Birds – American Barn Owl

(Strix pratincola)


Length—15 to 18 inches: female the larger.

Male and Female—Upper parts mottled gray and buff finely speckled with black and white; heart-shaped facial disks and under parts whitish or buff, the latter with small round black spots; tail white or buff, mottled with black, and sometimes with three or four narrow black bars like the wings; eyes small, black; no horns; long, feathered legs; long, pointed wings reaching beyond tail.

Range—United States, rarely reaching Canada, south to Mexico, nesting from New York state southward.

Season—Permanent resident, except at northern limit of range.

The American counterpart of “wise Minerva’s only fowl,” known best by its startling scream, keeps its odd, triangular face, its speckled and mottled downy feathers, and its body, that looks more slender than it really is, owing to its long wings, well concealed by day; and so silently does it move about at night that only in the moonlight can one hope for a passing glimpse as the barn owl sails about on wide-spread, tapering wings, and with a hawk-like movement, from tree to tree. “The face looks like that of a toothless, hooked-nosed old woman, shrouded in a closely fitting hood,” says Mrs. Wright, “and has a half-simple, half-sly expression that gives it a mysterious air.” Periodically a very old hoax is played on a credulous public by some newspaper reporter who declares that in such a town, by such a man, a curious creature has just been caught, half-bird and half-monkey

By day, all owls look sleepy and sad; but at dusk, when rats and mice creep timidly forth, the barn owl, now thoroughly awake, sallies from its hole and does greater execution before morning than all the traps in town. Shrews, bats, frogs, grass-hoppers, and beetles enlarge its bill of fare. A pair of these mousers that had their nest in an old apple tree near a hayrick that concealed the spectator, brought eight mice to their brood in the hollow trunk in less than an hour.

The head of a mouse, the favorite tid-bit, is devoured first; then follows the body, bolted whole if not too large. One foot usually holds the smaller quarry; but a rat must be firmly grasped with both feet, and torn apart before it is bolted. Since owls swallow skin, bones, and all, these indigestible parts are afterward ejected in pellets. Disturb the owls at their orgy, and they click their bills and hiss in the most successful attempt they ever make to be ferocious. They are not quarrelsome even among themselves when feeding, and the smallest songster can safely tease them to a point that would goad a less amiable bird to rashness. A querulous, quavering cry frequently repeated, k-r-r-r-r-r-r-ik, suggesting the night jar’s call, is sometimes more frequently heard than the wild, peevish scream usually associated with this owl.

In spite of civilization’s tempting offers, a hollow tree has ever remained the favorite home of the barn owl, that nevertheless deserves its name, for barns and other outbuildings on the farm, steeples, and abandoned dove cots become equally dear to it once they have sheltered a brood. A pair of these owls have nested for years in one of the towers of the Smithsonian Institution; many eggs have been laid directly on roofs of dwellings; some in mining shafts; others in deserted burrows of ground squirrels and other rodents; in fact, all manner of queer sites are chosen. Strictly speaking, the barn owl builds no nest, unless the accumulation of decayed wood, disgorged bones of mice, etc., among which the eggs are dropped, could be honored with such a name. From five to eleven pure dull white eggs, more decidedly pointed than those of most owls, are incubated by both mates, sometimes by both at once, as they sit huddled together through the hours of unwelcome sunshine. They can scarcely multiply too fast. The barn owl does not eat poultry, although it is constantly shot because of an unfounded belief that it does, prevalent among farmers. From an economic standpoint, it would be difficult to name a more valuable bird.