An Official Website of the Commonwealth of Kentucky
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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), it is currently considered rare to uncommon in many regions of the United States. In Kentucky, records of nesting Barn Owls have been challenging to come by in recent times, but that was not always the case. Mengel (1965) noted that during his time most rural people [in Kentucky] were familiar with the species, implying that Barn Owls must have occurred “widely and regularly.”
The scarcity of this species in Kentucky is somewhat disconcerting 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.) according to the 2005 National Land Cover Dataset (KDGI 2008). With such an abundance of suitable habitat, it seems Kentucky should host a wealth of Barn Owls.
Barn Owls have gained conservation concern throughout most of North America in the past few decades due to noticeable population changes. Severe declines have been recorded in several Midwestern states. Many possible causes for these declines have been identified and examined including habitat loss, vehicle collisions, variability in prey populations, predation, pesticides, and limited nest site availability (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 was included as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Kentucky’s State Wildlife Action Plan (KDFWR 2005). Subsequent to this designation, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) started a program to install nest boxes in suitable habitat on Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in 2006. Disappointingly, most of these nest boxes remained vacant for the next few years, bringing to light just how rare the species had become. Thus, the Barn Owl conservation strategy was re-evaluated in 2010. Conservation actions for declining species are usually best implemented when the status of the population is known. In the case of Barn Owl, so little was known about its status in Kentucky that the next step was to conduct a statewide inventory in 2010. Twenty-six confirmed Barn Owl nest locations were documented during that effort.
After the 2010 inventory, it was decided that Barn Owl nesting locations and productivity would be monitored by KDFWR via an extensive survey and detailed report produced on a three-year interval. Furthermore, in 2010, KDFWR began efforts to ensure that each known pair of Barn Owls had a safe nesting location provided to them by cooperating with private landowners to install nest boxes, when needed.
The statewide survey was repeated in 2013 and 2016, resulting in the respective documentation of 58 and 94 nesting and roosting locations. In 2019, 77 nest locations and 31 roosting locations were recorded (Figure 1). Most nests were found on privately owned land, although some 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 elevated hunting blinds. Nests were scattered throughout much of central and western Kentucky, but none were reported in far eastern Kentucky (Figure 2).
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. Nests usually produce 3-8 young, though larger broods have been documented, on occasion. Sometimes, nesting activity can continue into late summer and fall/winter. “Double-brooding” or attempting to raise two nests of young in one year has been documented on several occasions. 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.
A Barn Owl nest in a grain bin containing six young owls.Photo by: Kate Heyden
A Barn Owl peers out of the entrance toa nest box in a Wildlife Management area barn.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 or Southern bog lemmings, although mice and shrew 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 and elsewhere in inland North America.
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). Since 2006, KDFWR has installed 202 nest boxes. Seventy-seven of these nest boxes were installed on public lands, and 125 were installed on private land for Barn Owl pairs which needed a safer nest site. Some types of box installations have had higher success rates than others. Nest boxes on silos and grain bins have had the highest success rate; meanwhile nest boxes on trees had the lowest success rate. Nest boxes installed on barns and other buildings have also been quite successful; meanwhile, nest boxes installed on poles can provide nest locations in habitat where natural cavities are scarce.
Since 2010, nest box efforts have focused on maximizing the productivity of existing Barn Owl nests - whether they are on public or private land. Productivity 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 filled/drained, or old barns are demolished. 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 will 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.
A young Barn Owl at the time of banding.
Photo by: Kate Heyden
In order to learn more about the dispersal, movements, and survival of Kentucky Barn Owls, KDFWR personnel bands Barn Owls, when possible. From 2010-2019, KDFWR banded 238 Barn Owls in Kentucky. 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.
Starting in 2013 and continuing presently, KDFWR started collecting Barn Owl specimens to test for possible causes of decline. Specimens are collected via road-kills, wildlife rehabilitators and reports from the public. If you find a dead Barn Owl, please contact Kate Slankard at email@example.com or (800) 858-1549 ext. 4474.
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.
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 to Kate Slankard at firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 858-1549 ext. 4474. Landowner and exact nest location information are kept confidential, and locations are released to the public only at the county level.
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.
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.
Colvin, B., P.L. Hegdal, and W.B. Jackson. 1984. A comprehensive approach to research and management of common Barn Owl populations. Proceedings- Workshop on Management of Nongame Species and Ecological Communities. University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.
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.
Mengel, R.M. 1965. The birds of Kentucky. American Ornithologists’ Union Monograph No. 3. The Allen Press, Lawrence, KS.
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.
Stewart, P.A. 1980. Population trends of Barn Owls in North America. American Birds 34: 698-700.
Kentucky Division of Geographic Information. 2008. 2005 Update to the Kentucky portion of the NLCD01. Kentucky Landscape Census Project: Taking GIS and remote sensing to the people of KY with an Open GIS data viewing & distribution system for Kentucky. NASA Cooperative Agreement NCC13-03010. Frankfort, KY. Dataset available from ftp://ftp.kymartian.ky.gov/kls/KY_LCC0501.zip .
Walk, J.W., T.L. Esker, and S.A. Simpson. 1999. Continuous nesting of Barn Owls in Illinois. The Wilson Bulletin 111:572-573.