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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
12.6–15.7 in
32–40 cm
Wingspan
39.4–49.2 in
100–125 cm
Weight
14.1–24.7 oz
400–700 g
Relative Size
Larger than a screech-owl, but smaller than a Great Horned Owl.
Other Names
  • effraie (French)
  • Lechuza de campanario (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Barn Owls swallow their prey whole—skin, bones, and all. About twice a day, they cough up pellets instead of passing all that material through their digestive tracts. The pellets make a great record of what the owls have eaten, and scientists study them to learn more about the owls and the ecosystems they live in.
  • Up to 46 different races of the Barn Owl have been described worldwide. The North American form is the largest, weighing more than twice as much as the smallest race from the Galapagos Islands.
  • Barn Owl females are somewhat showier than males. She has a more reddish and more heavily spotted chest. The spots may indicate the quality of the female. Heavily spotted females get fewer parasitic flies and may be more resistant to parasites and diseases. The spots may also stimulate the male to help more at the nest. In an experiment where some females’ spots were removed, their mates fed their nestlings less often than for females whose spots were left alone.
  • The Barn Owl has excellent low-light vision, and can easily find prey at night by sight. But its ability to locate prey by sound alone is the best of any animal that has ever been tested. It can catch mice in complete darkness in the lab, or hidden by vegetation or snow out in the real world.
  • The oldest known North American Barn Owl lived in Ohio and was at least 15 years, 5 months old.

Habitat


Grassland

Barn Owls live in open habitats across most of the lower 48 United States and extend into a few parts of southern Canada (as well as in much of the rest of the world). These include grasslands, deserts, marshes, agricultural fields, strips of forest, woodlots, ranchlands, brushy fields, and suburbs and cities. They nest in tree cavities, caves, and in buildings (often barns but also including Yankee Stadium). In the Andes they occur as high as 13,000 feet elevation.

Food


Mammals

Barn Owls eat mostly small mammals, particularly rats, mice, voles, lemmings, and other rodents; also shrews, bats, and rabbits. Most of the prey they eat are active at night, so squirrels and chipmunks are relatively safe from Barn Owls. They occasionally eat birds such as starlings, blackbirds, and meadowlarks. Nesting Barn Owls sometimes store dozens of prey items at the nest site while they are incubating to feed the young once they hatch.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–18 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
1.5–1.7 in
3.9–4.4 cm
Egg Width
1.2–1.3 in
3.1–3.4 cm
Incubation Period
29–34 days
Nestling Period
50–55 days
Egg Description
Dull white, often dirtied by the nest.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, covered in white down.
Nest Description

The female makes a simple nest of her own regurgitated pellets, shredded with her feet and arranged into a cup. Unlike most birds, owls may use their nest sites for roosting throughout the year. Nest sites are often reused from year to year, often by different owls.

Nest Placement

Building

Barn Owls put their nests in holes in trees, cliff ledges and crevices, caves, burrows in river banks, and in many kinds of human structures, including barn lofts, church steeples, houses, nest boxes, haystacks, and even drive-in movie screens.

Behavior


Aerial Dive

Barn Owls fly slowly over open fields at night or dusk with slow wingbeats and a looping, buoyant flight. They use their impressive hearing, aided by their satellite-dish-shaped faces, to locate mice and other rodents in the grass, often in complete darkness. Barn Owls are usually monogamous and mate for life, although there are some reports of males with more than one mate. Males attract their mates with several kinds of display flights, including a “moth flight” where he hovers in front of a female for several seconds, his feet dangling. He also displays potential nest sites by calling and flying in and out of the nest. After the pair forms, the male brings prey to the female (often more than she can consume), beginning about a month before she starts laying eggs. Barn Owls defend the area around their nests, but don’t defend their hunting sites; more than one pair may hunt on the same fields.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Barn Owls are difficult to count because they're nocturnal and secretive, so population sizes are hard to estimate. Owing in part to this difficulty, the North American Breeding Bird Survey was unable to detect a population change between 1966 and 2010, although it's believed that their numbers have dropped in that time. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2 million, with 7 percent living in the U.S. and 2 percent living in Mexico. They rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Possible reasons for a population decline include conversion of agricultural land to urban and suburban development, and the loss of suitable nesting sites such as large, hollow trees and old buildings. Changes to agricultural fields and grasslands can also affect Barn Owls through changes to their prey populations. Barn Owls were affected by the use of DDT-related pesticides, and they may be susceptible to poisons used against rodents, since they form a large part of the owls’ diet. Because Barn Owls hunt by flying low over fields, they are often hit by cars; planting hedgerows alongside roads can help prevent this from happening. Nest boxes (of the correct size) have helped Barn Owl populations recover in areas where natural nest sites were scarce.

Credits

  • Marti, C.D., A.F. Poole, and L.R. Bevier. 2005. Barn Owl (Tyto alba). In The Birds of North America, No. 1 (A. Poole, ed.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
  • Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
  • Roulin, A. 1999. Nonrandom pairing by male barn owls (Tyto alba) with respect to a female plumage trait. Behavioral Ecology 10: 688-695.
  • Roulin , A., C. Riols , C. Dijkstra, and A.-L. Ducrest. 2001. Female plumage spottiness signals parasite resistance in the barn owl (Tyto alba). Behavioral Ecology 12: 103-110.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity records of North American Birds.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2012. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2010 analysis.

Range Map Help

Barn Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Nonmigratory. Although young Barn Owls may disperse hundreds of miles from where they hatched, adult Barn Owls don’t seem to migrate seasonally, even in the farthest-north parts of their range.

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.