Barn owls are great hunters, poor builders

A female barn owl shields her young with protective wings. During high rodent populations, barn owls have the ability of raising two broods in one season, with 4 to 10 young each, beginning in late winter. They will even stack rodents around the perimeter of the nest when the young are overwhelmed with food. Many barns have ample perching for owls, but lack suitable nesting opportunities. Often, it only takes a simple box to encourage nesting.

Man is always striving to come up with a better mouse trap. But, with all his technology at hand, his latest model pales in comparison to Ma Nature’s barn owl.

Barn owls are truly a rodent’s worst nightmare. From head to toe, these birds come equipped with an arsenal unmatched in the animal world.

Due to their dish-shaped face and offset ears, barn owls receive sound waves much like a satellite dish. They have the best hearing of any creature tested by science. This allows them to find rodents in total darkness and in tall grass.

Their razor-sharp talons come with tiny, serrated edges and a vise grip that prey can’t wiggle from. Their wings are large for their bodies and have soft edges. This small wing load and silent flight provides a stealth bomber approach.

Barn owls are common in Umatilla and Morrow counties. Over the mountain, barn owls are very common in the Grande Ronde valley as well.

In 1984, this writer noticed a pair of La Grande area barn owls having difficulty raising a brood of young in a nearby barn. Owls build a poor nest, so the eggs or half-grown young would often fall from this skimpy nest on a narrow beam. Reading a magazine article about owl nest boxes, I decided to erect a box. In just a few weeks, a healthy brood of young were discovered in the box and soon fledged. Neighbors tried a box with a resulting happy brood. Soon, local farmers heard of this and wanted boxes in their barns.

The rest is history. The Grande Ronde valley now has more than 200 barn owl boxes and the bird’s numbers have exploded. Later, an Oregon Public Broadcasting film crew came to produce a story of this in their “Oregon Field Guide” series. Scott Findholt, from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, took notice and launched a four-year leg banding project on the birds. To date, more than 600 owlets have been banded to help track migration patterns, reproductive success and population dynamics.

Returns from the banding study have revealed that, indeed, the birds can travel great distances. This was not known prior to the study. Many bands were returned from the Pendleton area and from as far away as Logan, Utah, and Marsing, Idaho. Of course, the usual way most bands are returned is from people finding the birds dead — often from the side of a highway where they collide with vehicles.

Much of Eastern Oregon is prime barn owl habitat — hay meadows and crop lands. This habitat can promote high rodent populations, but often doesn’t have adequate nesting opportunities for the birds. Prior to man, barn owls nested in river bank burrows carved out by other creatures like kingfishers or small mammals. They also used cavities in large cottonwoods. When man entered the scene, they soon found barns and other man-made structures to their liking. Unfortunately, many of these buildings don’t have suitable places to build a nest. Lately, many of the older barns have been remodeled with sheet metal and often without entry ways — not allowing the birds access.

Artificial boxes can really make a difference in nesting success. Having barn owls nearby can really make a difference in local rodent populations as well. Many La Grande ranchers are strong promoters of barn owls. One rancher, working traps on a huge infestation of gophers in his hay fields, installed a box in his barn. The owls moved in and the rancher soon noticed a huge drop in his gopher problem. Gophers usually come out at night when owls are hunting and daytime hawks are asleep. He’s convinced his hay crop was much larger with the barn owls present.

When barns or other nesting structures aren’t nearby, barn owls will often resort to nesting in haystacks. All it takes is a crack between the bales. Of course, this can lead to tragedy as the rancher will eventually have to dig into the stack, disrupting the owls. Lynn Tompkins, director of the Blue Mountain Wildlife Rehab Center in Pendleton, receives many orphaned owlets every season, many from local haystacks. Some ranchers, who like the owls working their fields, have erected poles to mount the nest boxes, providing a place for the owls instead of their haystacks.

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For more information about barn owls or nesting boxes, call Jim Ward at (541) 963-6977 or e-mail elkchaser@eoni.com. Barn owl box blueprints can be picked up at the Pendleton office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (541) 276-2344.

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