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Common Barn Owl

Word of the Week roost — a perch upon which birds or fowls rest at night

Newspaper Knowledge Barn owls have a heartshaped face, long legs and powerful talons. Barn owls are medium-sized birds with a wingspan of about 3½ feet. There are 16 species of barn owls, including the greater sooty owl, Australasian grass owl, ashyfaced owl, barn owl and Sulawesi owl. Most owls hunt at night and in doing so avoid competition with daytime avian hunters such as hawks and eagles. Although nocturnal feeding is the norm for most owls, some species such as burrowing owls and shorteared owls feed during the day. Still other species, such as pygmy owls, feed at dusk or dawn. Owls are unable to move their eyes within their sockets to a great extent, which means they must turn their entire head to see in a different direction. Because owls have forward-facing eyes, they have well-developed binocular vision. In many species, the bill is partly concealed by feathers so it appears smaller than it actually is. Owls use their sharp bill to tear their food. Owls are depicted in cave paintings in France that date back 15,000 to 20,000 years. Owls also appear in Egyptian hieroglyphics. They have held a variety of symbolic roles in culture and have represented misfortune, death, prosperity and wisdom.

These pale, nearly worldwide, birds are closely associated with man through their traditional use in the Old World of barn lofts and church steeples as nesting sites. Although widely known beforehand, it was in 1769 when the Barn Owl was first officially described by Giovanni Scopoli, an Italian naturalist. The species name "alba" also refers to the color white. Other names for the Barn Owl have included Monkeyfaced Owl, Ghost Owl, Church Owl, Death Owl, Hissing Owl, Hobgoblin or Hobby Owl, Golden Owl, Silver Owl, White Owl, Night Owl, Rat Owl, Scritch Owl, Screech Owl, Straw Owl, Barnyard Owl and Delicate Owl. Description: The Upperparts are light gray with numerous fine dark lines and scattered pale spots on the feathers. There are buff markings on wings and on the back. The underparts are white with a few black spots, occasionally none. Feathering on the lower legs may be sparse. The heart-shaped facial disc is white with a brownish edge, with brown marks at the front of the eyes, which have a black iris. Its beak is off-white and the feet are yellowish-white to brownish. Males and females are similar in size and color; females and juveniles are generally more densely spotted. Size: Female: Length 34-40cm (13.5-15.5") Wingspan 110cm (43") Weight 570g (20oz) Male: Length 32-38cm (12.5-15") Wingspan 107cm (42") Weight 470g (15.5oz) Habits: Generally nocturnal, although it is not uncommon to see this species emerge at dusk or be active at dawn, occasionally being seen in flight during full daylight. Flight is noiseless, with wingbeats interrupted by gliding. Voice: The Barn Owl calls infrequently, the usual call being a drawnout rasping screech. The courtship call of male at nest is a shrill repetitive twittering. Adults returning to a nest may give a low, frog-like croak. When surprised in its roosting hollow or nest, it makes hissing and rasping noises and snapping sounds that are often called bill snapping, but possibly made by clicking the tongue. Hunting & Food: Barn Owls spe-

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SPOTTED PYGMY SCREECH FLAMMULATED BOREAL HAWK

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LONG-EARED WHISKERED ELF GREAT HORNED SHORT-EARED BARRED

cialize in hunting small ground mammals, and the vast majority of their food consists of small rodents. Voles (field mice) are an important food item, as well as pocket gophers, shrews, mice and rats. Barn Owls breed rapidly in response to mouse plagues. Other prey may include baby rabbits, bats, frogs, lizards, birds and insects. Prey are usually located by quartering up and down likely looking land - particularly open grassland. They also use low perches such as fence posts to seek quarry. Breeding: Barn Owls will breed any time during the year, depending on food supply. In a good year, a pair may breed twice. Rodent plagues cause Barn Owl numbers to increase dramatically. During courting, males may circle near the nest tree, giving short screeches and chattering calls. The majority of Barn Owls nest in tree hollows up to 20 meters high. They will also nest in old buildings, caves and well shafts. 3 to 6 eggs are laid (occasionally up to 12) at 2 day intervals. The eggs are 38 to 46mm (1.5-1.8") long and 30 to 35mm (1.21.4") wide and will be incubated for 30 to 34 days. Chicks are covered in white down and brooded for about 2 weeks, and are fledged in 50 to 55 days. After this, they will remain in the vicinity for a week or so to learn hunting skills and then rapidly disperse

from the nest area. Young birds are able to breed at about 10 months. Mortality: Barn Owls are shortlived birds. Most die in their first year of life, with the average life expectancy being 1 to 2 years in the wild. In North America the oldest known Barn Owl in the wild lived to be 11 years, 6 months. In Holland, a wild barn owl lived to be 17 years, 10 months old. In England, a captive female barn owl was retired from breeding at 25 years old! Habitat: The Barn Owl is found in virtually all habitats but much more abundantly in open woodland, heaths and moors than forested country. They usually roost by day in tree hollows but have also been found in caves, wells, out-buildings or thick foliage. Distribution: The Barn Owl is one of the most wide spread of all land birds. They are found on all continents (except Antarctica) and large islands and occur over the whole of Australia, including Tasmania. They occur throughout most of Britain and Europe and across many parts of Asia, Africa, and in much of North America. In South America they are found in areas of suitable grassland, as well as on oceanic islands such as the Galapagos. They were introduced to Hawaii in 1958.

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