Breeding Barn Owls 2020

Feathers fluffy, downy, soft to the touch. A heart of feathers outlining inquisitive eyes. A new beginning, hints of the precious adult to come. A hope, a prayer, a future. An endearing beginning for the reticent guardian of twilight – Original Piece

As a very unusual summer comes to an end, with it also comes the end of another breeding season for the Barn Owls that call my family’s farm home. For many years now, Barn Owls have increasingly become an important species on the farm, giving an indication of habitat quality and changes in the environment.

Last year the Owls had their best year yet, with two separate pairs on the farm, one nesting in a tree and one in a nest box, fledging two chicks each. It was also the start of Barn Owl chicks being ringed on the farm, which was very exciting for us all. If you want to read more about these Barn Owls, take a look at my previous posts, including Barn Owls in the Depths of Dorset, and Barmy about Barn Owls.

This Year

This year has been another year filled with the joys of this species. From sightings around the farm throughout the seasons, to fledged chicks during the summer, it has been really special. This year we were not lucky enough to have 2 known pairs breed again on the farm, but we were lucky enough to have 1 pair breed in our Barn Owl nest box. In the end the pair hatched 4 chicks, with 2 surviving to successfully fledge in August, which was exciting nonetheless. Though no Barn Owls have bred in the old oak tree this year, it has also been actively used, becoming a popular roosting site for one or more individuals.

Conservation Action and the Barn Owl chicks

Following our Barn Owl chicks being ringed last year, I have now joined the North Dorset-based Conservation Action group, becoming a trainee bird ringer. Conservation Action is a group of experienced ornithologists and BTO trained ringers, dedicated to conserving and preserving the natural environment, ringing bird species to increase knowledge, and raising awareness of conservation efforts in younger generations. Focuses range from migrating species in Autumn to Owls and my favourites, the birds of prey.

Last year Conservation Action monitored a total of 47 Barn Owl nest boxes across Dorset, leading to 66 Barns Owls being successfully ringed (63 owlets and 3 adults). It was a great year for Barn Owls and Conservation Action alike!

Now a member of Conservation Action and a trainee bird ringer, this year I was very excited at the prospect of Barn Owls breeding once again on our land. For this breeding season I got the opportunity to become an accredited agent under a Schedule 1 Permit, meaning that I was fully licensed to assist with Barn Owl nest box checks and monitoring, including our very own box. So it was an absolute privilege to be able to ring, under supervision, my very own 2 Barn Owl chicks this year. Such incredible birds and such a special experience, which was made all the better by getting to experience it alongside my parents and 2 year old niece!

Their Importance

Barn Owls are one important indicator species for farmland and grassland in Britain, meaning that they can tell us a lot about the condition of these habitats. With Barn Owls having made a comeback to my family’s farmland, it has also shown how changes to land management can restore and create habitat for wildlife, including for other species with related habitat needs (for more information see my post Giving Nature a Home on the Farm).

Barn Owls have also helped me to find out more about the small mammal species living on our land. This has been through dissecting pellets left by the owls, that I have previously written about in my post: How to… Be a Barn Owl Pellet Detective. For example, pellets from the roost tree have shown remains belonging to Bank Voles, Field Voles, Common Shrews, and Brown Rats, whereas pellets from the nest box barn have shown remains belonging to Field Voles, Bank Voles, Common Shrews, Pygmy Shrews, and Mice.

Moving Forward

After this year’s Barn Owl breeding season, and the excitement of Barn Owls continuing to breed on the farm, things are looking exciting for the future! It will be interesting though, to see how Barn Owls fared across Dorset and the UK this year as a whole, and to see if the farm’s 1 breeding pair followed the general trend. I also look forward to now getting more involved in monitoring Barn Owls in Dorset, spreading word of the work Conservation Action are doing, and the potential of ringing more of my own Barn Owls next year!

On the farm we now aim to continue working with Barn Owls and other wildlife in mind, and to monitor the success of new projects, including putting up nest boxes for Kestrels, Tawny Owls and Little Owls. In many ways the future looks bright to me!

How to… Be a Barn Owl Pellet Detective

Floating above the ground on silent wings. A white ghost standing out against the murky dark of dusk. Swooping to a stop on a standing post. Watching, waiting, listening for a rustle in the grass, before moving on. The reticent guardian of twilight – Original piece, September 2019

Though they can be found in a variety of habitats, the majestic Barn Owl (Tyto alba) traditionally conjures up the image of a ghostly shape floating through a farming landscape. Excitingly, they have now made their return to the farmland I call home, and we are lucky enough to have regular sightings of these birds. Previously, they have featured multiple times on this blog, with the last time being in my post ‘Barn Owls in the depths of Dorset’ from September last year. Now as part of my popular ‘How to…’ series, it is time for them to take centre stage once again, and for us to take a look at one of their more unusual sides.

Hunting on silent wings, the Barn Owl can be found at the top of the food chain, feeding mainly on rodents and shrews. Like most other birds, Barn Owls naturally produce pellets, thumb-length ovoid or sausage-shaped masses, that are regurgitated and ejected from the beak. It takes a Barn Owl about 6 to 8 hours to produce a pellet, with 1-2 being produced per day. As Barn Owls tend to swallow their prey whole, these pellets contain the parts of their diet that cannot be digested, such as bones, and are encased in softer material, such as fur. As pellets do not pass through the intestines like droppings, they are in fact odourless!

Pellets are one incredibly important source of information for the naturalist and scientist. They can tell us what a bird has eaten, how many different prey species and individuals have been caught, an individual’s hunting habits, and even information on its habitat. In this way, they allow us to play detective, giving us a really amazing insight into the world of the Barn Owl.

Dissecting Barn Owl pellets is an unusual but fascinating activity, in which you never know what you may find. Previously pellets have featured on my blog in a 2016 post called ‘Barmy about Barn Owls: Owl pellets’, where I took a brief look at the Barn Owls now living on my family’s farm and had a go at identifying the species that the Barn Owls had been eating. Now I want to pass on what I have previously learnt and help you to play detective too, dissecting and analysing your very own pellets. Read on to find out more!

Dissecting Barn Owl pellets

  1. To begin with, you will need to find some Barn Owl pellets. You can interestingly buy Barn Owl pellets online, but I think that it is more fun to go out and find your own. The best place to find pellets is either at a nesting or roosting site, such as a barn or old tree. The pellets are uniform in colour, black drying to grey, and are usually a couple of inches long. Fur and bones will also be noticeable within them.
  2. Once you have found yourself at least one Barn Owl pellet, it is up to you to decide if you soak them first before dissecting. I find soaking them makes them easier to tease apart and extract bones intact, but it makes the job a little messier too! If you choose to soak them, place them in a pot of water for half an hour to a couple of hours before dissection.
  3. Next, take a pellet and blot the excess water off its surface, before placing it on a hard surface, such as a tray. Now you can begin to tease the pellet apart using tweezers, taking care not to miss any bones. As you find one, carefully remove it from the pellet, and place it separate from the main mass. Do not be worried if you come across grubs in the pellets, as these are simply the larvae of Clothes Moths that feed on the softer material of the pellet, such as the fur. 13_06_20_Farm_Chalk_Barn_Owl_Pellet_Dissection_2
  4. Once you are sure that you have removed all the bones, carefully clean them using water with a bit of mild disinfectant,

Analysing Barn Owl pellets

Identifying types of bones

To begin with, take a look at all the bones from the pellet together. Some of the bones will be easily recognisable to you, like the skull or lower jaw, but others will look a little more odd. Once you have an idea of some of the bones, try to identify the more obscure with some help.

Here’s a general example of some bones, Vole to be precise, to give you an idea of where each bone may be found in the body. In different species though, such as shrews, be aware that the bones may vary in size, shape and detail to these.

Vole Bones

Identifying species

Now you have a good idea of the bones that can be found in your pellet, it is time to take a look at the skull and lower jaw bone halves in more detail.

You will tend to find 2 groups of species in Barn Owl pellets: the insectivores and rodents.

For an insectivore, all the teeth are small and pointed and are found in a continous row. This is because they feed on insects, and need teeth that are able to break up their prey’s tough chitinous bodies.

A rodent on the other hand has two main types of teeth – the gnawing teeth (incisors) and the cheek teeth. These are separated by a notable gap.

Insectivore vs Rodent

If you find the skull or jaw bones of an insectivore, it will most likely be that of a Shrew, or even possibly a Mole. You can work out if it is that of a Shrew by taking a look at the colour of the teeth, as they will have red tips. This is from iron found in the enamel that adds to their strength. There are then 3 British shrew species that you could find (Water, Common and Pygmy), which all vary in their jaw size and shape of the lower end tooth (the incisor).

Insectivore Jaws

If you find a rodent skull, then there are a few more choices. Take a look at the cheek teeth of the lower jaw bone and see if there are grooves on the sides of the teeth and if there is a zigzag pattern across their top surface. If so, then this is most likely one of 3 species of Vole.

For a Water Vole, the size of the lower jaw bone is a give away, with the species being the largest of the 3, otherwise you will need to extract one of the cheek teeth from the jaw. Bank Vole cheek teeth have a more rounded zig-zag pattern, with two small roots, and grooves that do not run all the way down the teeth. Field Voles on the other hand have a sharper zig-zag pattern, grooves running to the base of the teeth, and no roots at all.

Voles

If the rodent’s cheek teeth look more ordinary with cusps (knobs), then the lower jaw or skull belongs to a Rat or Mouse. A large lower jaw will belong to a Brown Rat, whereas a small jaw will belong to a Mouse.

If you have a skull for a Mouse, then you can also attempt to identify the exact species. First, extract the front cheek tooth of the skull and then take a look at the number of holes (sockets) left behind. Five sockets means Harvest Mouse, four means Wood or Long-Tailed Field Mouse, and three means House Mouse.

How did you get on?

For some extra help analysing the contents of the pellets, you can find some other great ID guides and matrices online. For example head over to either the RSPB or Barn Owl Trust websites for more information.

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Important:

  • Make sure you always ask a landowner’s permission before entering private land, and be careful.
  • Do not disturb Barn Owls at their breeding site, as they are protected by law making it illegal to do so.
  • Always wash your hands after handling pellets or their contents, or consider wearing gloves.

Barn Owls in the depths of Dorset

Floating above the ground on silent wings. A white ghost standing out against the murky dark of dusk. Swooping to a stop on a standing post. Watching, waiting, listening for a rustle in the grass, before moving on. The reticent guardian of twilight. – Original piece

A graceful and beautiful bird, the barn owl is one species that captures the hearts and the imaginations of people across Britain. Over the last century, barn owls have been on a rocky journey, showing a decline in numbers in line with agricultural improvement, before reaching stabilisation during the more recent decades. Though they are showing signs of adapting to our changing landscape, this iconic species still needs our help and protection.

The start of my very own relationship with barn owls began with the creation of this Wild World blog. During summer 2015, my earliest posts trace my first up close and personal experiences with barn owls, which at the time were breeding on my family’s land in Dorset. The two owls that feature in these posts met with tragedy though; a failed breeding attempt and mysterious disappearance. Despite a not quite expected outcome, summer 2015 was just the start of an ever growing love affair for my family and these majestic birds.

With my dad incorporating wildlife into his land management plans over the last decade, his work has now culminated in 2019 being the best year yet for barn owls on our land. We had not one, but two successful breeding pairs this year, with both fledging two chicks each, at about 2 weeks apart. One pair nested in our own barn owl box, whilst the other made their home in a hollow of a tree at the heart of our land.

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Excitingly, these breeding attempts also coincided with the Dorset County Council’s Barn Owl project. As a result fully licensed ringers approached us with the request of checking any barn owl nests on our land, which led to all four chicks produced this year being ringed. They can now importantly be a part of the conservation efforts for monitoring this species in the wild.

Barn Owl Chick

Owl chick from tree roost

Reflecting on this year with this incredible species, it is exciting to be able to now see how successful they have been in our area during 2019, gradually increasing in number. It is interesting to think now that maybe one day one of the ringed chicks could go on to nest on our land or in our area in the future, or even venture further afield. Here’s to the hope that our barn owl population will continue to thrive and be even more successful next year, and give us more heartstopping experiences! What will another 4 years bring?

Barmy about barn owls: Owl pellets

Currently we have at least one pair of resident barn owls on our 250 acre Dairy Farm, with one notable pair being seen amongst our farm buildings and fields closest to the centre of the farm.

On 26/05/16, I found a barn owl pellet within our straw barn, which was at least 1 month old. Through my interest in barn owls and the other species living on our farm, I then soaked the pellet and teased it apart to find the small mammal bones within.

The pellet was filled with lots of bones, such as shoulder blades, hipbones, femurs and humeri.

From the skulls and jaw bones found in the pellet, I was able to identify the four skulls to species level. Two skulls were from common shrews…

…and two skulls were from field voles.

It was really interesting to be able to get closer to the small mammals that can be found on our farm, whatever the level of species abundance. It also gave me the opportunity to brush up on my skull and bone identification skills with the help of an RSPB owl pellet identification guide, which can highly recommend to others

(https://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/Owlpellets_tcm9-133500.pdf). 

I also recommend to others to get out at this time of year and to find your own owl pellets to learn more about the owls and prey species in your local area.

Nesting barn owls

In reference to my earlier blog post ‘Breeding barn owls’, I have continued to monitor my barn owl nest box in which we believe a pair of barn owls to be using.

Now i can update you all on what has happened to our pair.

The weekend after i did a barn owl box stake out (see ‘Breeding barn owls’), we had really bad rainy weather, and we did not see the pair hunting during this time. As a result we came to the conclusion that they were not able to find an adequate amount of food for themselves during this time. This gave us the inkling that the pair may have abandoned their breeding attempt for this year.

For a time we continued to see the pair hunting over the fields during evenings, until a couple of weeks later we stopped seeing them. I then found a suspicious amount of barred white feathers in a wood within the vicinity the barn owls hunt in. I believe them to be from one of our barn owls, and the amount of feathers found make me think that one of the pair may have been attacked.

Our thoughts about our nest box were confirmed when we decided to check it, and found two abandoned barn owl eggs.

We have not seen two birds again, but at the end of last week, we saw one barn owl hunting on our farm once again.

Brilliant barn owls

When I arrived back home a week ago from my first year of uni, I was told that my friend had seen a pair of barn owls on my home farm. These owls were seen to be using a barn owl box that had been put up by my Dad a couple of months ago. As barn owls had been seen by my family and myself on our dairy farm before, this year my Dad had decided he wanted to give them a helping hand, in the hope that they would use our box to breed. The news that it was possibly being used already, excited me. Consequently, I wanted to see for myself that the box was actually in use, and planned a barn owl box stake out the following evening.

I headed to where the box was situated at 20:45 and positioned myself in a cubicle barn across from the box, where I could look through a gap up at the box and surrounding possible perches. Patiently I waited, with no sign of either adult birds, though I could hear an individual screeching noise coming from the box, which made me aware that an adult bird was present.

After a period of only blackbirds, magpies and pheasants being heard, I heard a screech come from the nest box, followed by an adult female barn owl flying out of the entrance hole of the box, and landing on a metal roof truss a couple of metres from the box. After a few minutes of the female scoping her surroundings, she flew a couple of metres further, perching on a second roof truss. There she preened her feathers, stretched and defecated, before returning back to the nest box.

It was amazing to actually got to see the female up close, closer than I had ever seen one before. From this sighting, I could deduce that the female was going through the processes of incubation, though I cannot say at what point the female started sitting. On my walk back home from the barn, I disturbed the male who had been sat on a bank of grass not too far off from the barn.

I am looking forward to keeping an eye on the pairs’ process, and a family friend who is a licensed bird ringer is hoping to make a visit to us at the end of June to check the barn owl box. If there are chicks and they are big enough, he is hoping ring them. I cannot wait!