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Master Naturalists: Create your own barn owl habitat

By By Paul and Mary Meredith
May 23, 2013 at 12:23 a.m.

Barn owls need cavity-like nesting conditions. To attract them, place about six nest boxes per acre. Simple boxes can be constructed from scrap exterior plywood, painted to both protect the wood and camouflage the nest. Hung high up in trees, they provide safe, healthy places to raise young.  Annual cleaning and replacement of nest material is recommended by the NRCS. Watch out for swarming honey bees; they will sometimes try to appropriate barn owl boxes. Have them removed.

Our agriculture industry - and the rest of us - benefit from barn owls found almost all over the U.S. Around here, their numbers are much greater than in many parts of the U.S. They are naturally limited by availability of prey and suitable nesting sites. They prefer pastures and meadows to agricultural row-crop areas.

People work to provide them more nests - to encourage their populations not to decline and to stay nearby. But effective nests need certain properties to help the barn owls.



More about barn owls' abilities

In the first of the two parts of this article, we discussed how barn owls help us - helping to control rodents such as mice and rats by eating them.

But capturing their food in the dark requires good hearing and spotting ability and the ability to approach their prey silently. We discussed how they can hear and spot so well.

Their silent flight means they can hunt without their prey being able to detect them coming. Part of that silent flight may derive from the comb-like edges of their flight feathers. Those feathers' modifications damp the sounds of the owl's approach, as well as the air disturbance (movement) as they approach prey.

Downy feathers on some of their wing parts may also add to their silence. Adding silent flight to their excellent hearing and spotting ability certainly makes them excellent, successful nighttime hunters.

Sometimes, they do hunt in daylight, perhaps when they have a large, hungry brood to feed. Then they typically fly close to the ground, sometimes making short flights from one fence post to the next, appearing to examine the ground.



Nests for barn owls

Barn owls will adopt many structures as home - including, for example, tree cavities, abandoned buildings and empty deer blinds as well as man-made barn owl nest boxes placed in buildings or trees or on tall posts.

In South Texas, barn owls regularly use deer blinds and palm trees as homes as well. Their nesting in buildings suggests some compatibility with man. And we certainly want the birds helping us.

Nests for barn owls are generally discussed as being located in either buildings, trees or on poles. Man can help provide some nests. Each of the three nest locations typically includes a variety of nests. For example, buildings in South Texas includes - among others - both barns and deer blinds.

Some barn owls nest in (vacant) deer blinds. Such nests appear in a number of photos available online, for example, and the owls are frequently shown in those nests. Other photos show owls nesting in rock crevasses and a variety of other locations.

A potential problem with some nests is that they have such a small nest area like a palm-tree crotch so small an owl can get stuck in it. That helps neither owl nor man.

So what recommendations/ideas are available to provide safe, effective nests for barn owls? A variety of organizations have recommendations and some have plans/drawings - especially online.

There are plans available at USDA.gov for an effective barn owl nest box. Moreover, the plans include additional guidelines that help the nest box benefit the owls.

One example is painting the box using a camouflage pattern - or drab green, black, and brown - to minimize human disturbance. Another is hanging the box 15 to 30 feet above the ground, and there are more.

Sources:

Kelly Conrad Bender, "Texas Wildscapes, Gardening for Wildlife"

"Barn Owl Nest Box, Plans and Instructions", USDA

David Allen Sibley, "The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior," National Audubon Society

Fred J. Alsop III, "Birds of Texas," Smithsonian Handbook

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.

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