Articles about the various state barn owl populations with discussions on conservation and use in agriculture.

Minnesota Barn Owls

Barn Owls in Minnesota

Young barn owls chicks

Young barn owls chicks

Rare in the cold and snowy climes of Minnesota, the barn owl is occasionally seen in farmland, mainly in the southern part of the state. However, they have also been seen near Duluth and other northern Minnesota sites. According to the raptor center of the University of Minnesota, there have been less than ten recorded nests in the state.

Michigan Barn Owls

Barn Owls in Michigan

Barn owls ready to fledge

Barn owls ready to fledge

Listed as endangered in Michigan, the last breeding pair was recorded in 1983. A single barn owl was sighted in 2000, so when a barn owl was found on the floor of a barn in Coopersville in 2012, it was a notable event. Barn owls, which are very secretive, may be a bit more common than suspected, but not much more due to the state’s severe winters and frequent, deep snowfalls. These lightly-feathered, long-legged owls are highly susceptible to periods of deep snow.

Massachusetts Barn Owls

Barn Owls in Massachusetts

IMG_8134More populous in the southern end of the state, the highest populations occur on Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and off shore islands, all of which have milder winters than the mainland. Occasional sightings have also been recorded in the Housatonic River Valley in the west and the Connecticut River Valley that runs through the center of the state. With its severe winters, Massachusetts harbors populations that ebb and flow according to the mildness of the seasons, however barn owls have been recorded in Massachusetts since the 1800’s and were first recorded nesting on Martha’s Vineyard in 1928.

The owl is listed as a species of Special Concern in Massachusetts.

Good places for sighting a barn owl in Massachusetts are Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and Long Point Wildlife Refuge, both on Martha’s Vineyard.

Massachusetts Barn Owl Occurences

Massachusetts Barn Owl Occurences

Maryland Barn Owls

Barn Owls in Maryland

The far western counties, Garret and Allegany, dominated by forested ridge and valley systems, are quite poor in barn owls, but the Great Valley area,, known as the Hagerstown Valley in Maryland, comprised of Washington and Frederick counties (with the exception of the Blue Ridge Mountains that cut through Frederick) provides excellent habitat due to the presence of hayfields, old silos for nesting, and the virtual absence of row crops such as corn and soy. The eastern shores of Chesapeake Bay contain extensive wetlands that also harbor good populations where many barn owls nest in duck blinds.

Duck blinds in the marshes of Chesapeake  Bay provide nesting sites for barn owls

Duck blinds in the marshes of Chesapeake Bay provide nesting sites for barn owls

Dark Blue = good populations; Light Blue = scattered; Green = poor; Yellow = rare to nonexistent

Dark Blue = good populations; Light Blue = scattered; Green = poor; Yellow = rare to nonexistent

Due to a perceived decline in barn owl numbers in a number of counties, the owl is listed as a bird of critical concern in Maryland.

The Barn Owl Nest Box Project is a cooperative effort between Calvert County Natural Resources Division and Southern Maryland Audubon Society. The goal of the project is to increase Barn Owl numbers in Southern Maryland by attracting them to man-made nesting boxes placed on secluded barns in areas of suitable habitat. Contact Senior Naturalist, Andy Brown at 410-535-5327 or Southern Maryland Audubon Society raptor research committee chair Mike Callahan at 240-765-5192 if you would like to help with the project or if you would like to install nest boxes on your property.

 

Maine Barn Owls

Barn Owls in Maine

Barn-Owl-8869As the northernmost state in the U.S., Maine experiences winters that limit the barn owl’s ability to maintain any but the rarest numbers. Mild winters may allow barn owls to survive for a few years, but severe winters marked by deep snow and sub-zero temperatures may wipe out most if not all of the barn owls in the state. Young barn owls dispersing northward may replenish the state’s few breeding pairs in mild years, but nonetheless, there are at best only a handful of barn owls in the state at any given time, making seeing or hearing one of these big white owls with their heart shaped faces a rare event.

In recent years the barn owl has been reported in small numbers only in the southern part of York County, the southernmost county in the state where the weather is milder than the rest of the state and marshlands provide good habitat.

Barn owls are found only in southernmost York County

Blue = known occurrences. Barn owls are found only in southernmost York County

Georgia Barn Owls

Barn Owls in Georgia

iStock_000020901530MediumBarn owls live in good numbers in the agricultural regions of the northwestern northeastern, and southwestern agricultural regions, as well as along the marshes and riverine systems of the coast. They number fewer in the mainly forested regions of the coastal plain and the belt of forest that runs diagonally through the center of the state, and are rare to non-existent in the mountains of the northeastern corner. (See the range map below.)

Dark blue = Abundant; Light Blue = Common; Green = Uncommon; White = Rare

Dark blue = Abundant; Light Blue = Common; Green = Uncommon; White = Rare

One prey study, conducted in the Piedmont Region (foothills), showed that cotton rats comprised over 60% of prey items, with least shrews and voles coming in second and third. Surprisingly, in a coastal plain site, shrews were the most common prey. It should be expected that along the coast, marsh rice rats are likely the primary prey, and that in many grasslands, the vole is the most prevalent item.

Visits to the coastal region of GA in 2015 and 2016 reveal excellent habitat, but a lack of suitable nesting cavities due to the fact that saw grass marshes support few trees that could supply large enough cavities. Barn owls will often choose to nest in duck blinds, wood duck boxes, and the dead fronds of palm trees when other sites are not available, but these are not as suitable as boxes made specifically for barn owls. They have even been found nesting on the ground in such habitat, but obviously are then very vulnerable to predation.

The numerous corn, cotton, and tobacco farms of the state are poor habitats for barn owls as well as other wildlife, whereas poultry, cattle, hay, pastures, and wetlands provide good to excellent habitat.

Georgia hay farms provide excellent barn owl habitat

Georgia hay farms provide excellent barn owl habitat

There are no specific conservation efforts for the barn owl in Georgia, however the Bobwhite Quail Initiative (BQI), established in 1999 to bring back large numbers of bobwhite, encourages and advises landowners and farmers on establishing field borders, hedgerows, and grasslands, all of which also benefit barn owl numbers.

North Dakota Barn Owls

Barn Owls in North Dakota

Barn-Owl-8869Barn Owls are cited as uncommon in North Dakota. States to the south, such as Utah, Wyoming, and South Dakota, are frequently referred to as the “northern limit of the barn owl’s range” in the central United States, however barn owls don’t read the literature and are surprising in their penchant for expanding their range, mainly due to the wide dispersals in random directions that the newly fledged young make in the fall. So, birds from South Dakota and other states make their way into North Dakota each autumn and, in years of mild winters, can make it through to spring, find a mate, and breed successfully.

In one recent year, there were 25 barn owl sightings in the state, and several active nests. Since these birds are highly secretive and active almost exclusively at night, there are likely many more barn owls than are seen.

Severe winters, especially those with heavy snowfall, set North Dakota barn owl populations back, but then the birds rebound in years that are mild.

N.D. grasslands provide excellent habitat for barn owls

N.D. grasslands provide excellent habitat for barn owls

Barn Owl Habitat in North Dakota

The extensive grasslands of the state provide excellent habitat and, as in South Dakota, the birds likely dig their own burrows in the soft substrate of river banks and dunes due to a scarcity of nesting cavities. Good sites in the state for installation of nest boxes would be natural grasslands, wetlands, and fields of hay, wheat, and rye.

South Dakota Barn Owls

Barn Owls in South Dakota

Known barn owl nest sites are scattered and are mostly found in the southern half.  Although documented in far western counties adjacent to Wyoming, most nests have been found in natural cavities in banks of the Missouri River’s reservoirs and tributaries that run through the center of the state. In fact, good populations have been found raising young in cavities dug into the sides of bluffs lining the Missouri River near Pierre. Another area where barn owls dig their own burrows is directly in the ground in the soft substrate of the Sand Hills in the south central portion of the state.

South Dakota is near the northern edge of the barn owl’s range in the central United States.  Highly susceptible to periods of deep snow, the owls likely expand their range and population in years of mild winters, then get knocked back during harsh winters.

Sightings during winter months show that, despite the harsh weatheriStock_000020901530Medium, at least some adult barn owls attempt to overwinter in the state. It is likely that most, if not all, fledglings do not stay, but disperse predominantly southward in the fall.

Crops and Barn Owls in South Dakota

South Dakota is the third largest producer of hay and rye in the nation, both of which provide excellent habitat for barn owls, but the fact that most of the state’s barn owls are found breeding in self-dug burrows in riverbanks only testifies to the scarcity of natural cavities available. Nest boxes in such crops could well attract breeding pairs. Voles, one of the barn owl’s preferred prey, are particularly prevalent in hay and rye and can cause serious damage.

Reporting Barn Owl Sightings in South Dakota

The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks asks residents to report barn owl sightings to the South Dakota Natural Heritage Program and encourages residents who believe their farm has the potential to support barn owls to erect barn owl nest boxes. They can be reached at 605.223.7700.

Barn Owls in Kentucky

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 kate.slankard@ky.gov.

Barn Owls in Ohio

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 wildinfo@dnr.state.oh.us.

 

Illinois Barn Owls

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.

 

 

Vermont Barn Owls

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.