Barn Owl

The barn owl gets its name from its preference for nesting in barns or groups of hay bales.

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This pale and beautiful owl is the perfect subject for the beginning of our snowy winter. Called the barn owl for it’s propensity to choose a nest in a barn or group of hay bales, this medium-sized owl has a ghostly appearance when flying, with its white belly and face. The back is mixed tawny and gray colored, and the face with its small black eyes is outlined by a heart-shaped ruff of gold.

When perched, they seem rather long and slim, with long legs and a large head. They are like other owls in that the shape of their primary wing feathers (the longest, pointed feathers of the wing) make flight nearly silent, which helps the owls greatly in concealing their approach to possible prey.

Also like many other owls, they hunt at night, flying over open fields in search of small rodents, birds, and reptiles to eat. In other respects, the barn owl differs from other owls we have here in the USA and in Kittitas County. It is the only owl in its family in the Western Hemisphere — the others in the same family all live in Australia or Asia. Its voice, rather than being the series of hoots we associate with other owls, is a long hissing shriek that varies little between males and females.

For a night-hunting bird, it has very small eyes compared to other owls, suggesting that it relies much more on hearing to locate prey. In fact, its hearing is the most acute hearing of all owls, and indeed more acute than most known animal species. It has very large, asymmetric ear canals, on top of which sit movable ear flaps. The ear flaps can change the shape of the ruff, allowing it to form “aircones” that amplify sounds into troughs that lead directly into the canals. The left ear canal (placed higher on the face) angles downward, while the right canal (placed lower) angles upward.

In addition, each ear perceives slightly different frequencies of sound. While young, barn owls memorize the sounds their prey make while moving, and this, coupled with their amazing hearing abilities, allows them to hunt with success in total darkness, or when prey are underneath snow or leaf litter. Barn owls are monogamous and mate for life. Besides old barns, they nest in other cavities or rarely on the ground. The female alone incubates the eggs, and both feed the young after about 2 weeks of age.

Due to loss of habitat, especially in the Midwest, barn owls are in decline in the U.S. To learn more about this owl or other birds, visit Audubon.org, where you will find species information as well as maps of species locations. You can also go to kittitasaudubon.org for our newsletters and local events. All are welcome to our next meeting on Jan. 27, with venue to be announced soon (zoom or in person).

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