Farmers, Conservationists Seek Return of Barn Owls

Anna Brendle
for National Geographic News
October 30, 2002

Soaring on specially adapted wings, they silently stalk their prey under the cover of darkness, their eyes and ears fixed on the catch. Some people find these "ghost" owls ominous—spooky agents of death that haunt abandoned buildings and litter their roosts with the crushed bones of their unlucky victims.

It doesn't help that these creatures, commonly known as barn owls, don't "hoot" but emit raspy screeches and hissing noises.

Yet the barn owl isn't all that scary. Contrary to its reputation among some people, it does not eat larger animals such as chickens and cats.

And far from being a nasty raptor, the barn owl is ecologically important for natural rodent control.

"Barn owls perform a valuable service to agriculture. They control rodent and other pest populations," said Richard Raid, an owl researcher at the University of Florida's Everglades Research and Education Center.

Barn owls get their name from their tendency to nest in abandoned buildings, especially barns in areas surrounded by lush meadows, grasslands, marshes, and fields. The birds are also known as "ghost" owls for the white face and underbelly feathers that are visible as they fly overhead.

Studies in the United States, Britain, Canada, and other countries have found substantial declines in barn owl populations over the past half century. The main factor blamed for the decline is the loss of farm land to rapid development, which has wiped out the bird's favored nesting sites and habitats.

As part of efforts to reverse the population decline, many farmers, conservationists, and other citizens are installing nesting boxes to lure barn owls and boost their reproduction.

Steady Decline

Several dozen sub-species of the barn owl live all around the world, except in very cold climates. Given the bird's susceptibility to cold, unusually hard winters are thought to have contributed to their decline in some regions. The most prevalent member of this species in North America is the common barn owl (Tyto alba pratincola). In the United States, its numbers have declined most heavily in the Northeast and some midwestern states.

Although the common barn owl is not listed on the U.S. endangered species list, many states—including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin—have classified the owl as threatened or endangered.

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