Barn Owl

Tyto alba

Barn Owl

Feroze Omardeen/Flickr/CC by 2.0

The distinctive and beautiful barn owl is one of the birds of prey that is most adapted to life near humans. Unlike many hawks and other predators, barn owls are often encouraged to nest on farms and near other developed areas because they prey almost exclusively on mice and other small rodents. This makes these nocturnal birds excellent for pest control without the need for expensive chemicals or other, less environmentally-friendly methods. Discover more about this member of the Tytonidae bird family in this detailed fact sheet.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Tyto alba
  • Common Name: Barn Owl, Common Barn Owl, Ghost Owl, American Barn Owl, Monkey-Faced Owl, Rat Owl, Death Owl, Hobgoblin Owl
  • Lifespan: 3-5 years
  • Size: 15-20 inches
  • Weight: .95-1.4 pounds
  • Wingspan: 45 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Barn Owl Identification

Barn owls are easy to identify with their flat faces and broad, rounded wings. Genders are similar though females are typically larger. These owls have a white, heart-shaped facial disk surrounded by a narrow white or golden brown rim. The head, nape of neck, back, and wings are golden brown while the chest and abdomen are white or pale with faint black or gray spots. The relatively long legs are covered with fine white feathers, and the wings and tail have dark barring. The eyes are dark. In flight, the wings look outlandishly long and broad, with rounded tips that help these birds fly silently.

Juvenile barn owls are puffy, down-covered whitish or grayish balls of fluff. They will quickly develop the distinctive facial disk, however, though their faces will appear more bare than an adult's. Juveniles' wing feathers are the first to start showing mature colors and markings.

It must be noted that there are many color variations among barn owls, and some regional subspecies may seem much lighter or darker than typical. Sizes also vary greatly, though the barn owls of North America are among the largest.

Barn owls can be noisy birds, particularly as nestlings. Common calls include a rasping, extended hiss when threatened or angry and a high screech that cuts off abruptly at the end. Other sounds include beak snaps and tongue clicks. Like all owls, the flight of barn owls is largely silent and no distinct wing beats are heard, despite the large size of the owl's wings.

Barn Owl Habitat and Distribution

Barn owls are the most common owl species in the world and can be found on every continent except Antarctica, though they are scarce in many areas. In North America, barn owls prefer open grassland and meadow habitats or sparsely forested areas, including marshes and agricultural regions as well as urban and suburban areas. In the Midwest, barn owls are locally endangered in several states.

Migration Pattern

While most barn owls stay in their same range year-round, some of these birds, such as populations in the northern Great Plains region, may migrate seasonally. This is especially true during harsher winters when prey may be more difficult to find.

Behavior

Barn owls are primarily nocturnal hunters and are rarely seen during the day, though they may be spotted in the early morning and late evening. During nesting season, mature barn owls that are caring for large, hungry broods may hunt even in the middle of the day.

These are tactile birds that cuddle with their brood in the nest and can become very emotionally attached to their mates or wildlife handlers. Like all owls, barn owls have superb hearing and they have the best ability of all raptors to hunt by sound alone.

A barn owl's flight is silent and very buoyant, and the bird's long, broad wings carry it easily. These birds may soar repeatedly over open fields as they search for prey, and will take their catch back to a convenient perch for feeding.

Diet and Feeding

Like all owls, barn owls are strictly carnivorous. The majority of their prey is small mammals and rodents, including mice and voles, though they will also occasionally take small birds. After digesting their food, barn owls regurgitate pellets of undigested material including fur and bones.

Nesting

Barn owls are monogamous birds believed to mate for life. They are cavity-nesting birds, and will readily use appropriately-sized barn owl boxes or similar shelters. A pair of owls may raise 2-3 broods in one nesting season, particularly in mild climates or when prey is especially abundant. Depending on the climate, barn owls can nest at any time of year.

Eggs and Young

A barn owl brood includes 2-18 plain white, unmarked eggs. The female parent incubates the eggs for 30-33 days, and the young owlets remain in the nest to be fed by both parents for 55-65 days.

Barn Owl Conservation

Though barn owls are not considered endangered on a global scale, many local or regional populations of these birds can be considered threatened or endangered. The overuse of harmful rodent poisons, vehicle collisions, dangerous fences, and loss of suitable nesting habitat are some of the threats to owls that are of great concern for barn owls.

Tips for Backyard Birders

Barn owls readily nest in open silos, barns, and other buildings in rural areas. If no suitable buildings are available, they will investigate hollow trees and will use large nest boxes. Birders hoping to attract barn owls should avoid using rodent poisons or other pest control methods that would restrict the owls’ food supply. Minimizing lights and nighttime disturbances can also help these birds feel at ease and encourage them to stay nearby.

How to Find This Bird

Any owling trip can be a challenge, as owls, including barn owls, are relatively solitary and tend to be active most at night. Visiting field edges near appropriate nesting structures such as older barns or grain silos is the best option to spot a barn owl, particularly if the birds are known to nest in the area. Watch for barn owls flying low over fields and recognize them by their bullet-like shape, flat faces, and proportionally large wings.

Explore More Species in This Family

There are many similar owls in the Tytonidae bird family, all of which look similar to barn owls but have differences in color and distribution. Birders won't want to miss Strigidae owls, however, such as:

There are always more great owl facts to discover, or check out all our wild bird profiles to learn more about all your favorite bird species.