Barn Owls; just one of God’s Critter- Gitters

Exploring Kansas Outdoors

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Underground drip irrigation has become very popular in Kansas, and along with that seems to have come the problem of gophers chewing holes in the drip tubes, evidently to get to the moisture inside. Those holes, unseen from the surface when the tubes are dry, show-up as mudholes in the spring when the irrigation is turned on, requiring the tubes to be dug-up and the holes repaired. Research has been ongoing into placing nest boxes along fields in hopes of attracting barn owls to help catch the gophers and other rodents when they immerge and scurry about after dark.
It’s hard to convince people there are lots of bobcats in Kansas because they are rarely seen, and so it is with barn owls. Barn owls are very secretive and like nesting / roosting sites that are well hidden, so it’s tough to think there are many around. Actually, barn owls are the most widely distributed of all owls, and one of the most widely distributed birds overall; they are found on every continent but Antarctica. Barn owls are thought to be the origin of many ghost myths, as their vocalization resembles a scream and they appear “ghost-like” in a dark building. Adult barn owls in the USA are from 12 to 15 inches tall with a wingspan of over 40 inches. A falconer friend who has a barn owl named Zoe and is from the UK, tells me that barn owls in the UK. are about half that size. Barn owls have large, broad wings with soft feathers that allow for silent flight. Their necks are flexible enough to let their heads turn more than 180 degrees in each direction. A very distinctive face with cupped facial discs funnels sounds out to their ears, giving them possibly the best hearing of all common owls. One talon on each foot actually has tiny serrations on one edge like a comb and is thought to help with grooming those facial discs.
Barn owls usually form monogamous pairs and as long as habitat and food availability remain, that pair will nest in the same site for years. They are “cavity nesters,” along with Kestrels and Screech Owls, so they can be attracted to nest boxes, and they adapt very readily to human activity as long as their nesting/roosting site is concealed. Clutches of eggs average from 4 to 7, but can be more if prey is abundant. Studies show that the amount of prey available actually dictates the number of eggs laid and the number of chicks fledged, even to the point where 2 broods of chicks might be raised in a single year if prey is very plentiful. Barn owl eggs are “asynchronous,” meaning incubation begins as each egg is laid, so there will always be older and younger chicks in each brood.
Not to be over-simplistic, but the first key to attracting barn owls to a nest box is an abundance of prey. A friend just recently told me that when he had hogs, there were barn owls in every crack and crevice available in his silo and buildings, because where there are hogs, there are usually an abundance of rodents. Barn owls like open farm country and pastureland. The absolute best hunting habitat for them are areas of rough grass that only occasionally or never gets cut or grazed. These areas of rough grass contain a deep “liter layer” on the ground made up of dead grasses from previous years that encourage rodents to build nests and tunnels. Nesting boxes on poles and in the ends of buildings should face or at least be near open farm and pasture land for them to hunt. Since barn owls are so secretive most of the time, sometimes you will only know they are present by seeing “pellets” on the ground near the nest. All owls regurgitate pellets composed of bone, fur and all other undigested material. Fresh owl pellets near a nest box or cavity are sure signs of a renter within.
Barn owl populations are threatened when pesticides are used to kill rodents, when dead trees are cut down and old farm buildings are removed and when grasslands are turned into farm ground. In light of those challenges, manmade nesting boxes placed inside existing farm buildings or on poles along field edges are beneficial to attracting God’s “critter-gitters” to your property. So, if gophers and other rodents are giving you fits, why not look into erecting an owl nest box or two. Contact me and I’ll point you in the right direction or contact Mark Browning with the Barn Owl Box Company, www.barnowlbox.com, a company the manufactures commercially made barn owl nest boxes. Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors.
Steve can be contacted by email at [email protected].

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