Create a list of articles to read later. You will be able to access your list from any article in Discover.
You don't have any saved articles.
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.
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.
Young barn owls, or owlets, are born naked and develop a covering of fluffy white down. They resemble adults by about 10 weeks old.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
... or that it helped you learn something new. Now we're wondering if you can help us.
Every year, more people are reading our articles to learn about the challenges facing the natural world. Our future depends on nature, but we are not doing enough to protect our life support system.
British wildlife is under threat. The animals and plants that make our island unique are facing a fight to survive. Hedgehog habitats are disappearing, porpoises are choking on plastic and ancient woodlands are being paved over.
But if we don't look after nature, nature can't look after us. We must act on scientific evidence, we must act together, and we must act now.
Despite the mounting pressures, hope is not lost. Museum scientists are working hard to understand and fight against the threats facing British wildlife.
For many, the Museum is a place that inspires learning, gives purpose and provides hope. People tell us they 'still get shivers walking through the front door', and thank us for inspiring the next generation of scientists.
To reverse the damage we've done and protect the future, we need the knowledge that comes from scientific discovery. Understanding and protecting life on our planet is the greatest scientific challenge of our age. And you can help.
We are a charity and we rely on your support. No matter the size, every gift to the Museum is critical to our 300 scientists' work in understanding and protecting the natural world.
From as little as £2, you can help us to find new ways to protect nature. Thank you.