searched, before moving further into the grassland where the procedure will be repeated again. This is referred to as "quartering the field"

Should the owl detect any movement it will hover a little concentrating all its senses on the movement. Then it will drop at dramatic speed to catch the unwary venturer in its uncompromising talons. The bird listens with aid of the stiff feathering on the facial disc to funnel the slightest sounds to its sensitive ears, most of these sounds would be not be heard by human ears.

The heart shaped face of the barn owl.

Photograph by Dal

The male is slightly smaller than the female

The male is slightly smaller than the female. The wingspan of the barn owl is between 85-93cm and they are about 33-35cm long. The plumage is golden buff above more or less mottled with grey. The flattened white facial disc gives an heart shaped appearance to the face. they have asymmetrical ears which enable the owl to pin point the precise direction of sound. The eyes are black. they have a hooked whitish bill.

The underside is white, sometimes speckled darker. The wings are rounded with soft edged feathers which allow the bird to fly in silence. The legs and feet are feathered. The outer toe on each powerful foot is reversible to aid capture of its prey and to keep a firm grip of them while in flight.

In relation to its body the wing length is long. The tail is medium,short. The neck short. The legs are medium length and the bill does not project. All though the bird appears relatively large the actual body beneath the plethora of feathers is surprisingly small.

In the field they can be told because it is the only bird which is golden buff above and white below. It is not uncommon for these owls to fly by day especially in winter. 

The barn owl has a curious nature

photograph by Dal

Life style and breeding.

During the winter months these birds face difficulty. Mammals such as the wood mouse and field vole are less numerous and locating enough food is a difficult task. They are also up against inclement weather such as high winds , rain and gales which affects their ability to hunt. Thus, it is not surprising that these months see the highest natural mortality rates.

Barn owls start to mate in spring. If temperate conditions prevail this may be as early as March . Poor weather will delay them until at least April. The nest may be located in a tree hole, in buildings especially old barns and nest boxes. There is no desire from the birds to build a nest as such , but content themselves to lay their eggs among pellet debri. They often just lay their eggs on a suitable ledge. They may also lay them on the floor.

The eggs are chalky white laid at intervals of two or three days. Four to six make up the clutch. The incubation period is 30-31 days. The female carries out this duty while the male provides her with food. She will only leave the eggs for short spells while she stretches her wings or to relieve herself. Once the chicks are able to retain body heat the female will join her partner in hunting for food.

Studies have revealed that by the third week the young will require 2-3 small mammals each per night to maintain a good growth. The female normally divides the prey between the chicks, however, large dominant chicks  may well devour a whole field vole in one go leaving the youngest siblings struggling to maintain their growth. If there is a dearth of food available due to bad weather for instance the youngest chicks may well perish.

At around eight weeks the young will be fully feathered. At this time they will become more inquisitive and commence to explore their immediate vicinity. It will not belong after this that the young birds will make their first tentative flights.

By September all the young will have left the "nest" and will roam the countryside in search of territories of their own. By November life begins to get gradually tougher once again as prey becomes less numerous and only the fittest and most successful hunters will survive. 

Conservation issues.

The barn owl is placed on the Amber list of conservation concern. The main criteria for being placed on this list is that the population/distribution has declined by the rate of 25-50% over the last 30 tears or so.

This owl was once the most common owl in Britain during the 1700s through to the 1800s. The population began to decline in the latter part of the 1800s. It is thought that this was due to persecution and a series of hard winters that occurred during that period.  The decline continued into the 1900s.

The first bird census of the species was carried out in 1932 and the estimated population at that time was around 12,000 pairs in England and Wales. The Hawk and Owl Trust carried out a survey during the mid 1980s. This revealed that the population had declined to 3,800 pairs in England and Wales with a further 650 pairs in Scotland.   The latest figure {BTO.} was 4,000 pairs in 2001.

During the 1950s and 60s many barn owls fell victim to organochlorine pesticides which were used a great deal  during that period.  Voles form about 85% of the owls diet and the loss of rough grassland habitat saw vole populations plummet at local level. Many old barns fell into disrepair or were demolished. Then came the fad of renovating old barns for human habitation, all these combined to deprive the birds of both hunting habitat and nesting sites.

However, it seems that now the population may well have stabilised and in some localities there has been an increase in their numbers. A great deal of work has been done by conservation organisations such as the  the Hawk and Owl trust, The Barn Owl Trust, The BTO and the RSPB on behalf of the species.

This included giving advise to people restoring old barns to leave an entrance to the roof space for the birds. 

The breeding Bird survey 2020 shows that Barn owls are still struggling  with declines in breeding populations. 

Barn owl taken in America.

Image courtesy of Bill Bouton  CC.BY-SA 2.0 License.

Rough open grassland is ideal for hunting 

photograph by Dal

Nest boxes have been----

Nest boxes, already numbering over 20,000 in the 1990s have enabled the species to occupy areas {notably fens} that were previously devoid of nesting sites.

The R.S.P.B provided a county breakdown of barn owl pairs in 2005. Below is a county breakdown of northern England.

Chessire and Wirral---                                152

Cleveland----                                              7

Cumbria----                                                168

Durham---                                                   26

Isle of Man---                                               1

Greater Manchester---                                  10

Lancashire and north Merseyside--              150

Northumberland--                                        102

Yorkshire---                                                357

Familiar Wild Birds {1800's}

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 UK Red list Birds Updated 2016

Also see Birds via link banner { Birds of Europe} in depth articles with notes from past ornithologists and other eminent writers.

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Conservation Issues UK -2021

UK-Green List Of conservation concern 

Europe-Species of least concern.