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The barn owl: Nature’s Pied Piper

July 1, 1993

The barn owl: Nature’s Pied Piper

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

The barn owl, or monkey-faced owl, may be called a “flying cat” because of the great numbers of destructive rats, mice and other rodents it eliminates. The face of this predator resembles that of a toothless, hook-nosed, old crone shrouded in a closely fitting hood and imparting a half-sly expression that creates an eerie aura.

Barn owls, our only owl with a heart-shaped face, are found worldwide in temperate and tropical climates; in the new world from southern Canada to Tierra del Fuego. It is a long-legged, knock-kneed bird with a voice that resembles a rasping snore.

The female lays from five to seven eggs that are dull white in color. Both parents help to incubate them, and the male is known to offer tidbits of food to the female while she sits on the eggs.

They prefer hollow trees as a natural nesting site, but barns and other buildings are often utilized if rats and mice are plentiful. Their presence in old, deserted dwellings has given rise to the belief in haunted houses.

Of the approximately 17 different species of owl to be found in the United States, the barn owl is undoubtedly the most beneficial to man. Its favorite food item is rodents, and the number of rats and mice devoured by this bird is astronomical. There is a case on record where a half-grown barn owl was offered all the mice it could eat. The avian glutton quickly gulped down eight grown mice, one after the other, and attempted to swallow a ninth. Nine was too many for him, however, and the unfortunate rodent’s tail dangled from the owl’s mouth for a period of time. In three hours, this same bird was ready to dine again and quickly polished off four more mice.

Though some owls may feed on game birds and poultry from time to time, the barn owl subsists almost entirely on detrimental rodents, especially semi-domestic rats and mice. Some years ago, a biologist examined the bones and other clues from a hollow tree nest of one barn owl over a three-month period. He found that at least 240 animals had been consumed during that period and was able to identify the following numbers and species: 89 field mice, 93 gophers, 27 kangaroo mice, seven moles, four ground squirrels, three rabbits. A positive identification could not be made on the remaining 17 animals whose remains were found in the nest.

There is no question about it—owls in general, and barn owls especially, are much better mousers and ratters than cats. A farmer in north Texas once told me the story of his rat-infested root cellar. A root cellar in that part of Texas is created as a place of refuge during a tornado, but it is also used to store various food items. To rid the root cellar of the destructive rodents, he procured several cats and placed them in the underground storage area in the evening. When he opened the door the next morning, the felines rushed out, hissing and spitting with fear. The cats were clearly outclassed by the rats, and the rats continued to enjoy the farmer’s stored foodstuffs.

Then, upon the advice of an Indian friend, he trapped a barn owl and placed it in the cellar. The next morning, nine partially eaten rats were found, and for several weeks, one or more dead rats was removed daily. The owl, however, literally ate itself out of house and home as the rats became so scarce, the man had to feed the bird raw meat to prevent its starving to death. I asked him if he had fed the owl cat meat, and he refused to answer. With the rat problem solved for the moment, the farmer released the owl into his barn, where he noted it was quite willing to set up housekeeping. When a rodent problem developed in the root cellar again, he merely caught the owl and relocated it where it was needed.

These strange and secretive birds with faces shaped like great white hearts are the basis for many legends and folk stories. Many people fear and scorn them as being harbingers of doom or messengers of death. In truth, the barn owl is one of man’s best friends in the animal kingdom and should always be respected and protected.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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