Barn Owls have become more common over the years

Published Feb 19th 2012 in Wildlife

The Barn Owl lives in nearly every land except the Polar Regions, New Zealand and Oceania. However, it is scarce in southwestern U. S. and there were few records in Midland County until the spring of 1967. In 1967, the late Ted Jones reported (in the Midland Naturalists newsletter, The Phalarope) that "on April 23 two medium sized shadows were seen in a hackberry at the Boone ranch, but escaped without identification, as they did the next week also. On May 7, MIDNATS recognized two Barn Owls circling above the grove of soapberry west of the ranch house. The owls have been seen at Boone at intervals since then, and one was spotted in the clump of elms at Rose Acres (Midland's original sewage ponds) last fall. MIDNATS later found another on the Houston Ranch in western Glasscock County. How many owls this adds up to is uncertain."

Owls are birds of prey like hawks, which they resemble in having hooked beaks and powerful feet and talons. They differ in having large, seemingly neckless heads with forward-facing eyes set in disks of radiating feathers. Owls have soft fluffy plumage (the feather has a short shaft) even on their feet, which muffles the sound of their flight. Whereas hawks tear at a carcass, swallowing bits of flesh, owls have no crop and swallow prey whole if possible. Later they regurgitate the bones, fur and feathers in pellets, which can be seen beneath their perches. An examination of 454 skulls found in the pellets under one owl nest revealed that all skulls but one were rodents. Except for parrots, owls are the only birds that transfer food to their mouths with their feet.

The prey of the Barn Owl has no warning, because the owl strikes swiftly, silently, and accurately in the darkness. His eyes can see in the dark much better than a human. Since the eyes are set directly in front, the owl can judge distance to a certain extent by triangulation. This power is improved is the prey moves, and if it does not, the owl moves his head from side to side. Even in absolute darkness the Barn Owl can catch his prey by the sound of a squeak or a rustle of leaves. Owls are almost the only birds with external ears (not to be confused with tufts of feathers) approaching those of mammals. The eardrums are large. The two ears differ in placement, so that the owl can better judge the direction of the sound.

Many stories have been told of the appetite of Barn Owls. A fledgling owl can eat his own weight every night. A half-grown owl, given all he could eat, swallowed eight mice in rapid succession, and a ninth all but the tail, which hung out for some time. Three hours later the owl ate four more mice. The parents are efficient hunters; in one case 16 mice were carried to the nest in 25 minutes, in addition to three gophers, a squirrel, and a rat. In other places Barn Owls eat numerous creatures which are not available in dry west Texas, but never any vegetable matter. The hawks and owls at Boone are really the friends of the farmers and ranchers because they destroy vast numbers of grass and grain-eating animals. They also help the hunter by catching the rodents that eat the eggs of Scaled Quail and Bobwhite.

Barn Owls do not go to much trouble in building a nest. Any box or corner of a building will do, but abandoned hawks’ nests, hollow trees, abandoned wells, and burrows are also used. In a small cavity no lining is necessary. On a flat place a crude nest of sticks and trash is constructed. The nest is quite untidy, with pellets all around.

Barn Owls breed early, starting in February. They lay five to seven, or even eleven, pointed white eggs. The eggs are laid at intervals of two or three days and are incubated immediately, so that there are young birds of different sizes in the nest. At six weeks the young weigh more than the adults, and must lose weight before they can become swift hunters. Fledglings are pugnacious and hiss when disturbed. If you find a nest, leave it alone, but call me at 432.684.6827 so we can map the location.