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 South Carolina

South Carolina is an important state for barn owls. Satellite tracking studies of barn owls have shown that a high percentage of young barn owls in the northern states migrate in the fall down over the eastern mountains and onto the coastal plains. Many of them winter in good habitat from the Carolinas all the way along the Gulf states to as far as Louisiana. One such bird flew 450 miles from western Pennsylvania to St. Stephens, South Carolina and hunted along a canal there through the winter, then in spring flew back to a barn in Ohio, sixty miles from its original release point. Besides being an important migration route as well as wintering ground for northern birds, South Carolina has always harbored good resident populations of this big white owl. However, in recent years, with changing agricultural practices, spreading suburbs, and a decline in the numbers of barns, barn owl populations in the state may be declining in some areas.

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources


One of our nest boxes installed by S.C. DNR

In an effort to strengthen state barn owl populations, the South Carolina DNR has been erecting barn owl nest boxes since the mid 1990’s. Their focus has been mainly in coastal areas, particularly areas of salt water marsh and old rice fields, both excellent habitat. They have also begun erecting boxes in areas with grasslands and ponds. Out of 44 nest boxes monitored in 2014, 35 of these were of our plastic design from the Barn Owl Box Company. Overall, the DNR reported that 86.6 % of the nest boxes were either used for nesting (50%) or roosting (36.6%), leading to the conclusion that their nest box program is a very effective management tool for barn owls. This is particularly true because barn owls are cavity nesters, and when barns and large hollow trees are unavailable, nest boxes are an excellent enhancement of good habitat.

The Cape Romain Bird Observatory Project

The Cape Romain Bird Observatory Barn Owl Nest Box Project encourages farmers and property owners along the southeastern part of the state to install barn owl nest boxes. The organization provides nest box plans, and occasionally helps fund materials. Interested individuals can contact them by clicking on the link above.

Prey of Barn Owls in South Carolina

One study of 91 pellets taken from eight nest boxes in salt water marsh habitat revealed voles comprised 63% of prey taken. Another 19% was comprised of rice rats, with black and cotton rats making up another 3%. Rice rats are a major pest in grain fields, and barn owls have excellent potential to help lower their numbers and lower crop damage in fields where rice is grown.

Occurrence of Barn Owls in South Carolina


Marshlands provide excellent habitat for barn owls

Barn owls likely occur throughout the state, however the heaviest populations occur in the counties along the coast, with barn owls mostly scarce in the Piedmont. Other robust populations appear to be in the central part of the state particularly in Calhoun, Clarendon, Sumter, and Lee Counties. These areas are largely rural and agricultural. Another area with reliable reports is from Anderson County – these sightings have been on farms with hay and pastureland. Regions of pine plantations, heavy forest, and fields of cotton, soy, and corn provide poor habitat for the barn owl.

Attracting Barn Owls with Nest Boxes in South Carolina

Barn owls keep a keen eye out for potential new nesting sites, and as long as you live in an area with hay, pastureland, grasslands, or wetlands, you stand a good chance of attracting a pair of these beautiful birds. Biologists throughout the barn owl’s range encourage residents to install nest boxes in good habitat. If indeed you do succeed in attracting barn owls, contact the South Carolina DNR which monitors state populations.

A special thanks to wildlife biologist Mary-Catherine Martin of the South Carolina DNR for providing valuable information for this article and both photographs.