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Barn Owl

Tyto alba

barn owl


This owl is easily identified by its distinctive white, heart-shaped face rimmed with brown. The upper parts are yellowish-brown or buffy with a light gray mantle speckled with white spots bordered with black, while the under parts are white. In flight, the tail and broad, somewhat pointed wings show darker barring. The legs are long and feathered with white nearly to the toes, and the feet and claws are brownish black. The bill is pale pinkish-yellow.

The barn owl has superb hearing, and a large part of its brain is devoted to sorting out the auditory signals it receives. The ears are asymmetrically placed, with one located near the "forehead" and the other level with the nostrils. Small feathered flaps can be closed over the ears' delicate inner parts if noise levels rise too high, and can be erected on still nights to catch the tiniest of noises made by prey. These adaptations give barn owls the ability to pinpoint the locations of prey using their ears alone.

barn owl skull

Barn owls average 13-14 inches in length, have a wingspan of 30-38 inches, and weigh 14-25 ounces. Females are usually larger and heavier than males.

Barn owls do not "hoot" like other owls, they issue hissing shrieks instead.

Distribution and Habitat

Barn owls are found on every continent except Antarctica. They inhabit a variety of habitats, but avoid mountainous areas, severe cold, deserts, and dense tropical rain forests.

distribution of the barn owl

Preferred habitat has places for roosting (hollow trees, crevices in cliffs, barns and other farm structures, etc.) that have plenty of open grassland nearby for hunting. The barn owl's association with farm structures dates back to the earliest days of agriculture, when grain stores were havens for the rodents upon which barn owls feed. Farm fields have also long been prime rodent habitats, giving barn owls an even greater reason for making barns a "traditional" home.


Barn owls hunt almost exclusively at night. During the course of a night, they may fly many miles and sometimes follow regular routes along fence lines, hedgerows, or the edges of wooded areas. Typically they fly with slow flaps alternating with glides. At times, they fly down upon prey from a stationary perch.

Mice, voles, and shres make up most of the barn owl's diet, but rats, sparrows and other small birds, bats, frogs, and large insects will be taken if preferred prey is scarce. Because it flies in almost absolute silence, the barn owl can swoop down and grab its prey with very strong claws before the prey even knows it is in danger. Once captured, the prey is taken back to a favorite eating place, where it is swallowed whole (head first).

barn owl taking prey back to its feeding place

About twice a day, a barn owl coughs up pellets of indigestible matter (bones, teeth, claws, fur, etc.), instead of passing all that material through their digestive tracts.


Courtship begins in March, and it is believed that barn owls mate for life.

Barn owls nest in natural hollows in trees, cliffs, and caves, or in man-made structures, like nest boxes, barns, chimneys, and mine shafts. Despite the fact that a nest site may have been used by generations of barn owls over many decades, the male always go through a ritual "showing" of the nest site to the female, even if the nest site happens to also be the roosting site.

The nest itself is nothing more than a depression scrapped into debris, or an even simpler patch of bare substrate. The female lays four to seven pure white eggs, at one- to two-days intervals. Incubation begins as soon as the first egg is laid, and continues for about 33 days. The male helps by bringing food to the nest to feed the female and the young.

barn owl eggs

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. It is fairly common for a pair of barn owls to raise two broods in a year. Sexual maturity is reached at about one year. Average lifespan in the wild is only about two years, but lifespans of 10 and 11 years have been recorded.

owlings before fledging

Scientific Classification

phylum Chordata
subphylum Vertebrata
class Aves
order Strigiformes
family Tytonidae
genus & species Tyto alba

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This page was last updated on October 31, 2017.