Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Barn Owl!

Pastoral Knox County, Ohio. This is Barn Owl country, and some of the barns such as the one in this photo are haunted - haunted by monkey-faced owls. Whether or not this particular barn has an owl in residence I do not know, but it isn't far from a barn that does.

Barns Owls are certainly not common in Ohio, and are officially listed as threatened. I suspect there are many more than we know about, though. They are strictly nocturnal, and only likely to be found when roosting during the daytime, and the roost is likely to be in someone's private farm outbuilding, and such places are not frequented by birders.

Thus, I was delighted to get a recent email, telling me of an owl in residence in the aforementioned Knox County. The homeowners are nice as can be, and were willing to allow me to visit and have look at their owl.

So, on a recent Saturday, I piled Peter King and Bruce Miller in the car and headed up to meet the Barn Owl's landlords, and hopefully the owl as well. Upon entering the barn, it didn't take but a New York second to figure out where the bird's favorite haunt was - the floor underneath was dappled with enormous owl pellets and painted with a fair bit of whitewash.

We glanced up into the rafters, and there she was, tucked in and paying us absolutely no mind. And it is a "she": note the lovely tawny wash to the breast and the copious sprinkling of black dots. Males tend to be much whiter and considerably less speckled. This bird does appear to have an injury of some sort on its breast, but apparently it is healthy enough and eating like a horse. It's been using the barn for over a month, and the piles of pellets attest to its vole-catching prowess.

This is a working farm and a working barn, and apparently the owl has become thoroughly accustomed to activity. Twenty feet or so below the owl lurked Peter, Bruce, myself, and the lady of the house, although we spoke in muted whispers. At our feet gamboled several very active kittens, the progeny of a couple of adult barn cats. And there was Tig, a large and rather ferocious appearing "guard dog", who was nosing the kittens about and occasionally letting loose a bark. None of this hubbub caused the owl to as much as flinch, let alone open its eyes.

From my experience, there are basically two types of Barn Owl behavior regarding barn-roosting birds. Some, like this animal, are quite tame and not put off by people. They'll just remain perched high in the rafters or on the hay rail, and quiet observers - or even not so quiet ones - will not cause them apparent concern.

But there are plenty of spooky Barn Owls. These birds do not like intruders, and as soon as someone enters their dwelling they'll promptly catapult out the nearest exit hole and into the wide open outdoors. These are the birds to leave alone. A Barn Owl ensconced in the shadowy rafters of a barn is a safe owl. A Barn Owl flushed from its fortress during the day becomes far more vulnerable to those who would eat or otherwise relentlessly dog the bird. This is an almost strictly nocturnal owl, and forcing one to be exposed to hawks, crows, jays, the watchful eyes of Great Horned Owls and all manner of tormentors, some deadly, some just annoying, is not the thing to do.

Upon leaving the barn, I grabbed a couple of owl pellets. We retreated to another barn (owless) barn, and dissected one of them. Owl pellets are compact masses of indigestibles: fur, and bones. Several hours after swallowing a tasty mouse or vole, the owl commences to bob and gurgle like a frat boy that chugged too much beer, and out comes one of these surprisingly large pellets. The vole's skull is in the foreground, and various bones from the hapless victim can be seen projecting from its fur. An intact pellet is at the right.

The homeowner was very interested in these pellets and their composition, as any right-minded intellectually curious person ought to be. Just today, she texted me a photo of a pellet that she had much more painstakingly dismantled. It contained five (5!) vole and mice skulls! Apparently the owl is flourishing in its Knox County digs, and I hope there are many others in the area.


Lori Sorth said...

What a great and encouraging story! And what a gorgeous bird....

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you, Lori!

Mommer1 said...

I enjoyed reading this Barn Owl post, especially your careful description to identifying the 'Land of Nod' female. Thanks, Jim (aka 'frat boy')

Kenn Kaufman said...

What a great post! As always, I appreciate and enjoy your blend of fascinating information and insight. It's good to know that these noble owls are still doing well in a few areas of the state.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing Jim. Very interesting night owl. Gary Wayne

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks very much for your comments!

Fixed Carbon said...

Jim: In Davis CA we have oodles of barn owls. The pellets contain nothing but pocket gopher parts, as far as I can tell. I wonder if the paucity of barn owls in that part of Ohio is owing to a lack of suitable prey.
Thanks for your great blog, Don

Sherrie {Bird Lady} said...

Loved your story about the Barn Owl. I was lucky enough to see one years ago that was roosting in my friends eaves. She named it Baxtor, but after reading your post, I'm pretty sure Baxtor was a female. I have a pic of the owl on my blog in the bottom footer scrolling pictures.

~ Sherrie (Bird Lady)