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Owl, Common Barn

Common Barn Owl at the LA Zoo Photo Credit Jamie Pham

Scientific Name: Tyto alba

Can you guess where these birds get their name? They are called barn owls because of their tendency to nest in abandoned buildings, especially barns and rundown storage structures. As a natural form of rodent control, they are valued by farmers who often provide them with secure nesting boxes near their fields. As the world’s most widely occurring owl species, there are several subspecies of barn owl that can differ somewhat in overall size and coloring. However, all barn owls can be identified by their small dark eyes, slender legs, and distinctive heart-shaped facial disk, which helps to guide sound waves to their ears more effectively.

A Ghostly Neighbor

Many folk superstitions have arisen around these ghostlike birds. Their white faces and underbelly feathers make them look like phantoms as they fly over fields, scanning for prey. In addition, some people find barn owls spooky or foreboding due to their preference for abandoned buildings, their roosts (which are habitually littered with owl pellets full of the crushed bones and fur of past meals), and instead of hooting, barn owls communicate with raspy screams, beak clacking, and ominous hissing.

Common barn owls are listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, many states in America, including Michigan and Wisconsin, have classified them as threatened or endangered due to their declining numbers as farm land is lost to rapid development.

Present on all continents (except for Antarctica), barn owls prefer temperate and tropical lowland regions near tracts of land like meadows, grasslands, and fields that have abundant nocturnal rodents. They are non-migratory, and they are only absent in the northern mountainous forests of Canada, Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Siberia, China, and New Zealand.

These owls hunt small ground mammals such as mice, voles, rats, and moles, and they can catch their prey in complete darkness thanks to their extremely sensitive hearing. They can even seize a meal if it’s hidden under vegetation or snow!

Common barn owls are medium-sized predatory birds, typically weighing between one to three pounds with a total body length of 14 to 20 inches. Their wingspan runs around 45 inches (just over three and a half feet), and their heads are rounded without ear tufts. The backs and shoulders of these owls are orange-brown with gray speckling, and they possess a discerning white face and underside. Females are larger in size (and typically grayer) than males, and both have long, slender legs which end in sharp gray talons.

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