The Canadian Peregrine Foundation

Student's Guide to Canada's Wildlife at Risk:
Owl Unit

The Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

The text and illustrations below are reproduced from CPF's Student's Guide to Canada's Wildlife at Risk: Owl UnitClick here for more information on this publication.

(drawing by Amy Mui)

Description: The Barn Owl is a medium-sized owl, similar in length to a Crow. It is relatively pale in colour, with a golden-brown back and wings, and a white or buff coloured breast lightly speckled with dark spots. The Barn Owl does not have any ear tufts on its head, and has a unique heart-shaped facial disk. The flight of the Barn Owl is light and graceful, often just above the ground. The Barn Owl can be detected from a distance by its loud, hissing screech.

Requirements: The Barn Owl lives on all continents except Antarctica, but in many areas its range is restricted since it is intolerant of harsh winters. This is because unlike other owls, the Barn Owl does not have large fat deposits to insulate it against the cold, and it also has trouble hunting in deep snow. In Canada, the Barn Owl’s range is limited to the southern edge of Ontario and the southwestern corner of British Columbia.

Within its range, the Barn Owl searches out open grasslands where it can hunt for its favourite prey, meadow voles and mice. These small rodents usually make up more than 90% of the Barn Owl’s diet, but other small mammals and even birds or insects will be hunted as well. The size of a territory depends on the availability of prey, but is usually 2 to 3 square kilometres.

Barn Owls in Canada usually begin breeding when they are just one year old. They often return to the same nest year after year, and start nesting in March or April. The number of eggs produced is usually 5 to 8, but when prey is unusually abundant as many as 12 or 13 eggs may be laid. The female incubates the eggs for about 31 days, and then both adults help to feed the chicks, which remain in the nest for close to nine weeks after hatching. Even after leaving the nest, the young owls remain dependent on their parents until they are three months old. Only 20% of Barn Owls survive to adulthood. Many die from collisions with cars because Barn Owls fly low when hunting. Other causes of death include starvation, predation, and poisoning.

Conservation concerns: The Barn Owl was designated as threatened in Ontario in 1984, and as endangered in Canada in 2000. It is also listed as endangered in several US states. Before European settlers arrived in North America, the Barn Owl lived in the hollows of old trees. Over time many of these old trees were cut down, and the Barn Owl adapted by moving into barns and other buildings for shelter. But in the past few decades the number of wooden barns has declined, and many Barn Owls have been left without a home. In addition, much of the grassland habitat which the Barn Owl needs for hunting has been lost. The Barn Owls which have been able to find a place to live are vulnerable if they eat rodents that people have tried to kill with poisons. This is particularly unfortunate, because the Barn Owl can actually help farmers control rodent populations. They have been called "nature’s perfect mousetrap" because Barn Owls have an incredibly large appetite. Even a small family of Barn Owls will eat close to 20 mice per night, and over the course of a year each individual Barn Owl will eat more than 1000 mice. In addition to making sure their food source isn’t poisoned, farmers and other landowners can help the Barn Owl by installing wooden nest boxes for them in sheltered places.


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