Often described as ghostly when they're seen flying through the night, barn owls were a common nocturnal sight 50 years ago in most parts of Ohio. But today, the species is threatened in the state, even more so in agricultural areas such as Seneca County.
"Barn owls reached a low point population-wise in the 1980s," said Ken Duren, a research biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife who is coordinating barn owl re-establishment.
In the late 1980s, Duren said there were 10-12 known nests statewide, but by 2012, numbers had increased to 104.
"They reached a (modern-day) high point in 2012 with over 100 nests in the state," he said. "That's mostly because the nest boxes put up in barns provide a safe place for owls to nest, and they didn't really have that in 1980s."
Biologists placed boxes in barns volunteered by owners to help increase populations in areas of Ohio where hay fields and pastures were abundant. The owls require open grassy spaces for hunting small mammals.
"They put up 400 across the state," he said. "The strongest populations are in Wayne and Holmes counties because most nest boxes are in those counties but it's also the best habitat."
Now you know
Barn owls swallow their prey whole - skin, bones and all. About twice a day, they cough up pellets instead of passing all that material through their digestive tracts. The pellets make a great record of what the owls have eaten, and scientists study them to learn more about the owls and the ecosystems they live in.
Up to 46 races of the barn owl have been described worldwide. The North American form is the largest, weighing more than twice as much as the smallest race from the Galapagos Islands.
Barn owl females are somewhat showier than males. She has a more reddish and more heavily spotted chest. The spots may indicate the quality of the female. Heavily spotted females get fewer parasitic flies and may be more resistant to parasites and diseases. The spots also may stimulate the male to help more at the nest. In an experiment where some females' spots were removed, their mates fed their nestlings less often than for females whose spots were left alone.
The barn owl has excellent low-light vision and can easily find prey at night by sight. But its ability to locate prey by sound alone is the best of any animal that has been tested. It can catch mice in complete darkness in the lab, or hidden by vegetation or snow in the real world.
The oldest known North American barn owl lived in Ohio and was at least 15 years, 5 months old.
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology
While the nest boxes continue to be monitored, Duren is seeking public help to identify more barn owl populations and benefit conservation efforts by tracking where and how the owls live.
Anyone who sees a barn owl is asked to call (800) 945-3543, ODNR District 2 office at (419) 424-5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barn owls may be found "haunting" old buildings, barns, siloes or chimneys, where they might roost or next. They also might nest in hollow trees or other cavities.
In 2013, Duren said Seneca County had a nest, and in the past, barn owls have been spotted in Wyandot County.
"There's not as many hay fields or pastures or grassland fields, which are really important," he said.
Agricultural practices have destroyed much of their habitat, but Duren said some areas could support them.
He suggested people put up boxes in their barns. Anyone who wishes to place a next box should call him at (740) 362-2410, ext. 124.
People who have land in the Conservation Reserve Program, or who have neighbors with CRP land, are good candidates for providing barn owl nests. They are installed on the inside of the barn, where a 6-inch hole is cut to allow access.
Duren said barn owls are important to the environment.
"They eat a lot of small mammals that can be considered pests, like meadow voles and mice," he said.
Barn owls depend on open grassland for hunting, especially for meadow voles, but they also eat rats, mice, lemmings and other rodents as well as shrews, bats and rabbits. Most of their prey is active at night. They sometimes eat starlings, blackbirds and meadowlarks.
The owls use their impressive hearing, aided by satellite-dish-shaped faces, to locate prey in the grass, often in complete darkness.
Nesting barn owls sometimes store food at the nest site while they are incubating to feed the young once they hatch.
Females lay eggs in late April or early May, depending on weather conditions. Each nest has between four and eight eggs, with an average of five.
"They hatch one at a time. They don't hatch all at the same time," Duren said. "Eggs begin to hatch around the beginning of June."
Individual birds in a nest can range greatly in size because eggs can hatch several days apart. Both parents care for the young for two months, hunting up to 2 miles from the nest.
Adult owls are medium-sized in the owl world. They have long, rounded wings and short tails, which makes their flight style distinctive. They are a light tan color above and nearly snow white below. Adults can reach 13-14 inches long, typically weight 14-25 ounces, and have a wingspan of 3 1/2-4 feet.
They have no ear tufts, but they have long legs and large bright eyes, which may be part of the reason owls often are thought to be wise. They sometimes are called the monkey-faced owl or white owl, which adds to their "ghostly" reputation.
"A lot of people really enjoy getting barn owls in their barn. They're a beautiful-looking owl," he said. "That's the reason that people really like them."