State DNR’s barn owl project seeks to find elusive birds

Ashley, Ohio — Barn owls are doing better in Ohio. After peaking in the 1930s, only 20 of their nests could be found by the late ‘80s. Two years ago, the Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife counted 100 nests – it has put up 400 barn owl nest boxes since 1989.

Now, with a Citizen Science Project, the DOW is encouraging the public to report barn owl sightings throughout the breeding season.

While their numbers are going up, barn owls are still a threatened species in Ohio and are considered threatened or endangered in most midwestern states, said Ken Duren, DOW wildlife biologist.

“The Citizen Science Project is going to help us get a better understanding of how many there are in the state and where they are living,” he said. “Most of the barn owl nests we know of occur in Wayne and Holmes counties but we’ve had them scattered throughout the state, mostly in the eastern part.”

Barn owls eat mostly rodents, Duren said. People refer to them as the farmer’s friend because they will fill up on the mice and rats that farmers would just as soon be rid of.

They need two different types of habitat. They need a place to nest and to roost, to stay in the day to sleep. In Ohio, dark manmade buildings, barns, and silos fit the bill.

They also need a place to find food, especially the meadow voles they crave, mostly in grassland habitats, pastures, and hayfields with short to medium height grass.

“A lot of the old barns have disappeared,” Duren said. “Some of the newer big metal barns are sealed up too well; barn owls can’t get entry into them. We’ve also seen a big decline in hay and grass pastures in Ohio, too. There is more corn and soybeans.”

That’s why so many of the critters were found in Wayne and Holmes counties – Amish country. Their farming methods provide the old barns, the pastures, and the meadows that barn owls need.

How do you know if there are barn owls around? Jessica Elliott, from Ashland, Ohio, went out to the barn one dark night. Before she could reach a light, she heard a loud hissing. She turned on the light and saw nothing but the hissing continued.

“I had no idea what it was,” she said. “I turned the light on, looked around, it kept hissing and I thought ‘I’m getting out of here.’ Then in the day we noticed that there were barn owls way up on top of the barn. We had hay stacked up pretty high so I took a ladder and I took some pictures. There were three nestlings and the two adults.”

A friend of Jessica and Doug Elliott, her husband, had reported seeing owls flying around in their dairy barn. Their farm is in the eastern part of the state. The owls were nesting in the bank barn, up about 50 to 60 feet, Elliott said. They milk in that barn, but did not know the owls were there. The DOW now has a pinpoint on their map where Jessica found that nest.

The scream that she heard is pretty distinct and kind of scary, Duren said. That is a barn owl indicator. They don’t hoot like other owls.

Owl pellets are another sign. Because the critters cannot digest bones and fur, they cough them out in the form of pellets, maybe an inch or two inches long and about a half inch around, oval shaped. You can tear them apart and see all the bones and the skulls of the mammals they ate. Also, look for “whitewash,” which is their droppings, Duren said. They leave the barn floor or the side of the barn wall white.

Barn owls are recognizable by their characteristic, mostly white, heart-shaped face. They are very light colored. Their chests are mostly white, and the back of their heads and wings are a golden brown with some black nestled in there. They’ll start nesting in April, which is when they usually start laying their eggs. By July and

August the young will be leaving the nest and flying around. That can vary, depending on the weather.

Anyone who knows of a barn owl nest can contact the DOW at 1-800-Wildlife.

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