One of the most common responses that I have gotten from landowners as I have ranged across the Midwest in search of the Barn Owl is, “I remember when we used to have them in our barn.” At one time, this owl was the second most common owl in Ohio. It seems to have a special attachment to being near people, but is rarely seen even when it is present. Two ingredients are needed in this owl’s habitat in order for it to survive – Cavities and Grass. It seems that farmlands are just the place to supply these ingredients, or at least they once were.
Darkened peaks of haymows, enclosed silos, tunnels in stacked hay, and large hollow trees in the front yard will suit the owl just fine for cavities. In years gone by, many farm folk placed boxes in their barns and left entrance openings near the top just for these great mouse hunters. With the slow disappearance of our once common, grand old barns and the cutting of those big old half hollow trees because of the liability they pose, the barn owl finds a landscape that does not have as much of this habitat feature.
The real key for the barn owl are those little furry animals that dart away when you lift a board laying in a field. The Meadow Vole (most of us call them field mice) is the mainstay of the barn owl’s diet. While house mice, rats, and shrews will be food for the owls, the vole is the fast food that they like best. Voles are most common where hayfield and half-overgrown grassy areas abound. The change-over from horse drawn equipment to tractors meant that every farm no longer needed to have its own source of hay. That limited where you find the vole. And because barn owls need lots of grassland for feeding a family, that caused their decline.
The barn owl was considered endangered in the state for many years and still has that status in most of the states around us. Although it has made a come back, it is still one of our rarest of owls. That is why the Ohio DNR is encouraging a new nest box program and Zane State College students in the Natural Science Club are taking up hammer and nails to provide nest boxes for them. We are focusing our research on the owls in the Eastern part of Muskingum County and the neighboring counties where there is more grassland due to the reclaimed mine areas.
DO YOU HAVE A BARN OWL?
We are seeking reports of the barn owl and are placing nest boxes in barns for free where we can find signs of their presence. How do you know if you have the sneaky guys using your barn? Look for white patches of their droppings along with the large, shiny, black pellets of fur. These can be found near the ends of the haymow or under cross beam corners where they like to sit. They will often sit and wait even when someone enters the barn, hoping that they will not be seen.
If you think you might have the rare owl in your barn, give the Zane State Barn Owl Recon Team a call. We will come out and check the area and place a nest box for free if we can confirm either the presence of the birds or adequate habitat for them.
Barnowls@zanestate.edu or call Al Parker at 588-1259 or friend ZaneBarnOwls on FacebookThe return of this member of the farm wildlife family may be closer than we think. A family of the world’s best mouser may be your reward and an indicator of the health of our world.
– Al Parker – Zane State College Wildlife Instructor