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Helping barn owls to thrive on the Yorkshire Wolds
I often get asked by visitors to my gallery how the barn owls are doing locally. This year I’ve enjoyed being able to reply that they are faring really well. Barn owls are one of my favourite birds to study and paint and I have an extensive collection of barn owl paintings.
But my relationship with these beautiful birds of prey goes deeper. I also work hard to protect their future here on the Yorkshire Wolds, by building nest boxes for them and recording and monitoring their progress. I send my findings to the British Ornithological Trust for their annual census.
Barn owls need help finding places to nest
It all began back in 1998 when I first moved to Thixendale. There were no breeding pairs of barn owls close to my gallery at that time, and very few places for barn owls to nest. I was contacted by a local farmer who had found three barn owl chicks in the floor of his barn while it was being emptied of straw bales.
There was a tower of bales still left in the corner of the barn so I put a nest box on top of it. Luckily the parent birds accepted the new arrangement and fed the chicks in this new site. After the young had fledged I moved the nest box to a nearby shed so that the adult pair had somewhere safe to nest the following year. Over the years putting up nest boxes for barn owls has led to a much wider barn owl conservation project covering an extensive region, which I run in conjunction with other like-minded people. To date I’ve personally put up a total of 150 nest boxes on farmland across the Yorkshire Wolds.
I haven’t the time to monitor all of these boxes, but each year I load a set of ladders onto the roof of my vehicle to see how the owls are doing. I usually make my way around about 30 of them. I record my findings on a sheet ready to send off to the BTO in Autumn. It is quite a job. I get my map out the night before to plan a route that passes as many boxes as possible. But it’s not really hard work, I enjoy the ‘tour’ and finding out how the year has gone for them.
Barn owls need help to find food in winter
Barn owls are a widespread species and can be found in every continent apart from Antarctica. In the UK, in the most northern part of their range, populations can be fragile. Their diet consists of small rodents: mice, shrews and most importantly voles. The size of the population of the latter peaks and troughs considerably, which in turn affects the numbers of owls and particularly their breeding success. During severe winters their prey can also disappear under the thick covering of snow, making hunting particularly difficult.
Knowing this, after one particularly cold season I began offering the barn owl pair living closest to my gallery extra food to help them survive. I’ve continued to supplement the diet of this particular pair and they’ve rewarded me by continuing to nest here.
I monitor their daily activities from a nearby hide and also via cameras mounted both inside and outside their nest boxes. This year the female laid five eggs. Twenty-nine days the first chick hatched followed every few days by a further three. Shortly afterwards I was contacted by Selby Wildlife Rescue Centre. Two small barn owl chicks had been handed in. They were wet and cold and likely to perish after the tree their nest was in had been blown down in a storm.
Barn owls will foster wild chicks
I suggested that I put the rescued owls into the nest close to the bottom of my garden, where I could keep an eye on them via the hidden cameras. I’ve done this before and been successful. Since owls cannot count, the adults just presume these extra chicks are theirs and get on with feeding and caring for them. I watched my cameras carefully to make sure the adults accepted the new chicks. They did so without batting an eye. Within two weeks a further two further rescued owlets came in, from Ryedale Rehabilitation Centre. Again these chicks were accepted by my local pair without a fuss. The adults now had a super-brood of eight youngsters. To see a round of of my best video clips from inside this barn owl nest click here .
Barn owlets are known for attacking younger and smaller siblings when times are hard and cannibalism is a reality. There is typically a significant difference in size between the biggest and smallest owlets, as the parents incubate their eggs as soon as each one is laid. If the female lays a clutch of eggs, the first chick will hatch at least 10-15 days before the last chick.
Watching via my cameras in the nest the eight owlets were in a mish-mash of sizes. I upped the amount of food that I put out for them just to make sure that the adults could cope with all these extra mouths to feed and also to ensure that one of the bigger owlets didn’t have one of the smaller ones for lunch!
I fed the adult owls dead chicken chicks, which I buy in frozen by the 1,000. These dead chicks are cockerels, a by-product from the hen-laying industry. Usually I allocate two a day per owl. And if the weather is bad I up this to three. This, along with the voles that the adult birds hunt every day, is enough for the barn owlets to thrive. In May I tore the ligaments in my ankle and was unable to embark on my annual census of barn owl boxes until July 9th, which is a little late in the season. I was afraid that many owlets would have already fledged.
Barn owls are rung to keep an accurate record of numbers
Nevertheless I set off, accompanied by two associates, one to ring each new chick, and a second to record the data on each barn owl box. It was a really successful survey. Box after box had young barn owls in it. I suspected it had been a good year regionally since I had seen my local pair bring plenty of voles into their nest, but I hadn’t really appreciated just how healthy the broods were.
The first nest box I inspected had five young owls inside, all fully feathered and ready for off. In fact they were so ready that they flew out as soon as I approached the tree with my ladder.
At the second box, which was just a short distance away, I was a little more successful. There were three young owls inside the nest box. I carefully lifted each owlet and placed them into separate compartments of a canvas shoulder bag. I use this bag because its separate sections to ensure that the chicks don’t claw at each other as I make my way slowly back down my ladder. At the bottom, I lifted each owlet out and held it so that it could be ringed. Each numbered ring is firmly clamped around one leg. The ring number is then recorded alongside the details of each bird: where it hatched, its approximate age and size. Once this was done I took put the chicks back into the nest.
As I made my way down the ladder, I spotted four other owls perched close by: the adult pair and two owlets that had recently fledged. This meant these owls had also had a clutch of five. These are big broods for the Yorkshire Wolds, where barn owls can struggle to survive at this altitude. At the next box, a barn owl flew out just as I placed my ladder against the tree. It was a young male. I paused for a moment to watch its slightly wobbly flight. It rode the thermals, flying higher and higher into the sky before finally regaining control and heading back for home. It landed close by in an ash tree.
I continued up the ladder just as the adult female took off out of the nest box. Inside I found a further two chicks. This particular box had only ever had barn owls breeding in it on two occasions before so it was great to see that it was in use again. The next nest box we visited was one that often gets commandeered by kestrel. I wasn’t even going to put the ladder up to it, since the kestrels would have fledged by now, but when I looked up at it a female barn owl was sitting in the entrance hole.
She flew off as I got the ladder down from the roof of the car. At the top, I opened the box and was disappointed to see there were no chicks inside. Instead the box had been used by jackdaws and was full of sticks. I pulled these out. Hopefully a barn owl will use it next year. The female barn owl must have been just roosting there. I looked across to where she had landed, in a tree near the road.
I followed her along the valley in my car. I noticed that she was heading towards the next box on my list. She took a short cut across a paddock and into an old wooden shed on the edge of a farmstead. I did feel a bit bad disturbing her again but I checked the box and there were four more chicks inside. I was on a roll!
There were barn owls in each box I checked that day. I can’t describe the sense of satisfaction I felt. How different from the day I moved to Thixendale 20 years ago, when there were so few breeding barn owls in the area.
Author: Robert E Fuller