Classification and Range
Barn owls belong to the family Tytonidae. There are 12 species in this group. Barn owls are one of the most widely distributed owl species, inhabiting woodlands, farmlands and savannas on every continent, except Antarctica.
Barn owls prefer warm climates with mild winters. They often make their homes in buildings, especially barns, near ample supplies of rodents and other small prey. They also nest in tree cavities or in rock cavities.
The pale gold-brown barn owl stands approximately 14 inches (35 cm) tall. Females weigh up to 24 ounces (670 gr), males up to 20 ounces (560 gr). Barn owls have long wings and long, lightly-feathered legs. These owls are nocturnal hunters and are equipped with eyes that have extra light-sensitive rods to enhance night vision. They also have extremely acute hearing. Asymmetrical ears allow the bird to use triangulation to locate its prey. Downy feathers and ridged primary feathers muffle the sound of their flight, enabling them to swoop silently down upon unsuspecting prey.
Although they have lived over 20 years in captivity, it is unusual for one to live to be 10 years in the wild.
In the wild: Mice, voles and shrews are this owl's primary prey, but it will rarely catch young rabbits, birds, bats, frogs and large insects.
At the zoo: Mice, small rats and crickets.
Owls do not build their own nest; rather they take over nests of other animals, such as squirrels or woodpeckers. Barn owls often prefer tree cavities, belfries, barns or abandoned buildings for nests, and seem to choose sites which have been occupied by other barn owls in the past. These owls appear to mate for life, and will not take another mate as long as their current mate lives. The female lays a clutch of five to 11 chalky white, unmarked eggs at two-day intervals. Eggs are incubated for 32-34 days. Eggs hatch in sequence of laying, so a barn owl nest may contain young of widely varying ages.
The female spends most of her time at the nest, while the male helps feed and guard the young. After about 60 days, young become fully fledged and are able to leave the nest and hunt for themselves. Northern populations of barn owls have been observed flying south to winter. Living mostly solitary lifestyles, barn owls may gather in groups at favorite roosting points. While migrating, up to 50 barn owls have been observed roosting together at one time. Barn owls are occasionally preyed upon by great horned owls, and less frequently by prairie falcons and other diurnal raptors.
Who Gives a Hoot?
For most people, a series of "hoots" comes to mind when thinking about the call of an owl. Although this may be true for most species of owls, the barn owl's call is anything but a hoot. Instead, during the night a person might hear overhead a barn owl''s drawn-out screeches and raspy hisses. Barn owls even have chuckling noises, purrs and twittering sounds in their vocabulary.
Barn owls, as well as other members of the family Tytonidae, have several visible anatomical differences from other typical owls. Barn owls have longer, lightly feathered legs and wings, smaller eyes (which are not yellow like some typical owls), no ear tufts and a middle toe with a serrated edge, which is used for feather care.
Location at the Zoo
Owls can be seen in the zoo's Temperate Forest bioclimatic zone; a barn owl at the Family Farm and a great gray owl adjacent to Bug World. Birds that can be viewed at the zoo's Raptor Center include the Harris's hawk, turkey vulture as well as great horned, spectacled and barred owls. The zoo's Eagle Release Program has rehabilitated and released back into the wild more than 80 eagles, plus other raptor species.
Barn owls are widespread throughout the United States and often do very well in areas inhabited by people. Barn owls can even be found in city parks and neighborhoods. Farmers in recent years, recognizing the great pest control rewards of having barn owls in their buildings, have encouraged nesting barn owls by leaving openings for owls to enter their barns and even supplying nest boxes. As a result, the presence of owls reduces the populations of pest rodents.
Many raptor populations are declining. Human-caused changes in land use are escalating, and this affects the habitats and migratory corridors required by some raptors for survival. For the barn owl, loss of farms to housing and shopping malls is removing their needed habitat. For other raptor species, critical shoreline and riparian zone habitats are rapidly converted by expanding human communities and agricultural needs. Shooting and trapping are also lowering raptor numbers. It's only a matter of time until more raptor species may face extinction, unless we take measures to protect their habitats.
Humans need raptors. Here are only a few of the benefits raptors provide:
- Raptors help keep animal populations in balance.
- Raptors consume many animals that humans consider as pests, including mice, rats and destructive species of insects. This helps to control disease and damage to crops.
- As top predators of their food chain, raptors are an indicator species of the overall health of the ecosystem in which they live.
- Of equal importance, witnessing wild raptors enriches each of our lives. Imagine what life would be like if we could no longer hear the haunting evening call of the owl.
How You Can Help!
Efforts to save threatened and endangered raptors require cooperation and support at international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Eliminate or reduce pesticide use. Let your elected representatives know your views about the conservation of migratory birds and their wild habitats.
Contact Woodland Park Zoo at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how you can support conservation efforts at the zoo. Discover more about raptors by contacting the Peregrine Fund at their Web site www.peregrinefund.org. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Toops, Connie. 1990. The Enchanting Owl. Voyager Press, Inc., Stillwater, MN. 127 p.
Jarvis, Kila and Denver W. Holt. 1996. Owls: Whoo Are They? Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT. 59 p.
Zoobooks. 1992. Owls. Wildlife Education, Ltd., San Diego, CA. 17 p.