barn owl Esther art

Esther Brown

We often think of owls gently ‘too-wit too-wooing’ in the night. But these are  only tawny owls (usually a couple calling). Barn owls (with heart-shaped faces) have a screech so loud that ornithology writer Matt Sewell describes it as a ‘bloodcurdling scream that could strip your fingernails!’  Little owls are shy, and sometimes even hide in drains. Short-eared and long-eared owls (with ‘tufts’ on top of their heads) have soft ‘hooo’ sounds (though owlets make a noise ‘like a creaking gate’). European eagle owls (possibly escaped from captivity) are rare and much bigger, and can even hunt baby deer. Snowy owls are more found in the Scottish Highlands.

Most owls hunt for around 4 small mammals a night (mostly voles and rabbits, but sometimes mice and rats). Barn owls tend to hunt for field voles, common shrews and wood mice (rats are rarely taken, as they are too large and aggressive). All species are at risk due to lack of habitat (trees, old barns), road traffic, pollution and rat poison.

Owls can only see straight ahead, but can turn their heads 270 degrees to hunt prey. Collectively called ‘a parliament of owls’, they have three eyelids (one to blink, one to sleep and to wash the eye). In 1937, a barn owl caught one bird photographer in the eye and due to an infection, he had to have it removed, but bore no ill will, saying the owl was only doing its duty’.

Female barn owls have more buff colouration and spots on the breast (whereas males are usually white). Barn owls also have feathers that can break turbulence into smaller currents to reduce sound, to hunt in silence. Their long legs and talons catch prey in long grass, but feathers are not waterproof. Owls are unique in having ‘lopsided ears’ so they can hear prey from above and below, then after eating digest the bones and regurgitate them later on.

easy ways we can all help owl friends

the lookout barn owl Julia Crossland

Julia Crossland

There is never one ‘magic bullet’, that would be likely everyone living a simple sustainable life and not driving, hunting or leaving litter etc. But collectively we can all help (towns planners especially). Don’t drop litter, don’t use netting with large holes and don’t leave open buckets of water or other drowning hazards around. Read more on how to be a wildlife-friendly gardener.

If you’re a farmer, use float devices in troughs as floating timber can dry out, get waterlogged or sink. Barn Owl Trust has instructions (ensure preservative is livestock-safe). This rainmaker wildlife trough connects to the water line and includes a float valve to prevent freezing (and lets small creatures escape). Two ideas from abroad are stock troughs (floats that don’t get waterlogged and reduce wildlife deaths by at least 90%) and FrogLog (a weighted inflating platform from a wildlife biologist, so small creatures can escape from pools).

If you’re a town planner, follow Barn Owl Trust advice, to force low-flying birds (and bats) to fly higher. They say to plant high hedges of closely-spaced trees next to road surfaces on both sides (or plant trees 3 to 4 metres back from road edge). See photos of roads with planted screens. Don’t place nest boxes within 1km of major roads, and have continuous screens on both sides. Report ringed and unringed casualties to Barn Owl Survey website and ringed birds to British Trust for Ornithology

Another good idea are Bird diverters (invented for swans to force them to avoid pylons, and could also help owls).

Ground-level solar panels don’t appear to be as harmful as tall solar towers (which can incinerate birds). The London School of Economics says over 100,000 birds a year could be killed due to wind turbines. New ideas to help are placing turbines further apart, painting one blade and wind towers black (so birds can see them) and bladeless turbines (like tall vibrating wands) . Owls are not as affected,  as they hunt much lower than most birds.

Help Barn Owl Trust by sending used stamps, foreign coins and notes or scrap your car. If you live near Ashburton (Devon), they welcome people who can offer occasional temporary lodging for volunteers and student placements. The Owls Trust (just over the border in Wales) helps owls, hawks and falcons that have been shot, caught in traps, entangled in barbed wire, poisoned by chemicals, hit by cars, collided with power lines, fallen down chimneys or orphaned.

how to buy, site & clean nestboxes

barn owl nest box

Owls sit on pellets (not straw) so nest-boxes are easily waterlogged. Barn Owl Trust has tips on how to buy, build and site nest boxes, plus info on how to safely clean them, when chicks have fledged. You can’t disturb owls or owlets unless a licensed wildlife worker. 

These barn owl nestboxes have been designed alongside Barn Owl Trust.  They can stop owlets falling out and help to protect from bad weather. Cleaning is important as otherwise pellets build up, and owlets may climb out too early. Tawny owl nests look more like tubes, all designed to replicate how owls would nest in tree hollows or barns.

tawny owl nest box

don’t use rat poison


Rats form part of an owl’s diet, so rat poisons are a big no-no. Use common sense to deter rodents like not leaving food out or composting animal foods. Encouraging natural predators (like owls and foxes) are better solutions than using Jack Russell terriers (they give quick deaths but dogs could get infected with rat poison, intestinal worms or toxoplasmosis). Live traps cause painful deaths if not checked, and leave babies behind anyway.

If you are considering poison to stop rats coming indoors, RatMesh (made from stainless steel) is a tougher version of their MouseMesh. These must not cover air vents used for ventilation of gas appliances, as they may block with dust, leaves or dirt that could restrict or block air flow, and increase risk of carbon dioxide poisoning.

Gardening expert Ellen Christine says that rats have acute sense of smell, so  try strong herbs like mint around borders (in container pots to avoid overgrowing) or lavender (or rosemary for pet-friendly gardens). She also says to avoid mulching as although it discourages weeds, this (and composting animal materials) can attract them. Growing natural food for birds (rather than giving too much seed or leftover food) is another idea. It’s not good anyway to leave fatty leftovers to birds, as this can smear on feathers, attracting waterproofing and insulation.

If I am to love owls, then I must learn to live with rats. Alys Fowler

how farmers can help barn owls

barn owl Michelle Martin

Michelle Martin

Barn owls like to forage in rough grass, so Barn Owl Trust recommend creating strips or patches of rough tussocky grassland at least 4 metres wide, with litter layer of dead grass at least 7cm deep. Read more on how to manage land for barn owls.

Barn owls are a schedule 1 species, which means they are protected by law from any disturbance during nesting (from the moment the first egg is laid until the last dependent young stops returning to the nest – penalties for disturbing includes fines of up to £5000 or up to 6 months imprisonment per bird, nest or egg). It’s a worthwhile £300 for planners (and ecologists) to take their training course to gain experience in barn owl surveying and mitigation procedures. It takes 10 to 15 hours and includes a copy of Barn Owl Conservation Handbook which Chris Packham says every council should have a copy of to become a a ‘barn owl agent’ for the public and farmers. Report dead owls, using six-figure grid references to alert others and find farm owners.

prevent owls from nesting in chimneys

Read how to help crows and ravens on how to prevent birds nesting or falling down chimneys. Experts recommend chimney cowls and chimney caps which also helps prevent smoke blowing into homes. Install correctly so oxygen can circulate, and smoke goes to the right place.

It’s illegal to light fires if you know birds are nesting, so sweep chimneys at least once yearly, ideally summer’s end. This way the sweep can tell if there are nests, so you avoid lighting fires until you know birds have gone. Signs of birds nesting in chimneys include twigs, grass, leaves and feathers falling into the grate. Use gloves if removing bird droppings.

how to help injured/orphaned owls

Tawny owls should be observed, as often parents are nearby (or place safely in a high tree branch). Barn owls on the ground need help, so call your nearest wildlife rescue (or Raptor Rescue). Wear gloves (or use a thick towel) before placing owls in ventilated boxes (no tassles on towels to avoid tangling).

You can place little owls in nests or close by. Grasp gently (feet are more likely to get you than beaks!) Keep in a quiet area at room temperature, until help arrives.

don’t keep owls as pets

Barn Owl Trust does not agree with keeping owls as pets. They are wild birds (and unlike dogs have no loyalty). They will see you as a potential mate, can be aggressive and will happily leave you to the next person providing food, no matter how much you love her or him! This is why falconry owls are a welfare issue. If they do fly off, they can get tangled in ‘leather strips’ on their feet.

wise words about wise owls

A wise old owl sat in an oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?
Edward Hersey Richards

And if anyone knows anything about anything – it’s Owl who knows something about something. Owl is the grand and rather clever old man of the forest. He can also spell Tuesday. A A Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh)

Opportunities are like night owls. They like to streak naked and howl at the moon. A lot of success in life comes down to luck. So, put yourself in a position to get lucky. Because you know what happens if you don’t go out? Nothing. Ari Gold

The barn owl is an ambassador for life on the edge. It is the night owl that also hunts fearlessly by day; the silent flier with a sudden shriek that can shatter glass; the restless sentry of the outside edge of the woods, with one ear attuned to the grassy banks and the other to the first and last tree shadows. Jim Crumley

books to learn more about owls

the owl a biography

The Owl: A Biography is by nature writer Stephen Moss. Learn about these mysterious birds with their haunting calls including Scotland’s snowy owls. Discover their lives from hatching to hunting to raising the next generation, with beautiful illustrations throughout.

the book of the barn owl

The Book of the Barn Owl is by Yorkshire writer Sally Coulthard. Full of information and conservation tips about this elusive bird, it tells the story of a barn owl’s early life – from first pip of the shell to leaving the nest.

owls Matt Sewell

Owls: Our Most Enchanting Bird is one of Matt Sewell’s popular pop-art birding books, always fun and educational. From tiny Elf owls to huge eagle owls and impossibly fluffy baby owls, find 50 hand-painted owls to learn about from around the world.

The barn owl is most beautiful and elegant. Found all around the world on silent wingbeats, with a face you could never forget.  Matt Sewell

home bird hoot

Home Bird Hoot is a beautiful tale for children, about an unlikely friendship and its power to help you be braver than you think. Little Hoot doesn’t like the rain or storm and never leaves home, preferring to stay in a place that is safe and warm. But when Hoot meets a little mouse, she finds herself on an unexpected adventure – one of friendship, feathers and finding her wings. Can Little Hoot find the strength to be brave, when Momo needs her most ..?

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