The Barn Owl is a medium-sized owl with a heart-shaped face, yellow-brown and grey upperparts and white underparts (buff on Continental birds), with a wavering flight, piercing, shrieking call and overall ‘ghostly’ appearance. It is instantly recognisable to all and is a very beautiful bird indeed.
Barn Owls favour open countryside, hunting along field edges, scrubby areas, dykes, ditches and woodland edges. They nest in barns, special owl boxes and hollow trees.
They are found throughout western and northeastern Europe, and in Britain after a sharp decline due to all manner of reasons – poisoning, trapping, dubious building practices and an increase in traffic casualties – the Barn Owl is, slowly but surely, rising in numbers.
This is a typical view of a Barn Owl – a ghostly apparition drifting away over the fields showing broad, rounded wings, yellow-buff upperparts, barred tail and white underwings. During the winter months and breeding season, Barn Owls can often be seen in daylight hours.
The alba race of Barn Owl found in western Europe has a white heart-shaped face with an indistinct thin, grey border and striking black eyes. The rest of the head, the mantle and most of the wing are rich yellowy-orange and mixed with greys, blacks and browns. The short tail shows three grey bars. The underparts are white, flecked on the flanks and thighs. The longish legs are feathered white, while the feet are pinkish and have black claws.
This is a typical chick’s eye view of a parent bird approaching, with a suitably juicy morsel. The adult birds will work extremely hard to keep their offspring nourished and during the breeding season no small mammal is safe!
An occasional visitor into Britain is the central and eastern and northeastern European dark-breasted race guttata. Structurally identical, these Barn Owls are considerably darker on the upperparts than the nominate race alba, appearing a lot greyer on the mantle and wings. The heart on the face is washed greyish-brown, while the underparts are a rich buffybrown with neat dark spotting from breast to belly.
Waiting in a suitable roof space for the return of an adult laden with food, the young Barn Owls resemble a solemn line of choristers. The down of their younger days is soon lost – bar a few tufts on the head – as the familiar plumage begins to moult through. Adult Barn Owls will have done a good job if they manage to fledge three juveniles – they need good weather, sympathetic landowners and a large supply of mammals to succeed.