Heart racing with excitement as I take that first step on to the ladder. One step, two step, and the next and the next, until I reach the box high in the rafters of the empty barn. Tap, tap on the side of the box to double check that the adult has left, before reaching quietly for the latch. As I carefully open the little door to the box, I then get my first peak of what may lay inside. There, at the back of the box, balls of downy feathers topped each with a pair of inquisitive eyes outlined by a heart of new feathers. Hope, elation, and pure joy – Original Piece
Iconic, distinct, and delightful, Barn Owls are a much-loved species of the British countryside. This protected species is often less commonly seen though, emerging on silent wings to hunt mainly at dawn and dusk. They are a particularly special species for my family, being an important indicator of the health of British farmland, such as our own, whilst also being a charismatic species to live alongside.
My family’s relationship with Barn Owls began in 2015, with the putting up of a nest box in one of our farm barns. Though Barn Owls have always been in our area, previously in very low numbers, our nest box finally allowed us to draw a pair of Barn Owls right into the heart of our farmland. This box has led to 7 years, so far, of regular Barn Owl sightings, the annual ringing of chicks, and a growing Barn Owl population. To find out more about the last 7 years, check out my previous Barn Owl blog posts.
The year of 2020 was a tough one for humans, but a more productive one for Barn Owls. Though we did not end up discovering any wild nesting pairs on the farm that year, we once again had Barn Owls in our barn nest box. The pair hatched 4 chicks from 4 eggs, and raised 2 successfully to fledging in August. This was a special moment as these were the very first Barn Owl chicks that I got to ring myself. Following this success, we had a super winter of seeing Barn Owls hunting every day the weather was settled.
For 2021, I had the privilege of getting more involved in Barn Owl nest box checks across Dorset with Conservation Action (CA). This project aims to preserve and conserve nature, to promote wildlife conservation, and to undertake research and monitoring of wildlife populations. As part of CA’s work, the last few years Barn Owl boxes have been checked on Dorset County Council farms (in which my family’s farm originally came under). From being involved in some of these nest box checks and from a few private Barn Owl boxes (not including my family’s own), I got to check 6 boxes and ring 10 chicks. It was a great experience, not to be missed!
My own Barn Owl nest box was first checked last year on the 15th June. On this day we found that the resident pair had hatched 4 chicks from 4 eggs in the box, all 4 being under 7 days old. We were also able to catch and ring the adult female, allowing us to identify her as a first time breeder at 2 years old. We then made sure the Barn Owls were not further disturbed for a month, before excitingly checking the box once again. Unfortunately the 2 smallest chicks and 1 of the larger chicks did not make it, probably due to the weather, leaving 1 strong healthy chick to survive to fledging.
What happened with our Barn Owls fitted in with the trend for 2021. Out of 81 boxes checked, only 21 boxes (26%) were being used by a pair, down from 39% in 2020. This reflects that Barn Owls were having a more difficult year, following a cold, then wet spring. Despite this, on average 2 owlets survived per box, a better statistic, reflecting the similar brood size average for 2020. With such turbulent weather, we were still very happy to have one Barn Owl chick fledge from the box in 2021.
After another winter (2021-2022) seeing Barn Owls hunting most days, we are looking forward to this year’s Barn Owl breeding season. By now we have seen a pair regularly around our nest box and have made a first licensed check of the box. Things are looking positive, so stay tuned to see how breeding goes on my family’s farm this year. Each year habitat changes and improves on our land, so we will also be interested to see how a new year and hopefully more stable weather will affect our Barn Owls. Here’s to a hopefully more successful 2022!
Barn Owls are a protected species, so all nest boxes were checked under full license, with all Barn Owls being ringed under license and special supervision. All birds handed were always put first in all situations, with minimum disturbance being made to the nesting birds and sites. Barn Owls are ringed to allow us to gain greater knowledge of this species to help better conserve this species and their preferred habitats.