Friends of Texas Wildlife | The “Ghost” Owl

by Lisa Wolling, Executive Director

Imagine you’re out walking in the country, and you come upon an old, abandoned barn or other outbuilding. You can’t resist the urge to poke around a little, even though it is getting close to being dark outside. You step inside the old building, where cobwebs abound. It looks like nobody has been here for years. Suddenly, you hear a faint noise coming from the rafters. Must be a mouse, you tell yourself. As you slowly move a little closer, you hear a loud, hissing noise. It sounds like a cross between a cranky old steam engine and perhaps an angry snake, and the sound makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up as the plot of every horror movie you’ve ever seen runs through your mind. Slowly, carefully, you inch your way back towards the barn door. Then you freeze in your tracks…you see it now! Eyes glowing in the darkness, the pale white face, rocking back and forth slowly, and staring right at you! Eek! Time to run! Unless…you happen to be a bird geek like me. If so, you quickly realize you have been lucky enough to have a close encounter with a Barn Owl.

The Barn Owl has the most widespread distribution of any owl, and it can be found on every continent except for Antarctica. Throughout the world, at least 28 subspecies have been identified, with most differing in size and color. Although most range maps show the barn owl inhabits much of the United States, and all of Texas, they tend to not be seen much in our immediate area as we have too many trees. Barn owls prefer open areas found around farms/pastures, marshes, grasslands, and other similar habitats. Where they are found, they are essentially non-migratory. Newly-independent young birds may move slightly in search of new hunting and breeding grounds.

Barn Owls are generally about the size of a crow, ranging in size from 14 to 20 inches tall, and weighing just over a pound. Their distinctive, heart-shaped face is all white, as are their underparts (although these feathers are spotted with black). Their upperparts are pale rust-brown, also with black spots, and they have gray feather tips. Females tend to be somewhat darker in color than males. They have no ear tufts and their eyes are very dark, almost black. Their wingspan is from 42-44 inches, and their flight is slow and moth-like. They hunt at night, and their diet consists mostly of rodents, shrews, bats, rabbits, and hares. They will also occasionally prey on birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. The Barn Owl’s heart-shaped face collects sound in the same way as human ears, and their hearing is the most sensitive of any creature tested. Their ears (hidden beneath feathers) are set asymmetrically at slightly different heights to help calculate the precise source of tiny noises made by mice. Their ability to locate prey by sound is extremely accurate, allowing them to even capture prey hidden by vegetation or snow. Many farmers encourage barn owls to nest in agricultural areas as their ability to control rodents is much better than traps or poisons, and it is free! They generally eat twice as much prey for their weight as other owls. Although Barn Owls will defend the area around their nests, they don’t defend their hunting sites, so more than one pair may hunt in the same territory. Their lifespan is sadly quite short, averaging only two years or less

Barn Owls mate for life, and they nest in unlined cavities in trees, or even in riverbanks, cliffs, and haystacks. In areas close to human activity, these owls will raise their young in barns, silos, church steeples, and abandoned buildings. They will accept nest boxes as well. After the pair forms, the male brings prey to the female (often more than she can consume), starting about a month before she starts laying eggs. Clutch size varies from 2 to 12 white eggs, depending on the abundance of prey, and they may nest two or three times each year. The eggs are incubated for 29-34 days, and the young are helpless and covered in white down. The baby owls generally fledge 50-55 days after hatching.

So, if you happen to find yourself out strolling on a dark, moonless night, and you see two eyes and a white face peering out at you, don’t be scared. It’s probably just a Barn Owl watching you. Probably…

To learn more about what we do and view pictures of many of the animals we assist, please visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SavingTexasWildlife. Our educational visitor’s center is open the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., located at 29816 Dobbin Hufsmith Road, Magnolia, Texas, so the next open house date will be Saturday, October 12. Come on out and visit us, learn a little more about local wildlife, do some fun activities and a craft, and meet some of our non-releasable wildlife educational animals. We also host birthday parties, camps, and educational presentations. For more information about events, birthday parties, camps, or educational presentations for scouts, schools, or other groups, please visit our website or email ftwl.education@gmail.com. There are many other ways you can help support our efforts, too (such as Kroger Community Rewards, Amazon Smile, etc.). Details can be found at www.ftlw.org, and then click on “How to Help”.