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Also known as the “monkey-faced owl,” the barn owl (Tyto alba) has a distinctive, heart-shaped face, dark eyes, long scaley legs and no ear tufts. This medium-sized owl stands 16 inches tall and appears white below and golden-tan from above. Barn owls never hoot like barred owls or great horned owls, but their calls at night consist of eerie screams or raspy hissing sounds. Barn owls get their name because nests are often placed in barns near rural homesteads and in small towns.
The barn owl is the most widely distributed of all owls and is found on all continents except Antarctica. Ill-equipped for cold weather, barn owls are much more common in southern Indiana. Although barn owls occasionally occur in northern Indiana, most recent nests known have been in the southern half of the state, especially in counties along the Ohio River. In Indiana and many other Midwestern states, this once-common, rural inhabitant is now rare, and the species is considered endangered by many state wildlife agencies. About 10-15 nests are found annually in Indiana.
Barn owls need large areas of pasture, hayfields, grasslands or wet meadows which have good populations of meadow voles, their favorite food. For breeding habitat, feeding areas must be near a nest site consisting of a suitable hollow or cavity in a tree or an appropriate man-made substitute. Nests have been found in silos, water towers, belfries and building steeples. Properly designed nest boxes offer superior places for nesting and roosting and are readily accepted. Today’s farms consist of large fields of corn and soybeans with few idle or pasture areas. Old wooden barns are disappearing and being replaced by pole barns which offer fewer points of access.
Barn owls have a long breeding season which begins as early as March an may last until October. Barn owls may nest more than once during the year. No nest is constructed, although barn owls sometimes burrow between bales of hay. Clutch sizes are large with three to 11 white eggs laid. Incubation lasts for 30 to 34 days and begins almost immediately after the first egg is laid, so a brood of barn owls may differ in age by almost two weeks. Unless food is in great abundance, the younger chicks are unable to compete with their stronger siblings and die. Generally, three or four young survive the nesting period and leave the nest at 8 to 10 weeks of age. Barn owls widely disperse after they leave the nest, but a few winter in Indiana.
Barn owls are strictly night hunters and feed on a variety of small mammals and even birds. In most cases, the meadow mouse or vole, predominates in their diet. With their keen night vision and acute hearing abilities, barn owls can locate mice in the grass during the darkest of nights. Knowledgeable farmers enjoy having barn owls around because of their superior abilities as a mouser. Besides meadow and prairie voles, food eaten by barns owls in Indiana include white-footed mice, deer mice, house mice, a variety of shrews and a few birds. A pair of barn owls may take as many as 1,000 mice during the nesting season to themselves and their growing brood. Barn owls are secretive and the best way to detect them is to find their distinctive pellets. These consist of a compact mass of hair, feathers and bones and represent the undigestible regurgitated portion of their meal.
Although the loss of nesting sites, grasslands and pastures are responsible for the decline in barn owl numbers, many other factors are responsible for deaths of barn owls. Great horned owls are the barn owl's No. 1 natural enemy. This common, large owl can easily overpower and kill a barn owl. Humans are responsible for some deaths each year as owls collide with vehicles or are illegally shot. Poisons used to kill rodents may also effect barn owls which the affected mice. Cold winters with snow cover causes mortality, and summer droughts which reduce mouse populations negatively impact reproduction success and survival.
Barn owls are tolerant of living close to man, and they respond well to management. Since 1984, the Non-game and Endangered Wildlife Program has been investigating reports of barn owls and has erected more than 200 boxes for nesting. By packing these boxes in areas with adequate feeding habitat, barn owls can have a secure nesting place. The box is designed so that barn owls are safe from raccoons and, the entrance from the outside of the barn prevents fouling of the barn. By cleaning out debris from the nest box prior to the nesting season, and not disturbing the owls while they are present, boxes may be used repeatedly for many years. Find out how to build your own barn owl nest box.