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 Barn Owls in Kentucky

Barn Owl

 

HAVE YOU SEEN ME?

The Barn Owl is a rare species in Kentucky.  The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources would like to learn more about nesting Barn Owls, but we need your help.  Please report Barn Owl nests to 1-800-858-1549 or to kathryn.heyden@ky.gov.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Barn Owl Status - Past and Present

The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is a nocturnal raptor found in open habitats where it preys primarily on rodents and other small mammals. Although the species is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world (found on all continents except for Antarctica), in Kentucky, records of nesting Barn Owls have been quite rare both historically and in modern times. Due to the predominance of forested habitat, the species was probably very rare or absent from much of the state prior to European settlement. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the species likely colonized open habitats created by settlers (Palmer-Ball 1996).

The infrequency of reports of this species in Kentucky is somewhat surprising because much suitable habitat in the form of pastures, hayfields, croplands, reclaimed surface-mine lands, and restored grasslands is present. In fact, 38% of the state is composed of undeveloped, open land (grassland/herbaceous, pasture, cropland, etc.). With such an abundance of suitable habitat, it seems Kentucky should host an abundance of Barn Owls. It is likely that the scarcity of breeding records is in part due to the elusive nature of these nocturnal predators. Mengel (1965) noted that the paucity of published records likely exaggerated the perceived rarity of the species, and he stated that during his time most rural people were familiar with the species, implying that Barn Owls must have occurred “widely and regularly.” This has not been the case in recent years; despite efforts to track breeding records for this species, detailed reports have remained few in number. For example, only seven confirmed breeding records were documented 1985–1991 during the state’s breeding bird atlas project (Palmer-Ball 1996).

Barn Owls have gained conservation concern throughout most of North America in recent years due to noticeable population changes. Severe declines have been recorded in several Midwestern states (Colvin 1985, WDNR 2005). Many possible causes for these declines have been identified and examined including habitat loss, human-related mortality, variability in prey populations, low survival during severe winters, predation, pesticides, and limited number of suitable nest sites (Altwegg et al. 2006, Colvin 1985, Stewart 1980). Without doubt, a combination of these factors has affected Kentucky’s Barn Owl population.

Due to local conservation concern, the Barn Owl has been considered a Species of Special Concern by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission since 1986 (Warren et al. 1986), and as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Kentucky’s State Wildlife Action Plan (KDFWR 2005).

 

Barn Owl Monitoring

Conservation actions for declining species are usually best implemented when the status of the population is known. In the

Figure 1. County distribution of known nesting Barn Owl pairs documented during 2010

Figure 1. County distribution of known nesting Barn Owl pairs documented during 2010.

case of Barn Owl, so little was known about its status in Kentucky that the first step was to conduct a statewide inventory, beginning in 2010.

 

During the 2010 inventory, twenty-six confirmed Barn Owl nest locations were documented. Additionally, 7 locations were recorded for roosting, non-breeding Barn Owls. Most nests were found on privately owned land, although three were in nest boxes on WMAs. Nests were found in a variety of structures including nest boxes, silos, grain bins, barns, hollow trees, chimneys, and even shooting houses. Nests were scattered throughout much of central and western Kentucky, but none were reported in far eastern Kentucky (Figure 1). Although active nests were documented in 23 counties, most counties produced only a single nesting record. Once located, the productivity of each Barn Owl nest was monitored where possible.

Barn Owl Nesting 

Barn Owls do not bring any vegetation to the nest. They simply lay eggs on the floor of the nesting structure or on pellets. Nesting is typically initiated during spring (March–May) and eggs are incubated for about 32 days. Young fledge at about 60 days of age, usually by the end of July. Brood sizes usually vary between 3 and 8 young, though larger broods have been documented elsewhere.

A Barn Owl nest in grain bin containing six young owls.
A Barn Owl nest in a grain bin containing six young owls.
Photo by:  Kate Heyden 


A Barn Owl peers out of the entrance to a nest box in a Wildlife Management area barn.
Photo by: Kate Heyden


During the 2010 monitoring, biologists were surprised to find that nesting activity continued into late summer and fall/winter with five nests documented with young after September! Surprisingly, “double-brooding” or attempting to raise two nests of young in one year was documented at two of these late nests which continued into December. Nesting during fall/winter and double-brooding has been reported occasionally in bordering states including Illinois and Ohio (Walk et al 1999, Shipley and Scott 1999), but had not been previously reported in Kentucky.

Barn Owls which nest in Kentucky appear to be non-migratory and usually remain on site year-round, although different locations may be chosen for roosting seasonally.

 

 

Barn Owl Diet

Barn Owl pellets are usually 1-1 ½ inches thick and 1-3 inches long.
Photo by: Kate Heyden

Barn Owl pellets are usually 1-1 ½ inches thick and 1-3 inches long.
Photo by: Kate Heyden

 
Barn Owls, like other owls, regurgitate undigested parts of food in pellets. Since Barn Owls often swallow prey whole, pellets usually contain fur, skulls and bones. Pellets are often left at the nest site or roost site, making it easy to determine what the owls have been eating. KDFWR staff have opportunistically dissected pellets found at nesting and roosting locations to identify prey remains. Identifiable skulls are often those of voles (Microtus spp.) or Southern bog lemmings (Synaptomys cooperi), although mice (Peromyscus spp. and Mus musculus) skulls have also been found. Other, less common prey items that have been noted include crawfish and bird remains. The observed dominance of voles in the diet of Barn Owls was consistent with other studies on the contents of Barn Owl pellets in Kentucky (Brown 1989, Thogmartin et al 1999) and elsewhere in inland North America (Marti 2009).

 

Management Efforts

Suitable nest site availability in the proximity of areas with a large prey base is assumed to be a major limiting factor for Barn Owl populations. Providing nest boxes near source populations has been found to successfully increase nesting populations (Marti et al 1979). The inclusion of the Barn Owl as a species of greatest conservation need in Kentucky’s State Wildlife Action Plan (KDFWR 2005) resulted in establishment of a program to install nest boxes in suitable habitat on WMAs and other public lands in 2006. Initially, efforts focused on installing nest boxes in barns and sheds near large tracts of grassland habitat. Nineteen nest boxes have been installed in barns or sheds on public land since 2006. However, several WMAs that have good Barn Owl habitat, do not have barns that are conducive to nest box installation. Thus, in 2008, a new nest box was designed that could be mounted onto a tree or pole. Since 2008, 18 nest boxes have been installed on trees and poles on public lands.

Although several nest boxes on public lands have already become active, in 2010 the nest box focus switched to maximizing the productivity of existing Barn Owl nests - whether they are on public or private land. Nest success may be hindered at unreliable nest sites, perhaps contributing to Barn Owl declines. For example, many nests are discovered when hollow trees are cut down, grain bins are drained, or old barns are demolished. In 2010, KDFWR worked to ensure that all known nesting Barn Owl pairs had a safe and permanent nest site by installing 29 additional nest boxes at locations with known pairs. Sometimes Barn Owls choose nest locations that present an inconvenience for the landowner or will not be available in future years (e.g. a hole in an attic vent that is planned to be fixed). KDFWR works with landowners to encourage Barn Owls to nest in a location which is convenient for the landowner and safe for the owls. The department also ensures that destroyed Barn Owl nest sites (removed nest trees) are replaced with a nearby nest box in an undisturbed area. It is hoped that these efforts will encourage a more stable Barn Owl nesting population statewide.

Banding Efforts

A young Barn Owl at the time of banding.
Photo by: Kate Heyden

A young Barn Owl at the time of banding.
Photo by: Kate Heyden

In hopes of learning more about the dispersal, movements, and survival of Kentucky Barn Owls, KDFWR personnel bands Barn Owls, when possible. Owls are banded by qualified KDFWR personnel with federal permits. Each owl wears a lock-on aluminum leg band with a unique 9-digit number. Information on age and sex are recorded using a combination of measurements and plumage characteristics. KDFWR bands nestling Barn Owls at some nest locations and also cooperates with local wildlife rehabilitators to the band and release rehabilitated Barn Owls. These owls have been brought to licensed wildlife rehabilitators and treated for various reasons including poisoning, vehicle collisions, nest destruction, and falling from a nest. When recovered, these owls are banded and released in or near to a vacant nest box that has been installed in suitable habitat.

 

The Future

Barn Owl nest monitoring, nest box installations and banding will continue as time and funding permits, until the nesting population demonstrates growth and sustained stability.

 

What can you do to help?

Because most Barn Owls are on private land, the extent of KDFWR’s knowledge of and ability to help Kentucky’s population depends greatly on the public’s cooperation in reporting sightings. Please report Barn Owl nests/roosts by calling 1-800- 858-1549 or e-mailing kathryn.heyden@ky.gov. Landowner and exact nest location information are kept confidential, and locations are released to the public only at the county level. KDFWR works with landowners to encourage Barn Owls to nest in locations that are convenient for the landowner and safe for the owls.

Due to limited time and funding, KDFWR is not generally able to install Barn Owl nest boxes on private land unless there is a local pair in need of a safer nest site. However, many landowners have expressed interest in installing a nest box in hopes to attract a pair of Barn Owls to their property. Barn Owls are often welcomed by farmers and landowners since they help to control rodent populations. Interested landowners that would like to install their own nest box can find construction plans here.  Private landowners are encouraged to inform KDFWR of any nest boxes installed and if they become active. Leaving hollow trees if they do not endanger your house or buildings is also recommended to provide Barn Owls and other species with nest sites.

Acknowledgments

A project of this scope would not be possible without the support of many volunteers, cooperators, wildlife rehabilitators and private landowners. We would especially like to express gratitude to the many private landowners which have become a host for this rare species. Due to this species’ scarcity, the contribution made by providing a single safe nesting site for each pair of Barn Owls is significant.

Literature Cited

Altwegg, R., A. Roulin, M. Kestenholz, and L. Jenni. 2006. Demographic effects of extreme winter weather in the Barn Owl. Oecologia 149: 44-51.

Brown, R.K. 1989. Food habits of Kentucky owls. The Kentucky Warbler 65:38-48.

Colvin, B. 1985. Common Barn Owl population decline in Ohio and the relationship to agricultural trends. Journal of Field Ornithology 56: 224-235.

KDFWR. 2005. Kentucky's Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy. 2005. Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, #1 Sportsman's Lane, Frankfort, Kentucky 40601.

Marti, C.D., P.W. Wagner, and K.W. Denne. 1979. Nest boxes for the management of Barn Owls. Wildlife Society Bulletin 7:145-148.

Marti, C.D. 2009. A comparison of methods for estimating prey biomass of Barn Owls. Journal of Raptor Research 43:61-63.

Shipley, K.L. and D.P. Scott. 1999. Barn Owl Distribution and Productivity, 1998. Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. Olentangy Wildlife Research Station, Ashley, OH 43003. Unpublished Technical Report. 5 pp.

Thogmart

in, W.E., A.T. Morzillo, H.A. Brown, and J.H. Herner-Thogmartin. 1999. Feeding habits of Barn Owls at Yellowbank Wildlife Management Area, Breckinridge County, Kentucky. Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901. Unpublished Technical Report. 19 pp.

Walk, J.W., T.L. Esker, and S.A. Simpson. 1999. Continuous nesting of Barn Owls in Illinois. The Wilson Bulletin 111:572-573.

Warren, J.L., Jr., W.H. Davis, R.R. Hannan, M. Evans, D.L. Batch, B.D. Anderson, B. Palmer-Ball, Jr., J.R. MacGregor, R.R. Cicerello, R. Athey, B.A. Branson, G.J. Fallo, B.M. Burr, M.E. Medley, and J.M. Baskin. 1986. Endangered, threatened, and rare plants and animals of Kentucky. Transactions of the Kentucky Academy of Science 47:83-98.Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). 2005. Wisconsin’s Strategy for Wildlife Species of Greatest Conservation Need. Madison, WI.