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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Barn Owl

Tyto alba ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: TYTONIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Ghostly pale and strictly nocturnal, Barn Owls are silent predators of the night world. Lanky, with a whitish face, chest, and belly, and buffy upperparts, this owl roosts in hidden, quiet places during the day. By night, they hunt on buoyant wingbeats in open fields and meadows. You can find them by listening for their eerie, raspy calls, quite unlike the hoots of other owls. Despite a worldwide distribution, Barn Owls are declining in parts of their range due to habitat loss.

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Keys to identification Help

Owls
Owls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    These medium-sized owls have long, rounded wings and short tails, which combine with a buoyant, loping flight to give them a distinctive flight style. The legs are long and the head is smoothly rounded, without ear tufts.

  • Color Pattern

    Barn Owls are pale overall with dark eyes. They have a mix of buff and gray on the head, back, and upperwings, and are white on the face, body, and underwings. When seen at night they can appear all white.

  • Behavior

    Barn Owls nest and roost in cavities, abandoned barns and other buildings, and dense trees. At night, Barn Owls hunt by flying low, back and forth over open habitats, searching for small rodents primarily by sound.

  • Habitat

    Barn Owls require large areas of open land over which to hunt. This can either be marsh, grasslands, or mixed agricultural fields. For nesting and roosting, they prefer quiet cavities, either in trees or man-made structures such as barns or silos.

Range Map Help

Barn Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult female

    Barn Owl

    Adult female
    • Slender, medium-sized owl
    • Rounded head with white facial disc
    • Large black eyes
    • Tawny patterned overall with black speckling on breast
    • © Red-Star, Washington, May 2009
  • Adult male in flight

    Barn Owl

    Adult male in flight
    • Lanky, with long, slender wings and long legs
    • Very pale underneath
    • Tawny brown head and upperparts
    • Large black eyes contrast with white facial disc
    • © Tim Lenz, Nevada, January 2009
  • Adult female

    Barn Owl

    Adult female
    • Medium-sized owl
    • Rounded head with no ear tufts and white, heart-shaped face
    • Tawny patterned wings and back
    • Tawny/buff breast with black speckling
    • © Nick Chill, Mission Trails Regional Park, California, May 2012
  • Adult in flight

    Barn Owl

    Adult in flight
    • Medium-sized owl, with lanky proportions
    • Rounded head with white, heart-shaped facial disc
    • Long wings
    • Tawny-brown patterned across upperparts
    • © Conrad Tan, California, October 2011
  • Adult at roost

    Barn Owl

    Adult at roost
    • Usually roosts inside barns or similar structures during the day
    • White, heart-shaped facial disc
    • Large, black eyes
    • Patterned in tawny brown and gray overall
    • © Robinsegg, Box Elder County, Utah, February 2012
  • Adult male in flight

    Barn Owl

    Adult male in flight
    • Appears very pale in flight
    • Flutters moth-like over fields and marshes while hunting
    • Large black eyes contrast with white, heart-shaped facial disc
    • Long legs dangle in flight
    • © Lee Crabtree, England, November 2010
  • Juvenile

    Barn Owl

    Juvenile
    • Compact and covered in fluffy down
    • Shows distinctive white, heart-shaped facial disc of adult
    • Large, dark eyes
    • © Russ Campbell, September 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Short-eared Owl

    Adult
    • Heavier-bodied and more barrel-chested than Barn Owl
    • Darker head and dark streaks on breast
    • Under-wings show black tip and black crescent mark at mid-wing
    • Glowing, yellow eyes
    • © Cameron Rognan, Ovid, New York, January 2009
  • Immature male

    Snowy Owl

    Immature male
    • Much larger and heavier-bodied than Barn Owl
    • Bright, snowy white over whole body
    • Smaller, yellow eyes
    • © Ian Davies, Plymouth, Massachusetts, November 2011
  • Juvenile and adult

    Great Horned Owl

    Juvenile and adult
    • Juvenile is similar to juvenile Barn Owl but larger and stockier
    • Tawny face with large, yellow eyes
    • © Donald Thompson, Highland City , Florida, March 2010
  • Adult

    Long-eared Owl

    Adult
    • Similar in size and shape to Barn Owl
    • Much darker overall
    • Obvious, long ear tufts
    • Tawny face with glowing, yellow eyes
    • © Ben Smith, Antelope Valley, California, March 2011

Similar Species

Short-eared Owls have yellow eyes and more streaked underparts than Barn Owls; they are more often active during the day when Barn Owls are roosting. Snowy Owls are larger and whiter than Barn Owls. Snowy Owls are active during the day and in most parts of North America are only seen during winter. (A very pale owl seen in a car’s headlights is much more likely a Barn Owl than a Snowy Owl.) Burrowing Owls in the southern and western United States are diurnal; they’re also smaller and darker than Barn Owls, with yellow eyes, and are almost always found on or near the ground. Long-eared Owls have conspicuous, long ear tufts and are much darker and more heavily marked than Barn Owls.

Regional Differences

Barn Owls have a worldwide distribution with substantial variation in size and in the patterns of buff and white in the plumage. However, the subspecies found in the United States and Canada does not show substantial geographic variation.

Backyard Tips

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

Many people’s first sighting of a Barn Owl is while driving through open country at night—a flash of pale wings in the headlights is usually this species. Barn Owls also often live up to their name, inhabiting barns and other old, abandoned buildings, so keep an eye out for them there. Barn Owls don’t hoot the way most other owls do; you can listen for their harsh screeches at night.