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New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide


Image of Barn owls are nocturnal and hunt at night. They have very pronounced facial discs which aid its ability to find prey in complete darkness.Zoom+ Barn owls are nocturnal and hunt at night. They have very pronounced facial discs which aid its ability to find prey in complete darkness. Image courtesy of Flickr user stephen barnett

Barn owl

Tyto alba

Species Group: Bird

Conservation Status

State: Special Concern (Breeding)

 


IDENTIFICATION

Barn owls are widely known for their ‘heart-shaped’ faces. Their face is mostly white with a brownish outline. Their body coloring is a golden color above and white to pale brown underneath. There are beige markings can be found on the wings and back.

This owl is medium in size (14 to 20 inches) and has long legs, dark eyes, and long, broad wings with a wing span of 40 to 45 inches. The beak is peach-colored and the feet can range from a whitish-yellow to a brownish color. Although the sound of a barn owl isn’t quite a ‘hoot’ they do make various other sounds including; screeching, beak snapping, and hissing.

Image of Range of the barn owl in New Jersey.Zoom+ Range of the barn owl in New Jersey.

DISTRIBUTION AND HABITAT

The barn owl has a very widespread range. They are found on all continents except Antarctica. They are found year-round throughout Britain, Europe, many parts of Asia, Africa, and they are common in much of North America and South America.

The barn owl prefers open habitats such as agricultural fields, pastures, and marshland. They generally avoid mountainous areas and woodlands. They roost by day in trees, but are occasionally found within manmade structures as well. These owls breed throughout New Jersey and are very common in some areas.

DIET

The barn owl’s diet mainly consists of mice, voles, rats, gophers, and shrews. The short-tailed vole accounts for more than half of its food intake during breeding season. Other prey includes larger insects, reptiles, fish, and smaller birds. The barn owl often returns to a routine hunting area.

Barn owls usually pounce on prey from above after launching themselves from a perch in a nearby tree, or they fly close to the ground and scoop-up their prey with their talons. This amazing creature has excellent hearing and can catch prey in complete darkness if needed. Although this species is nocturnal they can occasionally be spotted hunting in daylight.

LIFE CYCLE

Despite the name of this species, barn owls nest in a variety of places. These sites include tree cavities, barns, abandon wells, chimneys, old buildings, rock crevices, caves, and even sometimes on the ground.

Barn owls may breed any time throughout the year depending on food supply. The success of their nesting attempts can be directly linked to weather and prey availability (voles). Drought conditions can limit vole populations and the male's ability to supply enough food for its mate and young.

The breeding season typically occurs from March to August. The pair is mostly monogamous. Courting may start in late February. Courting consists of the male hunting during the daylight to be able to present food to his mate. As he hunts he screeches to scare any rivals.

Successful pairs tend to use the same nests for 20 to 30 years. About 3 to 6 eggs are laid around April or May. The female incubates the eggs once the first egg is laid. The male’s role during the incubation period is to feed the female. The eggs hatch after 32-34 days and the young are capable of flight at about 2 months old. They become independent of their parents at about 10 weeks of age.

Image of In flight, barn owls can appear completely white. They have golden-buff plumage on their head, back, and upper wings.In flight, barn owls can appear completely white. They have golden-buff plumage on their head, back, and upper wings. Image courtesy Flickr user marlin harms

CURRENT THREATS, STATUS, AND CONSERVATION

Barn owls are still widespread globally, their numbers have been declining in New Jersey. Today the barn owl is listed as a Species of Special Concern in New Jersey (not yet endangered or threatened but possibly on its way).

The exact reason for the decline of barn owls is unknown, but we do know that the availability of cavities for nesting appears to be a limiting factor. Barn owls are secondary cavity nesters. They don’t make their own cavity but use existing natural or man-made cavities. They prefer nest sites surrounded by suitable hunting grounds with unobstructed entrances. Barn owls nest in buildings and other man-made structures including nest boxes. Many nesting sites have been lost in trees and in buildings. Nest-box programs are an effective management option to grow the number of barn owls in areas where nest sites are limited.

Image of US Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers, biologist Vinny Turner, USFWS assist Ben Wurst with the installation of a nestbox for barn owls in Manahawkin WMA.Zoom+ US Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers, biologist Vinny Turner, USFWS assist Ben Wurst with the installation of a nestbox for barn owls in Manahawkin WMA. © Ben Wurst

In the western half of both Salem and Cumberland Counties 44 nest boxes are monitored by the Barn Owl Research Foundation, which is based in Texas. They have been conducting research on New Jersey's barn owl population in southwest New Jersey for over 30 years. In 2006, barn owls used 24 of 44 (55%) nest boxes for nesting (Colvin et. al. 2006). Eggs hatched at 19 of the nest sites and 79 young were banded using USGS leg bands for future tracking.

Loss of existing nest sites, hunting grounds, and food supply to development have most likely had a negative impact on barn owl populations in New Jersey. Other threats include exposure to poisons and pesticides often targeted at the barn owl’s prey.

Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, in partnership with the New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program has implemented a nest box installation and monitoring program in 2007. Nest boxes have been erected in habitat determined to be suitable for barn owls. Barn owls prefer nest sites that are close to grassland/wetland foraging habitats (Colvin et. al. 2006). Two nestboxes were placed inside Manahawkin WMA to the north of the Causeway Bridge (Rt. 72) to Long Beach Island after a barn owl nestling was found by construction workers performing work on the Causeway Bridge. And one nestbox was installed to the west of the Mullica River Bridge (Garden State Parkway) inside Wading River WMA after workers found another nestling. The boxes are monitored by biologists during the breeding season. Neither of the nestboxes have been occupied to date. Research in southwest New Jersey has shown that multiple nestboxes in a breeding territory help increase the chance that they'll be used for nesting. Males prefer to roost in these empty nestboxes. If funding can be acquired additional nestboxes will be installed along the Atlantic Coast in areas with suitable habitat. Further research and monitoring will be necessary.


References:

  • Colvin B. & P. Hegdal. 2006. Annual Report on the New Jersey Study Area. Barn Owl Research Foundation, P.O. Box 680183, San Antonio, TX 78238

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
       Class: Aves
          Order: Strigiformes
             Family: Tytonidae
                Genus: Tyto
                   Species: T. alba

Find Related Info: Special concern, Raptors, Grassland birds

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