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Barn Owls, rats and nesting boxes

by Paul Laurie

The sudden appearance of a Barn Owl hunting a roadside verge is one of the natural high lights of living in north Norfolk. The white plumage and heart shaped face of these beautiful birds is recognised by everyone and their habit of hunting during the day and breeding close to human habitation makes them a daily feature in many of our lives.

The Barn Owl is one of the most widely distributed land birds in the World being found across Europe, Western Russia, North & South America, India & Australia. The Latin name Tyto alba simply means white owl though it's common name of Barn Owl has been in use since the 1600's. Local names for Barn Owl have included Jenny Howlett, Old Hushwing & Billy Wix.

In north Norfolk we are used to the dramatic appearance of a Barn Owl as it hunts the road side verges searching for small rodents. The Barn Owl will often hunt close to footpaths seemingly taking no notice of the humans watching them, this is because they have not seen us, as their eyes are positioned facing forwards they have only a 110 degree vision so when they look downwards to hunt they see very little to the left or right, this is why they are able to turn their head 180 degrees giving them all-round vision. They are more likely to detect humans by sounds as they do their prey.

Watching a hunting Barn Owl is fascinating, the long, broad, rounded wings give the bird lift and a superbly controlled slow flight ideal for quartering over rough grassland two metres or so above the ground seeking out Short-tailed field voles. Male and female Barn Owls are very similar though the male often has clean white underparts and the female small dark streaks on the leg feathering and flanks, females often have blue-grey feathering on the back and upper wing feathers.

It is well known that the numbers of Barn Owls in Britain has been declining over the last 100 years with 20,000 pairs thought to breed here in the early 1900's and with only 3,000 - 4,000 pairs found during surveys in 1985. The reason for the decline is due to several factors with the most obvious the reduction in prey items and the loss of nesting places. In Norfolk in the year 1903 one gamekeeper was responsible for killing 14,662 rats. These days rats are in far fewer number with modern farming and pest control methods. Also many old buildings have been demolished or converted in to homes and holiday properties reducing the numbers of available nesting sites for Barn Owls to raise young successfully.

Many farmers, landowners and builders place nesting boxes for Barn Owls in and around farm building, large houses and woodland edges, giving the birds a vital secure nesting site for many years. Barn Owls have been known to live for over twenty years and although the average number of young raised each year is three it is possible for a older pair to raise up to eight young from a nest box. Barn Owls begin courtship during February March and lay the eggs during the first week of May the young take 60 - 70 days to fledge and during this time the parents must catch 30 - 40 rodents each day to feed a brood of four birds this means that the two parents catch around 2000 rodents during the breeding season to feed their young. After around four weeks the young are not brooded by the parents which roost closeby and this is why they are often seen close to the nesting sites during the day.

Erecting a Barn Owl nesting box at anytime of the year will help and encourage Barn Owls, the young need secure sites to roost during the late summer, autumn and winter. Putting up a Barn Owl box will also give you a great insight in to these wonderful bird's lives and give hours of pleasure as you watch them, Barn Owls are comfortable with living in close proximity to humans let us not lose the relationship with has developed between man and Barn Owl over hundreds of years.


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