The barn owl: a good neighbor - Salish Current
December 7, 2023
The barn owl: a good neighbor
Tony Angell

The barn owl is a nocturnal hunter which can locate prey in total darkness. Drawing courtesy of Tony Angell, from his illustrations for the book, “Bird Day,” University of Chicago Press, 2023.

December 7, 2023
The barn owl: a good neighbor
Tony Angell

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Unique among owls, this species has co-evolved with humankind and throughout its range has sustained and even expanded its numbers by routinely using the structures that we construct as sites to raise their broods. 

As a kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley in California, I routinely scaled the barrier to the film sets at Universal Studios and Republic Pictures to look for the nests of these owls. In the farmlands adjacent to the Salish Sea, old barns, silos and outbuildings associated with our agricultural enterprises serve to provide shelter and protection for a brood of young owls.

Unlike the short-eared owl out hunting in these lowlands during the day, the barn owl’s nocturnal forging for rodent pests is rarely witnessed. This species is a serious ally in protecting our agricultural interests in this region. That a pair feeding a concealed brood of a half-dozen owlets may capture a thousand such pests in a breeding period goes unnoticed and certainly underappreciated.

Barn owls can find their prey in total darkness. With ear canals that are asymmetrically located along either side of their skulls, the birds position their heads so that the sound of a rustling rat concealed in the leaves can be heard equally in both ears. This becomes an auditory “sight line” for the owl’s hunting flight. With its long legs extended and four taloned toes on each foot, it plunges into the cover to seize its prey. 

In some agricultural regions where structures have been torn down or did not exist, nesting boxes are put into place and the barn owls quickly occupy them to be close to a source of prey. Pretty much free of charge, the farmer receives the benefit of a drastic reduction in the pests impacting the crops and the profit. The immediate environment can remain pesticide-free as well.

— Contributed by Tony Angell, Seattle and Lopez Island

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