A barn owl about to catch some prey on a moonlit night

Barn owls (Tyto alba) usually hunt at dusk, dawn or during the night, but you may see them in the daytime too © Ernie Janes/ Shutterstock.com

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Barn owl (Tyto alba)

The barn owl is known for its distinctive heart-shaped face, ghostly white plumage and haunting shriek. This nocturnal predator can be found in farmland across the UK, seeking out small mammals to feed on.

Explore facts about this night-time hunter.

A barn owl, with its heart-shaped white face, dark eyes and part of its mottled grey and pale brown back visible

Close-up of a barn owl's face. Image courtesy of ebor via Pixabay.

Barn owl fast facts

  • Scientific name: Tyto alba
  • Length: 33-39cm
  • Wingspan: 80-95cm
  • Weight: 250-350g
  • Average lifespan: 4 years
  • UK status: native
  • UK population: 4,000+ pairs (the Barn Owl Trust says the last reliable estimate was about 4,000 in 1997, but numbers now are thought to be the same or higher)
    UK conservation status: green list, protected
  • IUCN Red List category: least concern

What do barn owls look like?

This medium-sized owl has long, broad, rounded wings, a short tail, sharp talons, a medium-length hooked beak and a smoothly rounded head without ear tufts.

Barn owls have a distinctive heart-shaped white face and dark eyes. They have a mottled grey-and-buff back, while their underside is pure white.

A barn owl perched on a platform, with its wings closed and face turned towards the camera

A barn owl at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey, UK © Peter Trimming (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Young barn owls, or owlets, are born naked and develop a covering of fluffy white down. They resemble adults by about 10 weeks old.

What do barn owls eat?

Barn owls are birds of prey. Their diet consists of rodents and other small mammals - predominantly voles, mice and shrews - and very occasionally bats, small birds, amphibians and invertebrates.

In mainland Britain, field voles are their most common food.

Where do barn owls live?

This species is widespread globally. In the UK, the northernmost limit of its range, the barn owl is widely distributed, although it is absent from the Scottish Highlands and under threat in Northern Ireland.

These birds are found predominantly in farmland, grasslands and inland wetland areas. They are often seen hunting in open countryside along field edges, riverbanks and roadside verges.

Barn owl flying over a field with more fields and hedges in the background

A barn owl flying low over a field in the countryside © Scooperdigital/ Shutterstock.com

Barn owl behaviour, breeding and nesting

Though barn owls usually hunt at dawn, dusk and when it's dark, they occasionally hunt in the daytime.

Barn owls use their exceptional hearing to track down their prey as they fly low to the ground, silently gliding back and forth over open habitats. Their heart-shaped faces direct high-frequency sounds to their ears, which are set at slightly different heights, allowing them to pinpoint their prey. Once they've located their prey, they hover overhead then swoop down, grab it with their talons and eat it whole. 

Barn owl hovering above a patch of ground

A barn owl hovering above prey, likely a vole, mouse or shrew. Daytime hunting like this is more common in winter or when the owls have a brood to feed. © Steve Childs (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Barn owls usually raise one brood a year. Although nesting has been recorded in every season, they typically lay their eggs in spring.

The breeding season often begins in late winter with pairs engaging in mutual preening and cheek rubbing. By early spring, pairs begin occupying their intended nest sites, usually in old farm buildings, tree hollows or, nowadays, nest boxes.

Barn owls don't build a nest as such, but rather lay their eggs on a compacted layer of pellets or directly onto surfaces such as stone or wood, usually at least three metres above ground level.

Parent barn owl bringing a rodent to its chicks in the roof area of a brick building

A barn owl brings food to its chicks nesting in a building © PJR-Photography/ Shutterstock.com

Prior to mating, the male begins to bring the female food as she does progressively less hunting.

A female barn owl typically lays four to six eggs over a period of eight to 21 days. She begins incubating each egg as soon as it is laid. After 31 to 32 days the eggs begin to hatch, usually in the order in which they were laid. A new chick emerges every two to three days.

The male barn owl provides all the food until the chicks are around three weeks old. The staggered hatching makes this more manageable by reducing the peak demand for food. Once the owlets no longer need their mother's help to keep warm, she contributes to hunting duties.

The owlets fledge between about seven and 10 weeks old and start making short flights. From 10-14 weeks old, the fledglings learn to fly and hunt, while receiving supplementary food from their parents.

Three barn owl chicks

Barn owlets are covered in fluffy white down before they fledge © OB 76 (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Owlets become fully independent juveniles about 13 to 14 weeks after hatching. They disperse or are driven away by their parents.

Read more about the early stages of a barn owl's life on the Barn Owl Trust website.

How to spot a barn owl

Barn owls can be observed year-round in the UK. Dusk is the best time to see them, though they can sometimes be seen earlier in the day, particularly in winter or when they need to source food for their young.

Look out for their distinctive buoyant, loping flight as they fly low over fields and hedgerows hunting for prey. At night listen out for a piercing shriek. You may even glimpse a flash of white as one flies overhead in the dark.

Hear a barn owl's shriek on xeno-canto and the begging call of an owlet.

Barn owl photographed in low light conditions while it was hunting

You're most likely to see a barn owl at dusk © Nick Goodrum (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Conservation of the barn owl

The UK's barn owl population declined dramatically in the 1900s. Changes in farming practices due to agricultural intensification reduced the small mammal population, a vital component of the barn owl's diet. In addition, changes in land use and rural property development led to the loss of roosting and nesting sites.

Numbers also decreased in the 1950s and 1960s due to DDT, a now-banned agricultural pesticide that caused the thinning of eggshells.

Despite positive signs that conservation efforts are paying off in some parts of the UK, threats to barn owls remain, in particular:

  • a lack of suitable habitat in which to hunt for food
  • road deaths
  • loss of roost and nest sites
Barn Owl in flight over Lincolnshire countryside

Rough grassland is the ideal hunting ground for barn owls because it supports high densities of field voles and other prey © Philip Ryan/ Shutterstock.com

Land management remains the biggest factor affecting barn owls, according to the Barn Owl Trust. Farmers and rural landowners have a big role to play in providing patches and strips of rough grassland, a habitat which supports a large field vole population - the barn owl's main food source in Britain - as well as other prey.

The loss of nest and roost sites can be devastating for barn owls because once they have settled in an area, they will stay there for their whole lives, using the same nest and roost locations. Where possible, existing sites should be maintained. Erecting nearby nesting and roosting boxes can mitigate the impact of barns being converted, buildings falling into disrepair or hollow trees falling down.

By 2006, artificial nest sites were providing more than 70% of the known breeding locations for this species. It's important to ensure barn owl nest boxes are of a suitable design so that chicks can't fall out, and that they are located in suitable habitats at least one kilometre away from major roads.

Barn owl nest box fixed high up a tree trunk

A loss of nesting sites is a big problem for barn owls, but they will readily use well-placed nest boxes © Nigel Burley/ Shutterstock.com

Roads, especially motorways and dual carriageways, are a major cause of death for barn owls. Estimates suggest that at least a quarter of young barn owls born every year are killed, mainly when young fledglings leave the nest and disperse to new areas. Barn owls are particularly susceptible to becoming roadkill because they fly so low and will hunt along grassland road verges rich in prey.

Steps can be taken to reduce barn owl road deaths, however, primarily planting tall hedges at least two metres high beside busy roads. These force the owls to fly higher than the traffic. Branches should reach within a metre of the road surface to dissuade the birds from hunting along road verges.

Like most birds of prey, barn owls are being dosed with highly toxic rat poisons called second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides. Birds killed by secondary poisoning suffer a slow death. The impact of sublethal doses is unclear, but there are concerns they may affect the owls' breeding success and survival during hard times. In 2017, the poisons were detected in 90% of barn owls.

Barn owl flying low over a field

Barn owls' lifestyle puts them at risk of an early death on Britain's roads and secondary poisoning from rodenticides © Milan Zygmunt/ Shutterstock.com

The future of the UK's barn owls is still uncertain and regular monitoring is important. Weather conditions and climatic extremes can have a big impact on the birds' breeding success and survival, leaving them vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

You can help the Barn Owl Trust keep track of how these birds are faring across the UK by reporting any sightings.

Did you know?

In British folklore, the barn owl was given names such as ghost owl, church owl and demon owl, as it is often seen gliding silently across churchyards like a white ghost, has an unsettling shriek and hisses if you get too close to a nest.

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