Providing nests can help restore their numbers
By Danny Watson
Barn owls, with their distinctive heart-shaped faces and dark eyes, were plentiful across Kentucky as late as the 1960s. However, biologists are concerned about current low barn owl numbers as the nesting sites and hunting grounds of these birds have disappeared.
These birds are one of the most intriguing owl species found in Kentucky. The absence of ear tufts distinguishes them from other owls found in the state. Barn owls are 14-20 inches tall, with whitish to pale cinnamon bodies. They have solid-colored breasts, buff-colored upper plumage and long legs. Barn owls emit a harsh, raspy hissing sound when they’re disturbed or when adults approach young at the nest site.
Barn owls have gradually lost their nesting and foraging habitat as landowners cut down the old trees damaged by storms and converted pastures, hayfields and grasslands to row crops. Pesticides and competition with other owl species also may have contributed to their decline.
Barn owls require semi-open to open habitats. Although they usually reside in rural settings and farmland, they also settle in older residential areas that have larger, cavity-prone trees. Prior to the state’s settlement, few if any barn owls were likely present in Kentucky. Barn owls grew in number as settlers clear-cut forests in the mid to late 1800s to grow crops.
Barn owls are cavity nesters. Where suitable trees are present, they will use cavities created by other animals - such woodpeckers – for their own nest sites. Barn owls also will nest in abandoned or seldom-used outbuildings, homes or silos.
These birds do not construct nests. They prefer to lay their eggs on a flat surface well above ground level, such as a shelf. They lay five to seven white, often nest-stained eggs, which the female incubates for 30-34 days. Juvenile owls are ready to leave the nest about 8-10 weeks after hatching.
The willingness of barn owls to use man-made structures means artificial nest boxes put into areas with the right habitat can boost the numbers of these birds. Employees of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife are already placing nest boxes inside existing buildings on wildlife management areas with suitable barn owl habitat. The department also encourages landowners that have suitable habitat and buildings to take advantage of the opportunity to provide nest sites on their property.
To help this effort, the department requests that landowners who do install nesting boxes on their property contact the Department with information about the box location, installation date and the person to contact. If the box is successful in attracting barn owls, Department employees may request to visit the site to determine clutch size and hatch date, and possibly band the nestlings. Please send information to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Installation Instructions for Barn Owl Nest Boxes
Boxes should be placed where human activity is minimal as adults will abandon eggs if disturbed. Select an abandoned or seldom-used barn few or no openings on the end, preferably located near fallow fields, hayfields, wet meadows or marsh edges.
Box Construction and Installation
Build a wooden box with one open face at least 16 inches tall, 12 inches wide and 36 inches long. Do not use treated lumber. Find a place on the barn wall at least 20-25 feet above the ground and cut a 6-by-6 inch entrance hole. Screw the nest box to the wall and a sturdy beam. Use wire or mounting brackets to provide additional support, if necessary.
Barn owls return to the same nest every year. Clean boxes annually in January or February.
Kentucky barn owls usually select their nest site from mid-March to early April. If owls are using a nest site, do not disturb it at least through the end of May.