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 What can be done to help our lovely barn owls?

 

January 2018

barn owl

Barn owls are a big favourite with British people; they are one of the prettiest birds in the owl family with their charming heart shaped faces and soft white plumage.

They are also found right across the UK and so spotting them is not always as difficult as trying to see other owl species, although numbers have declined in recent decades. 

Some of this is due to pesticides and reduced natural foods, especially voles, due to changing land use. But severe winter weather can also mark a big problem for barn owls. Barn owls actually evolved in warmer and drier climates before they spread to the UK, and their pretty feathers do not offer the best insulation. During winter months they need extra food to make up for their increased loss of body heat.

The trouble is their natural food is usually harder to find in specially cold snaps. Barn owls love voles, mice and small mammals in general, and in winter the activity of these little animals declines, making them much harder to find and catch. With reduced growth on the ground, small mammals make much less noise when they are out and about in winter, also making them harder to find by hungry barn owls.

In the past, owls could often find mice and rats inside farm buildings during really bad weather, but these opportunities are fast declining. In really bad weather, voles and other little creatures often stay underneath the snow. When things are really hard, barn owls can turn to other sources of food such as small birds. This is not as surprising as one would expect as when in the nest after hatching, bigger young barn owls can eat their younger brothers and sisters when the parents aren’t able to provide adequate nourishment for them.

So what can we do to help barn owls in challenging winter weather? It is not easy. Giving free wild birds artificial food can never be a substitute for an owl’s naturally prey rich diet. Feeding wild barn owls is also especially difficult as a hungry owl will listen out for activity and will be expecting brown and grey looking prey. So putting out unnaturally coloured food will only be discovered by the owls by accident, and Is more likely to be taken by other wildlife such as other birds, foxes or even rats.

If you know somewhere, perhaps a wooden beam in an old or disused building, where barn owls regularly roost, that can be a big help as you can put some food precisely where the owl stands once the owl has gone off hunting. That way when he comes back he will spot it and hopefully will discover it is edible. Otherwise the only way we can help is by encouraging a barn owl to roost in an enclosed building or in a specially erected nestbox. Again once they have established a regular roosting spot, you can introduce a little food.

The best time to try offering food is just after dusk then the owls are probably out hunting.

Generally a good saying is that you can feed an owl anything that a cat would bring home, but of course you have to be careful as for instance some wild rats may contain leptospirosis which is dangerous for humans. Dead day old chicks are an ideal choice for owls and can often be bought from poultry suppliers at a reasonable price. These chicks mimic other small mammals with their high protein and low fat levels plus offer good quantities of appropriate vitamins and calcium. Generally the chicks should be offered fresh but don’t leave them out overnight in freezing conditions, or indeed in an area that for some reason is quite hot, as day old chicks can deteriorate quickly and allow bacteria to spread.

Owls can eat around two dead chicks a night, so we are not looking at massive quantities to help keep a barn own healthy; but this is all a lot more difficult than feeding other wild birds.

 

To find out more about these wonderful birds, there is a great charity called the Barn Owl Trust, and they have a lot of information on their website:

barnowltrust.org.uk

You can also adopt a barn owl through:

barnowltrust.org.uk/adopt-a-barn-owl/

 

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