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Barn Owl Life History


GrasslandsBarn 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. Back to top


MammalsBarn 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. Back to top


Nest Placement

BuildingBarn 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.

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.

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.
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Aerial Dive (ground/talons)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. Back to top


Low 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 could not detect a significant population change between 1966 and 2019, although it appears that their numbers have slightly increased in that time. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 3.6 million and rates them 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Barn Owls are threatened by the 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.

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Marti, C. D. 1992. Barn Owl. In The Birds of North America, No. 1 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Roulin, A. (1999). Nonrandom pairing by male Barn Owls (Tyto alba) with respect to a female plumage trait. Behavioral Ecology 10:688-695.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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