Kentucky Barn Owls

Kentucky DNR is erecting barn owl nest boxes in good habitat

Kentucky DNR is erecting barn owl nest boxes in good habitat

The Barn Owl is on Kentucky’s list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need under their State Wildlife Action Plan and on their Heritage program’s list of species of special concern.  In recent years, the state has been busy installing barn owl boxes on buildings, trees and poles in areas with suitable habitat.  They also encourage private landowners to do the same and provide info on their website for this purpose.

According to the Kentucky DNR website: “The infrequency of reports of this species in Kentucky is somewhat surprising because much suitable habitat in the form of pastures, hayfields, croplands, reclaimed surface-mine lands, and restored grasslands is present. In fact, 38% of the state is composed of undeveloped, open land (grassland/herbaceous, pasture, cropland, etc.). With such an abundance of suitable habitat, it seems Kentucky should host an abundance of Barn Owls. It is likely that the scarcity of breeding records is in part due to the elusive nature of these nocturnal predators.”

“Barn owls are sparsely scattered through most of the state except for the eastern fifth, where they are very rare.” says Kentucky State

Thanks to Kentucky Department Of Natural Resources

Thanks to Kentucky Department Of Natural Resources

Biologist Kate Heyden. “Most records are coming in from the western third and north-central parts of the state,” she adds. “Though part of the issue of finding barn owls may be getting access to old barns and silos on private property, my gut feeling is that even though we are likely missing some owls out there, the bird is still rare.  We have very few barn owls brought into rehab centers and few road kills. Nonetheless, we finally started putting boxes on poles this year in one of the best areas of the state for barn owls.  I’m hoping we’ll start some population expansion there.”

As with other states such as Ohio, where biologists have erected over 400 nest boxes on barns, and Illinois, where biologists have reported an increase from three known breeding pairs to over sixty, Kentucky is poised to bolster their barn owl populations through its ongoing nest box program, especially since the state possesses widespread prime habitat.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources encourages residents to install nest boxes and would like to learn more about nesting Barn Owls.  Please report Barn Owl nests to 1-800-858-1549 or to

Ohio Barn Owls

Nest boxes in Ohio are helping increase the barn owl population

Nest boxes in Ohio are helping increase the barn owl population dramatically

Once very common in Ohio, barn owl populations dwindled since the 1950’s. Now the barn owl is making a dramatic comeback in the state, due to nest box programs being conducted by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife.

Since 1988 agency biologists have installed nest boxes on more than 400 barns. The number of nests known nests increased from 19 in 1988 to more than 100 in 2012, and that number is only increasing. Biologists believe many nest in areas other than these boxes.

Barn owls are doing particularly well in the southwestern region of the state in counties that border the Ohio River. But other rivers, orchards, cattle farms, and hay and wheat fields throughout the state also provide good habitat. Corn and soy farms, on the other hand, attract few of these owls.

The benefit to farmers in the region has high potential. One barn owl family will take approximately three thousand rodents per year, mainly voles, mice, and rats. These pests can breed out of control and eat huge amounts of grain, girdle trees in orchards, and cause untold damage to floors and wiring in barns and outbuildings. A family or two of owls on a farm can make a noticeable difference.

The Ohio DNR encourages residents to install nest boxes in good habitat. Reporting sightings of barn owls helps the Division of Wildlife biologists estimate how many live in Ohio. This information benefits conservation efforts by tracking where and how the owls live. People who have barn owls living near them, they are encouraged to call the ODNR Division of Wildlife at 800-WILDLIFE (945-3543) or email


Barn owls thrive in Louisiana

Illinois biologists have bolstered barn owl populations with nest box programs

Barn Owls in Illinois

Illinois has been one of those northern states that saw dramatic declines in barn owls, and grassland species in general. Once covered with forest, then with prairie and small farms, much of Illinois’ prairie has been developed, its small farms have dwindled, and hay, wheat, and cattle enterprises have been replaced with huge conglomerate-based farms of soy and corn. What was once a robust population of barn owls that inhabited practically every barn in the state has decreased to a smattering of nesting sites. However, the southern half of the state, with its many rivers and varied habitat has remained an area that contains a great deal of good barn owl habitat. The main issue for this rather large owl is the lack of suitable nesting cavities.

The Illinois Barn Owl Recovery Effort

Illinois Documented Barn Owl Nests 1990 thru 2015Not enough can be said of the Illinois Barn Owl Recovery Effort run by the state Department of Natural Resources. It serves as a model program for any state wishing to bolster barn owl numbers. Rather than investing in breed and release or other methods, Illinois biologists have targeted prime habitat for the installation of numerous barn owl nest boxes, mostly in the southern half of the state. The results have been impressive.

Since the inception of their nest box program in 2008, barn owls have gone from around three nests in the entire state to over sixty; and from inhabiting less than five counties to being recorded in over sixty. So, not only are barn owl nesting sites increasing, their range in Illinois is expanding. The methods and success of the Illinois DNR project spells great news for any conservation effort targeting barn owl populations.

Distribution of the Barn Owl in Illinois 2010 thru 2015

The map below shows nesting activity of barn owls in Illinois for the past five years. As evidenced by the map, southern Illinois is by far more successful in attracting nesting barn owls. This is due more to habitat than climate–the northern half of the state is dominated by the corn and soy belt that offers little habitat to barn owls.

Illinois Map of Barn Owl Sites

 Thanks to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for their maps and data.



Barn Owls in Vermont

Vermont’s barn owls have always been very rare, with perhaps a few breeding sites each season. As with many northern latitude states, the severe winters limit barn owl numbers, however, even after the state’s barn owls have been decimated by deep winter snows, young birds from more southern states will disperse northward in small numbers in spring and may be lucky enough to cross paths with a mate. Such birds may find decent prey and nesting sites in Vermont for a season or two, but then the ensuing winters usually knock them back once again.

In 2011, four nest boxes were found occupied; one with 3 chicks, one with 2 unhatched eggs. All the records were from the Champlain Valley.

Addison County Barn Owls

Three half grown barn owls

Three half grown barn owls

Recently, a barn owl roost was discovered in a barn in Addison County, just south of Lake Champlain. Local high school students dissected over 80 pellets to find that the barn owl’s diet consisted of 90% voles (meadow mice).

An interesting note from the Auk (a still existing ornithological journal) in the nineteenth century when journal articles tended to be more informal than today:

A male barn owl was killed in a barn in Lyndon, VT, June 4, 1894, and bought by a gentleman in St. Johnsbury…. Its plumage was light in color and, upon skinning, it was found to be very thin and muscular as though it had led a hard life.

Notice that shooting a rare owl for a specimen was thought to be an ordinary event back in the nineteenth century. In fact, in those days, both egg and specimen collectors scoured the countryside to find additions to their collections. Such practices are no longer in vogue nor legal, but the barn owl still has a difficult time in the cold, snowy environs of Vermont.

The Ebb and Flow of Northern Barn Owls

You will often read that certain states are at “the northern limits of the barn owls range”, or that the barn owl “exists only in the southern half” of a certain state. But to the barn owl, there are no lines drawn in the sand, or the snow, so to speak. As a relentless opportunist and a dramatic disperser, the barn owl pushes its own limits in order to find new breeding ground. It is part of the essence of this bird. So, each autumn, barn owls send out their freshly fledged emissaries of expansion in all directions, as has been verified by study after study. Although the dominant direction is southerly, some fly northward. Many of them simply perish, never to be heard or seen again. But in a warm year, they survive and, if fortunate, find a mate. So, barn owls push far beyond the so called limits of their range in mild years, expand into far northern areas such as Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, or even Manitoba, Canada; then in a given period of harsh winters, are driven back to their “normal” range.

Barn Owls in North Carolina

North Carolina is an important state for barn owls

North Carolina is an important state for barn owls

In addition to having its own populations of barn owls, North Carolina is an extremely important state for barn owls dispersing from the north. It is the first state after the high mountains that northern birds reach after traversing the mountain forests with dramatic flights and large expenditures of energy. Our satellite tracking study showed that a high percentage of young barn owls in the northeast fly south over the Allegheny Mountains, often flying as much as two hundred miles over four nights to cross onto the lower elevations of the Carolinas.

After the heavily forested mountains that afford poor hunting, North Carolina provides good habitat for birds that may need to replenish their energy with prey. All seven birds from our study that flew south crossed into North Carolina. The same is likely true for those many barn owls that fly over migration points such as Cape May, New Jersey. Some of these birds likely overwinter in the state.

 North Carolina Barn Owl Populations

North Carolina Barn Owl Map (credit Carolina Bird Club)

North Carolina Barn Owl Map (credit Carolina Bird Club)

North Carolina once had excellent populations of resident barn owls and good populations remain in certain areas. But human development, a decline in the number of farms and old barns, and the switch from hay and cattle to soy and corn has taken away habitat for barn owls. Today, the highest concentrations of barn owls are likely along the coastal region. A second area of high concentration is in the western-center of the state, where hay and cattle still predominate. Eastern counties that support high wheat production and large areas of salt-water marsh also harbor good populations. The only region where barn owls would be expected to be scarce would be the mountainous counties in the far western portion.

Since barn owls are very secretive and no comprehensive surveys have been done, the accompanying range map may underestimate populations of barn owls overall, however it provides a good indicator of relative abundance within the state.

Conservation Efforts by the New Hope Audubon Society

The New Hope Audubon Society is installing scores of barn owl nest boxes in good habitat

The New Hope Audubon Society is installing scores of barn owl nest boxes  in good habitat

In 2012, the New Hope Audubon Society began erecting nest boxes in what is known as the Triangle Area, in particular, Chatham, Orange, and Durham Counties. They have dubbed their efforts The Piedmont Barn Owl Initiative and they encourage residents to install nest boxes in these counties as well as Granville, Person, Guilford, and Randolph counties. They will actually donate excellent nest boxes to residents who own good habitat in their target counties of Chatham, Orange, and Durham. Contact them for more information.




Barn Owls in Rhode Island

Barn owls exist along the coast and on islands off Rhode Island

Barn owls exist along the coast and on islands off Rhode Island

The first barn owl was recorded in Rhode Island in 1938. From then into the 1950’s it became fairly common throughout the coastal lowlands. Since then, in the face of intense development in those same areas, the barn owl has been nearly extirpated on the mainland where only widely scattered records are known. Almost all recent sightings have been within 5 miles of the coast. Two remaining populations exist on Aquidneck and Block Islands where farms still predominate and the owl is known to nest in abandoned buildings and dig its own burrows in sea cliffs.

Block Island and Wildlife Habitat Restoration

With only about 3500 acres of salt marsh and 65,000 acres of wetlands remaining, Rhode Island has lost approximately 35% of its wetlands. Despite ongoing losses of salt marsh, wetlands, and farmland, recent conservation efforts have restored salt marsh habitat on Block Island. Such conservation work is benefitting numerous bird species including the grasshopper sparrow, barn owl, northern harrier, and upland sandpiper. In 1998, the Partners program funded a saltmarsh restoration at Mosquito Beach, the largest producer of mosquitos on Block Island. Channels were dug to allow fish to swim farther into the saltmarsh, drastically reducing the mosquito production. Almost 13,000 acres have been targeted elsewhere as potential sites of freshwater wetlands restoration.

Rhode Island Agriculture

Yellow = good populations Blue = potential random breeding

Yellow = good populations
Blue = potential random breeding

About 60,000 acres of farmland are left in the state. Potatoes are the leading crop. Milk is second. However, Rhode Island is also home to numerous horse farms and, due to the small size of the state and the concentrated rural areas, the density of horses in RI may be one of the highest in the country. Because horses and cattle attract high numbers of rodents (house mice and Norwegian rats mainly), the potential for a win-win situation exists in such enterprises installing barn owl nest boxes. It could widen the distribution of barn owls in the state while helping livestock farmers lower pest damage.

 Barn Owl Conservation in Rhode Island

The barn owl could benefit from nest box programs near wetlands and salt marshes, and in rural areas that support horse, dairy, and hay farms. To report barn owl sightings or an interest in erecting barn owl nest boxes, contact: State Land Conservation and Acquisition Program, 235 Promenade Street, Providence, Rhode Island 02908 (401) 222-2776 x 4307

Barn owls thrive in Louisiana

Barn owls thrive in Louisiana

Barn Owls in Louisiana

Louisiana harbors excellent populations of barn owls. High numbers exist in the southern counties where sugar cane, rice fields, and marshlands dominate, in the northeastern rice growing areas, and along the Mississippi, Red, and Archafalaya river basins. Not so good for barn owls are cotton, soy, and corn, as well as the forests and silviculture in the northwestern third and northern panhandle, however nowhere do these crops dominate so greatly that other beneficial land uses such as hay, wheat, rice, horses and cattle do not help barn owls numbers. So the barn owl is present throughout the state.

 Barn Owls that Disperse from Northern States

From our satellite telemetry study, we know that Louisiana is an important state for young barn owls dispersing southward in the fall from farther north. Most young barn owls in northern states head southward, often traveling hundreds of miles to find wintering territory in the Gulf States. One of our barn owls, released in Pennsylvania, flew over the Alleghenies, through the Carolinas, then headed west to spend the winter along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain outside of New Orleans.

Louisiana Agriculture and Barn Owls

Rice fields can attract high barn owl numbers

Rice fields can attract high barn owl numbers

Sugar cane suffers high crop losses to astounding numbers of cotton rats that have a never ending supply of food in the cane; the same is true of rice fields in the NE and SW counties where marsh rice rats are the common pest. Barn owls can be induced to create dense populations in both crops. The only limiting factor to barn owl populations in these areas is the availability of suitable nest sites.

Barn Owl Prey in Louisiana

In a Louisiana coastal marsh, Jemison and Chabreck (1962) found that rice rats made up 97.5% of the prey of Common Barn-Owls. This will also hold true in rice fields. But in sugar cane, studies in Florida have shown cotton rats to dominate prey numbers. Around horse, cattle, and poultry farms, prey will likely be mostly house mice and Norwegian and black rats.

Distribution of Barn owls in Louisiana

Barn owls are most common in the south and northeast of LA

Barn owls are most common in the south and northeast of LA

Barn Owls in Oregon

Oregon has good populations of barn owls

Oregon has good populations of barn owls

Distribution of the barn owl in Oregon is complex due to the presence of varied ecosystems. The Pacific Ocean moderates the coast and provides ample rainfall, and the Cascades Mountain Range that runs down through the western third divides the state. Generally, populations are very good in open areas west of the Cascades, with dairy farms along the coast and a rich agricultural valley that stretches from Portland to Eugene in the south. East of the Cascades, barn owls are found in good numbers in the northern regions where wheat and barley farms thrive. Southward, the remainder of the state holds moderate to low numbers of barn owls in the cattle raising counties. The barn owl is present everywhere except in forested regions and at altitudes higher than 6000 feet.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says: “The Barn owl is a fairly common permanent resident in open country west of the Cascades. East of the Cascades it is more local in its distribution being most common in agricultural areas.”

Voles (meadow mice, genus Microtus) are the most common prey, however in some areas, the pocket gopher may predominate. In one pellet analysis study of 825 pellets, voles comprised 64% of prey items, with deer mice, pocket gophers, shrews, house mice, and small birds comprising the remainder. 

Red = Excellent Orange = Good Yellow = Poor to Fair

Red = Excellent
Orange = Good
Yellow = Poor to Fair

Voles are particularly destructive in agriculture, especially because of their high reproductive rate. Females born today can begin mating within a month. Voles damage roots, consume fruit, and even girdle vines and fruit bearing trees by chewing the bark near the ground.

Barn owls are being used for rodent control by both grape and blueberry growers in Oregon. The apple, pear, plum, and cherry orchards are excellent candidates for barn owl programs.


Barn owls are common in Colorado

Barn owls are common in areas of Colorado

Barn Owls in Colorado

Barn owl numbers are good in the prairies and grasslands of eastern Colorado and in the valleys and scrub lands of the western part of the state. They nest in cottonwoods, hay bales, riverbanks, culverts, old mines, and even excavate their own nesting burrows in sandstone cliffs. They do well near fields of alfalfa and row crops as well as on the grassy plateaus at 5000 to 6500 feet. The central part of the state is dominated by the Rocky Mountains where barn owls are rare to nonexistent. Open field hunters, barn owls typically avoid forested areas and high altitudes.

Barn Owl Prey in Colorado


Barn owls are common in eastern Colorado and in the western valleys (Orange areas)

As in many arid western states, the kangaroo rat, an inhabitant of dry scrub and desert, is an important prey. Named for their habit of hopping along on their two hind legs, kangaroo rats are natural denizens of arid areas and provide a staple food for barn owl populations. However, in the agricultural areas, with large orchards of peaches and apples, barn owls concentrate on vole and gopher populations that are always attracted to fruit farms. Cattle remains Colorado’s largest agricultural enterprise, and on cattle farms, barn owls will likely find house mice and Norwegian rats to be the most common prey.

Barn Owls Digging their own Burrows

It was in New Mexico in 1973 when a researcher (Martin) witnessed barn owls excavating their own nesting burrow in an arroyo wall. Later, in 1978, two researchers (Millsap and Millsap), conducted more extensive research on this phenomenon in Colorado. They found that barn owls preferred to dig their own burrows over occupying already existing nest boxes even though it took a lot more effort. Burrows were typically dug directly into the hillside ending in a round hollow where the eggs were laid. Burrows took between five and nine nights to excavate. The researchers concluded that the burrows into the earth provided a survival advantage over other types of nest sites: they were cooler during the heat of the day, and provided more protection from predators.

Barn Owls in Kansas

Kansas grasslands provide excellent barn owl habitat

Kansas grasslands provide excellent barn owl habitat

Kansas has abundant good habitat for barn owls including prairie, pasture, hayfields, river valleys, and scrublands, all with good supplies of food in the form of voles, mice, and kangaroo rats. Barn owls are present in every county, and anywhere they can find barns, outbuildings, abandoned houses, holes in cliffs, and nest boxes, they colonize very quickly. The main problem in Kansas is that suitable nesting sites in much of this good habitat are very scarce. Grasslands and hayfields stretch for miles without good nesting places.

Residents who put up nest boxes are often rewarded very quickly by barn owls taking up residence.

Barn owls both find and dig nest holes along the Cimarron River

Barn owls both find and dig nest holes along the Cimarron River

Max Thompson, a well-known birder and author of bird books of Kansas, agrees that a lack of nesting sites keeps barn owl populations lower than they could be. He does say that barn owls are common along the Cimarron River in the southwestern part of the state, particularly Morton County, where they find or even dig hollows in the clay and rock banks. This would indicate that anywhere in Kansas where high banks or cliffs border river valleys, barn owls will be present in good numbers. Both the Cimarron and the Arkansas River systems are comprised of many such tributaries.

Likewise, nest boxes should meet with good success in the state, since barn owls are always on the lookout for suitable breeding sites.

Barn owl nests in the cliffs along the Snake River are common

Barn owl nests in the cliffs along the Snake River are common

Barn Owls in Idaho

As our range map shows, barn owl populations in the southern half of Idaho are excellent from the agricultural valleys to the high desert scrublands; the northern half is too heavily forested for barn owls except for certain lower altitude valleys in the west.

Biologist Bruce Haak of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game cites the existence of thousands of miles of river cliffs, such as those along the Snake River, where barn owls find abundant crevices and holes in lava, sandstone, and clay for nesting. In the agricultural valleys of orchards, crops, wheat, and irrigated hay, he says they breed in barns, silos, and other outbuildings. The desert scrub provides high numbers of rodents, including kangaroo rats; the farm lands produce rich supplies of voles and pocket gophers.

Road deaths of barn owls on Idaho highways have drawn a lot of attention. Jim Belthoff, biology professor at Boise,

Barn owls ready to fledge

Barn owls ready to fledge

has estimated that a few thousand barn owls die each year on roads in the state. Despite these high numbers, it must be kept in mind that the presence of so many barn owls (of which a percentage do succumb to being hit by vehicles) is actually a sign of a very healthy barn owl population in the surrounding countryside. Barn owls produce large numbers of young to offset high mortality (as much as 75% in the first year), and there are no signs that road deaths are adversely effecting barn owl numbers in the state. One of the main reasons that barn owls get hit so often is that they are edge hunters, and the roads provide just such an edge.

Idaho contains excellent numbers of barn owls in the southern half

Idaho contains excellent numbers of barn owls in the southern half

A large pellet study revealed that barn owls in Idaho prey heavily on voles (meadow mice), however this will vary depending on the specific area. Where pocket gophers or kangaroo rats predominate, they will likely predominate in the owl diet.

Farmers of blueberries, grapes, apples, and other crops are using barn owls in nest box programs in Idaho to help suppress rodent pests.

Barn Owls in Wisconsin

Wisconsin grasslands

Wisconsin grasslands provide excellent barn owl habitat

The barn owl in Wisconsin is rare and listed as endangered. Most breeding records have come from the southern counties where the state Bureau of Endangered Resources has attempted to bolster barn owl populations over the years by installing over one hundred nest boxes and releasing captive bred owls. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in recent years has also installed a number of nest boxes.

Although natural grasslands and wetlands have declined in the state and been replaced by row crops such as soy, there are plenty of pastures and meadows remaining throughout the state. A main limiting factor is the severe winters, particularly the heavy snowfalls that regularly occur, making it difficult if not impossible for barn owls to catch prey beneath the snow. Mild winters allow barn owl populations to grow, but a single heavy snowfall that lasts over a week on the ground can severely set back barn owl numbers.

Nonetheless, barn owls do breed each year in the state and nest box programs have had some success. The range map is from the Natural Heritage Inventory Base in 2012 and shows counties of confirmed nesting. Keep in mind that such records are dependent on field work which is often limited and that barn owls can be very difficult to detect since they are secretive and nocturnal. Chances are that there are more barn owls than found and that other counties may harbor them. Residents in these or neighboring counties who live in good habitat such as grasslands, wetlands, or pasture would be helping conservation efforts by installing nest boxes and contacting their local DNR office when barn owls are seen.

Barn Owl Breed and Release Program in Wisconsin

The state of Wisconsin conducted captive breeding program and released 98 young birds into the wild between 1982 and 1987. This program was discontinued since there was no apparent increase in barn owls in the wild. This is typical of such barn owl breed and release programs – due to dramatic dispersal of young in the fall, high mortality, and low returns to natal areas, barn owls are not a suitable species for breed and release. Habitat enhancement, such as nest box programs, have proven to be far more effective.

Barn Owl Diet and Nesting in Wisconsin

Barn owls in Wisconsin feed mainly on voles (meadow mice) and shrews. They nest in silos, barns, outbuildings, tree cavities, and nest boxes. They breed March through July, laying three to nine eggs, with four or five on average. Researchers believe that most Wisconsin barn owls leave for the winter, but there are records of overwintering as well. It may be the young that disperse in the fall, and the adults that stay as in many other states.

An excellent large paper on the barn owl in general, with Wisconsin as a subset focus: