Most people encounter their first Barn Owl as a ghostly glimpse in the headlights on a lonely dark road. Or, perhaps, looking up into the night sky after hearing a piercing scream overhead.
I have seen many Barn Owls in my life, but the experience is always memorable. There is just something otherworldly about these pale, nocturnal birds with dark eyes set in white, heart-shaped faces. Perhaps this is why there are so many superstitions surrounding them – Barn Owls likely even inspired the myth of the banshee, a female spirit whose wailing foretold death.
But what are these mysterious birds really up to? Keep reading to learn all about how to identify, observe, and attract the enigmatic Barn Owl.
Barn Owls are members of the order Strigiformes, which includes all of the world’s owls in two families: Strigidae and Tytonidae. The family Tytonidae represents the most ancient lineage of owls and contains 20 species in its two genera: Phodilus and Tyto.
Owls of the genus Tyto are medium to large-bodied birds with big heads and long legs. Unlike most owls (those in the family Strigidae), owls in the genus Tyto have heart-shaped faces, relatively small eyes, and a serrated central talon. Most species look fairly similar. But of the 17 species in the genus Tyto, the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is by far the most numerous and widespread.
Due to their piercing calls, they were originally called screech owls in Britain, but their common name was quickly changed to the even more apt Barn Owl by the late 1600s. Today, it is known by many other common names, including white owl, demon owl, death owl, silver owl, ghost owl, dobby owl, hissing owl, monkey-faced owl, and “the farmer’s friend.” In ancient Greek, “Tyto alba” means “white night owl.”
Due to recent genetic studies, most taxonomists now consider the Barn Owl to be a collection of several species separated geographically: the Western Barn Owl (Tyto alba) of Eurasia and Africa, the Eastern Barn Owl (T. javanica) of southeast Asia and Australasia, the American Barn Owl (T. furcata) of North and South America, and, sometimes, the Andaman Masked Owl (T. deroepstorffi) of the southern Andaman Islands.
For simplicity, I will discuss all of these species under the original name of Barn Owl (T. alba) in this guide.
Taxonomy At a Glance
Species: T. alba
How to Identify the Barn Owl
With their pale plumage, distinctive faces, shrieking calls, and preference for living near humans, Barn Owls are fairly easy to identify no matter where you are in the world. They are also unlike most of the world’s owls in many ways!
Adult Barn Owls are medium-sized with short, blunt tails and slim builds compared to other owls. They have long, white-feathered legs with brownish-gray toes, which end in slate gray talons. Unlike most owls, the middle and inner toes are the same length, and the middle toe features a serrated talon.
Their dark eyes are set in a bright white face, and they have a ridge of feathers resembling a nose above their pinkish bills, bordered by a heart-shaped facial disk of movable feathers. Altogether, their faces give the impression of a mask, ghost, or monkey. Barn Owls have smaller eyes than other owls, owing to their greater reliance on superb hearing for hunting.
Barn Owls are quite colorful on their backs, upper wings and tails, and heads, featuring hues of rusty-orange to gold marked with gray splotches and black dots and stripes. Their faces, chests, bellies, and wing and tail undersides, meanwhile, are cream to pure, silvery-white.
In-flight, they seem to float due to their long, rounded wings. They fly with slow, shallow wing motions, their long legs hanging down. Viewed from below, Barn Owls appear pure white with no dark markings on their wing or tail feathers.
Male and female Barn Owls look quite similar, but, as with most owls, the female is slightly larger. Females also have darker plumage and heavier speckling on their backs and chests. Black speckles are thought to advertise the health of the female, as females with heavier spotting are more resistant to parasites. Males are paler overall – this is most noticeable on their unspeckled white chests and on the white-edged upper sides of the flight feathers.
Due to the species’ large geographic range, there are currently between 20 to 30 subspecies, and 46 different races of Barn Owl recognized. For the most part, differences relate to overall size, body proportions, plumage coloration, and behavior. The Galapagos subspecies is the smallest, and the Pacific subspecies is the largest.
Very young Barn Owls are covered in bright white down. Slightly older owlets have cream to yellowish down, already have their distinctive heart-shaped facial disks, and will often show evidence of adult feathers growing in. Juvenile Barn Owls look identical to adults.
Barn Owl Vocalizations and Sounds
The Barn Owl’s main vocalization is a long, loud, raspy shriek that sounds like, “shreeeeeeeeeeeeee!” But there are a few – albeit subtle – variations on this theme. Males shriek to advertise to females, warn rival males, and call a female’s attention to a potential nest site. Males often shriek repeatedly while flying or when perched near the nest. The territorial “song” is usually a single drawn-out shriek.
Check out this video of a Barn Owl shrieking at the roost:
Females can shriek as well, although they vocalize less often. The female shriek is lower in pitch and has a more grating, less-refined quality. Males, meanwhile, have a more tremulous, higher-pitched voice. This is unique, as, in most owl species, the male has the deeper voice.
Barn Owl shrieks can be heard year-round but are most frequent during courtship, which is typically between January and March in North America.
Barn Owls produce several other sounds in addition to shrieks, including whistles and a purring “chirr-up” call. Courting males also issue shrill twittering calls. All Barn Owls hiss when threatened.
Where Does the Barn Owl Live: Habitat
The Barn Owl is the most widely distributed owl – and one of the most widely distributed land birds – in the world. They can be found on every continent except for Antarctica, as well as on many islands. Because some populations are geographically separated, there are several subspecies, and many taxonomists consider the Barn Owl to be a collection of many closely related species.
Barn Owls require open areas to hunt as well as secluded areas for roosting and nesting. Grasslands, farmland, marshes, pastures, prairies, brushy fields, open meadows with scattered trees, city parks, and deserts are preferred sites for foraging. Abandoned buildings, barns, churches, and other human structures are favorite roost and nest sites. If not available, Barn Owls will use dense coniferous trees, rock outcroppings, caves, and cliff crevices for shelter.
Barn Owls thrive in open areas near human settlements. They avoid dense forests and expansive open areas that lack roosting and nest sites.
Barn Owl Migration
Barn Owls do not migrate in the conventional sense. Most individuals stay in the same territory year-round for their entire lives. Barn Owls in the extreme north may venture south to find prey during harsh winter conditions. Young owls will also disperse 50 to 1,000 miles from their parents’ territories to claim territories of their own.
Barn Owl Diet and Feeding
Barn Owls are nocturnal specialist hunters with a preference for rodents but become opportunistic when prey is scarce. They have a higher metabolic rate than other owls of their size and can eat several prey items a night, often caching some for later.
Barn Owls feed almost exclusively on rodents like voles, mice, and small rats. In some populations, rodents make up 90% of the diet. A single Barn Owl can eat two mice per night and will often kill many more than that and save them for later – especially during the breeding season. And now you know why they are called “the farmer’s friend!”
Barn Owls will also take shrews, lemmings, young rabbits, bats, and other small mammals. Birds – including starlings, meadowlarks, and blackbirds – are eaten rarely, likely when preferred prey isn’t available. Frogs, lizards, fish, and insects are also taken on occasion – but, curiously, never earthworms! Some island populations have become specialist feeders on geckos, nesting birds, and insects.
Barn Owl Breeding
Due to their global distribution, the Barn Owl breeding season varies with location. In North America, it begins between January and March, depending on latitude. Unlike most owls, Barn Owls have a long breeding season and often raise multiple – sometimes large – broods each year.
Male Barn Owls perch on prominent fixtures throughout their territories – like trees, fence posts, and power poles – and issue their long, drawn-out shrieking vocalizations to attract potential mates.
Should a female show interest, he will perform several courtship displays, including an up-and-down diving swoop featuring loud wing claps and rapid vocalizing shrieks, whistles, and chitters, and a “moth flight,” in which he hovers in front of her with his legs dangling. He will also chase the female. Courting Barn Owls put on impressive aerial displays, twisting and turning in flight while shrieking.
If the female is receptive to his advances, the male will shower her with gifted prey items – sometimes way more than she can eat. The female consumes as much as possible to gain weight and prepare for the arduous task of egg-laying.
Barn Owls typically mate for life but will choose a new partner if their mate dies. There are also instances where males have multiple female partners, but this is thought to be rare.
Male Barn Owls scout for potential nest sites during the courtship process. Like most owls, they do not build their own nests, searching instead for sheltered areas that need little modification.
Barn Owls are extremely adaptable when it comes to nest site selection. Abandoned buildings, barns, haylofts, between stacked hay bales, dry wells, church steeples, lava tubes, cliff ledges, hollow trees, caves, nooks under bridges, deer blinds, rock outcrops, quarries, and nest boxes are all used.
Barn Owls show a preference for manmade structures and have even been observed nesting behind drive-in movie theater screens and in Yankee Stadium! In areas where nothing is available, Barn Owls will dig shallow depressions in dirt banks and nest on the ground.
When a good location is chosen, the male draws the female’s attention to it by shrieking while flying in and out of the site. If she deems it acceptable, the female will begin roosting in the chosen site. She may make slight modifications to it, rearranging debris, digging a depression, and lining it with fur from coughed up pellets which she shreds with her talons.
The male continues to bring his mate food at the nest site, often copulating after she receives the prey item. Both males and females crouch and shake their wings before copulating.
Good nest sites may be used year after year, and the pair may roost at the nest site year-round. Sometimes, however, a new pair will claim the same nest site, so the owls you see in your barn may actually be different each year.
Female Barn Owls lay eggs every two days, sometimes at greater intervals, until they have a clutch of three to eight eggs. Six eggs is the average clutch size, but on years where prey is abundant, females may lay up to 13 eggs!
Eggs are elliptical and are white when first laid – becoming stained by the nest to a pale yellow. They are smooth but not glossy.
The female incubates the eggs by herself for 29 to 42 days while the male continues to bring her food. The pair will create a stash of prey items in the nest, so they are ready to feed the hungry nestlings once they hatch.
The owlets hatch over a period of days. Since incubation starts with the first egg, young vary considerably in age and size. Like many birds of prey, the youngest chicks often aren’t able to compete with their stronger, older siblings and perish. But on good years where prey is abundant, all chicks may survive!
Unlike most birds, Barn Owl chicks seem to perform in-nest negotiations, in which older siblings may offer food to younger or weaker siblings in exchange for grooming rather than keeping it all for themselves.
Owlets are altricial – that is, mostly naked and helpless – at hatch, and their eyes are closed. The male continues to bring food for his family, which the female rips into smaller pieces and offers to the owlets. She continues to brood them for another two weeks before she must join her mate in hunting full time to feed the young. Barn Owl chicks grow quickly, able to amble around the nest at one week old and “outgrowing” their first coat of fluffy white down, appearing naked in patches.
Unlike other owls, they grow a second coat of down after 12 days – this one longer, thicker, and more yellowish in color. By two weeks of age, they are half the weight of an adult Barn Owl. Their now-open eyes are pale blue. At just one month old, their heart-shaped faces are well-developed, and their adult feathers are beginning to emerge – they look like fuzzy versions of full-grown Barn Owls. By six weeks old, they are as big as an adult.
Young Barn Owls leave the nest and begin “branching,” that is, climbing around and perching near the nest site, at about 42 days old. They attempt their first flight at 55 to 60 days old but return to the nest to sleep and are still fed. Young stay with their parents for several weeks after flying, and the female teaches them how to hunt.
When they are just ten weeks old, they disperse 50 to 1,000 miles away from home to find their own territories, typically becoming parents themselves at the age of one year – if they survive.
Barn Owl Population
Barn Owls are incredibly widespread and numerous and are still common in many locations throughout their range. However, they are slowly declining in some regions, and conservationists believe this trend will continue.
Partners in Flight currently estimates a global breeding population of 3.6 million birds. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates a total global population of 10 million Barn Owls (with 2 million of this being the American Barn Owl).
Is the Barn Owl Endangered?
Overall, the Barn Owl is not endangered. The IUCN Red List lists the species as having a status of Least Concern, meaning it is not at immediate risk for extinction. However, the species has declined in some locations, and some subspecies are considered endangered.
Historically, Barn Owls, along with many other bird species, experienced population declines due to the use of the pesticide DDT, which is concentrated in adults resulting in fragile eggshells and an inability to reproduce. After DDT was banned, Barn Owl numbers recovered across most of their range. But in modern times, new problems have arisen.
In the Midwestern United States, Barn Owls have declined due to the conversion of open rough-grassland farmland to dense row crops of soybeans and corn. Dense crops and their standard chemical treatments support less of their rodent prey, and as a result, Barn Owls are scarce where they were once abundant.
In the eastern United States, the decline of farming over the last few decades has led to widespread habitat loss for Barn Owls. Farmland has been converted to housing developments or has been allowed to return to forest over the last few decades. As a result, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri now list the species as endangered, threatened, or of special concern.
Elsewhere, the removal of old buildings and the modernization of structures in which they are completely sealed off from the outside has taken vital roost and nest sites away from Barn Owls. In Canada, Barn Owls have declined due to the loss of open grassland, harsh winters, and an increase in road traffic. They are now listed as endangered in eastern Canada and as a species of special concern in the west. England and Wales have also observed declines in Barn Owl numbers in recent years.
Luckily, Barn Owls are incredibly adaptable and thrive alongside humans. Declines are due to loss of habitat, lack of available nesting sites, and absence of prey. Since rodents are still abundant in most areas, conservationists have discovered that simply adding nest boxes has brought Barn Owl numbers up in some places. They are still thriving in many areas – especially the heavily cultivated Central Valley of California.
Barn Owl Habits
Barn Owls are almost completely nocturnal. They are skilled hunters of rodents and are most often seen flying low over fields or roadsides, searching for prey. You may also observe a roosting Barn Owl sleeping during the day in an old building or barn loft. As with most owls, the easiest way to locate one is to listen for their hair-raising shrieks at night.
Unlike the ferocious Great Horned Owls they often share space with, Barn Owls only actively defend their immediate nesting space and do not patrol their foraging territories. Males will shriek a warning to rival males from perches near the nest during the breeding season. Outside of the breeding season, males and females lead solitary lives and are only aggressive if provoked.
When threatened, Barn Owls raise their wings to make themselves appear larger, lower their heads and clack their bills while hissing. If this doesn’t work, they will fall onto their backs and slash the air with their talons.
Barn Owls hunt by flying low over open areas like agricultural fields, grasslands, roadside verges, marshes, and meadows, scanning the ground below for their preferred rodent prey. Occasionally, they will hunt from a perch or hover above a potential prey item. Like most owls, they have exceptional low light vision – but hearing is their most developed sense.
Barn Owls hunt primarily by ear and have the best hearing of any animal on Earth. They have specialized skulls that accommodate asymmetrical ear openings in which one points up and one points down. This allows them to hear in a vertical dimension, something no other owl can do.
Each ear is tuned to the small sounds of their prey scurrying. Sounds are then funneled by their movable facial disk feathers into their ear openings, where they are amplified. Barn Owls can determine prey location by sound so accurately that they can hunt in total darkness. They can also capture prey under heavy snow or leaf litter.
Once they have a lock on their prey, Barn Owls swoop silently down and grab the animal in their talons. Like most owls, they fly silently due to specialized fringes on the edges of their flight feathers and velvety coverings on top of their wings which muffle the sound of travel. Barn Owls usually swallow their prey whole, coughing up a pellet of fur and bones a few hours later.
Barn Owls hunt most often at dusk or at night, but when prey is scarce, when they are feeding hungry young, or after a wet night, they can occasionally be observed hunting during the day. It is easy to spot a Barn Owl out in the day, as crows and many songbirds will relentlessly mob the owl.
At dawn, Barn Owls return to one of around three favorite daytime roosts to sleep. Old buildings, barns, dark lofts, church steeples, caves, crevices under bridges, and dense coniferous trees are frequently used – but any dark, sheltered space that can accommodate their slim bodies will do. As with nesting, Barn Owls have a preference for manmade structures which provide complete protection from the elements.
If disturbed at the roost, Barn Owls rock back and forth and bob their heads while peering at the intruder but seldom attack.
Barn Owl Predators
Barn Owls are themselves fierce and agile hunters, with powerful bills and sharp talons. Still, they have a few natural predators. By far, the biggest animal threat to a Barn Owl is another larger owl. In the Americas, the larger and more powerful Great Horned Owl, an indiscriminate hunter which shares the night, is a constant threat. In the Old World, the Eurasian Eagle-Owl is a known predator. Barn Owls are most vulnerable when hunting in the open and make prime targets for the sharp-eyed owls of the genus Bubo.
Other large owls, like Tawny Owls, may take a hapless Barn Owl if the opportunity arises. Skilled diurnal bird-hunters like Northern Goshawks and Cooper’s Hawks will also attack a Barn Owl, as will both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles. Raccoons, large opossums, and other carnivorous mammals are common nest predators – and will attack an adult bird if the opportunity arises.
Barn Owls also fall victim to pesticides and rodenticides, electrocution by power lines, and may fly into barbed wire fences while hunting. Collisions with cars are very common and kill many birds throughout their range. Barn Owls like to hunt on grassy roadside verges and often swoop low across roads.
Planting roadside hedges has been successful in preventing deaths. In some countries, Barn Owls are associated with superstition and are still killed. In parts of Africa and India, they are hunted for use in black magic.
Note: Avoid using poisoned bait traps to kill mice and rats. Barn Owls feed on poisoned rodents, and the toxins accumulate in their bodies, which can eventually lead to paralysis and death. They also feed the meat to their young, which can be lethal to them.
Barn Owl Lifespan
Most Barn Owls do not live very long lives in the wild. Like most owls, they have extremely high mortality in their first year of life, with only 25% of young owlets surviving to adulthood. If they manage to survive adolescence, most only live to be two years old, with a lifespan of four years being the average.
The oldest wild Barn Owl lived to be 34 years old, and, currently, there is a 36-year-old owl in captivity. Simple modifications like planting hedges on roadsides, reducing the use of rat poison, and providing safe roosts may prolong the lives of these beneficial owls.
Answer: Barn Owls have a few features that make them seem creepy to us. One is their habit of issuing hair-raising shrieks at night, often near human residences. But their eerily human faces are probably the main reason many people find them disturbing. Barn Owls have forward-directed, uniformly dark eyes, making them seem ghostlike and expressionless. (They actually have brown eyes and black pupils, but we usually can’t see the pupils as they are dilated at night.)
They also have heart-shaped faces with a ridge of feathers over their bills that appears nose-like, giving them droll, monkey-like “expressions.”
The fact that we see a face on an owl is due to a phenomenon called pareidolia, in which people identify the pattern of a human face in places where one doesn’t exist, such as outlets, on the Moon, and in the facial features of an owl. The fact that a Barn Owl is a living creature also triggers something called the uncanny valley, which is responsible for the feeling of unease people feel when something, like a monkey or robot, closely resembles a human but is not quite right.
Answer: Barn Owls do not hoot like many owls do. Their main vocalization is a loud, raspy, ear-piercing shriek, often issued from the wing while flying overhead or when perched near the nest. While it may sound spooky to us (and, in fact, likely inspired the myth of the banshee), Barn Owl shrieks serve a similar purpose to the hoots of other owls – they are used to attract mates, defend territories, and otherwise communicate.
Answer: Barn Owls need large, open areas to forage as well as dark, sheltered areas to roost and raise young. If you live in a city near a large park, in the country near open areas, or in a suburban area bordering farmland, you can increase your chances of attracting a Barn Owl to your yard by hanging a nest box. Check out the many options offered by the Barn Owl Box Company.
Also, make sure to provide good roost sites like dense coniferous trees, old buildings, or other manmade structures. If you have a barn, leave the loft open to entice a Barn Owl to take up residence. If you have a pasture, leave it wild and unmowed to attract prey. Also, avoid trapping or poisoning mice and rats, as Barn Owls rely on these as a food source. Barn Owls are an effective, eco-friendly way to keep rodent populations down!
Answer: Barn Owls do not prey on dogs or cats. Most breeds are far too large and heavy to be considered suitable prey. Barn Owls predominantly feed on rodents like voles and mice, and the largest prey taken is no bigger than a lemming or baby rabbit. Very small kittens and newborn puppies could technically be at risk, but Barn Owls hunt in open areas, so an attack would be extremely unlikely.
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