Breeding Bird Atlas 1 Species Accounts
Number of Broods
The Barn Owl is a bird of open country, agricultural fields, meadows, swamps, marshes, golf courses, or any such habitat that supports a large rodent population that the owls feed upon. As with all owls that hunt by night and roost by day, the majority of these birds go about undetected and only come to the attention of those who stumble upon them or who persistently search them out.
Barn Owls get their name from their habit of nesting in old, mostly run-down buildings, usually barns. In Massachusetts these owls nest under bridges, in holes in cliff faces on Martha’s Vineyard, and appropriately in many barns, silos, grain storage buildings, and church belfries. They have also been suspected of breeding in old structures on the Boston Harbor Islands. In 1984, 8 pairs of Barn Owls on Martha’s Vineyard produced twenty-eight young birds and in 1985, 9 pairs nested on the island. Augustus Ben David was largely responsible for this increase because he convinced many barn owners to modify their barns by placing an owl nest box near the roof with an opening to the outside. He also developed large boxes that are placed on posts in open country and have been readily used by the owls. During and just prior to the Atlas period, Barn Owls nested in the loft of a cow barn in Sandwich, and in 1983 a pair nested in a church belfry there (Pease). The one inland confirmation occurred in 1979 in a silo in Hadley. These birds returned in 1980 and reared at least three young but abandoned the young in 1981. The nest site has since been destroyed (Allen). Since the Atlas period, breeding has also been confirmed on Nantucket and at Newburyport.
Barn Owls utter some of the most amazing sounds ever heard in these parts in the thick of night. Many listeners have fairly jumped out of their skin at the sound of a loud, blood-curdling, shrieking scream emanating from a flying Barn Owl at close range. The intensity and octave are such that one might believe a violent crime was being committed only a few feet away. There are a variety of other sounds including raspy hisses and a series of bill clicks.
The first eggs are generally laid in early April, earlier in some seasons, and the clutch size varies from four to eleven, with the usual number being six or seven eggs. Incubation lasts about 32 to 34 days and is performed solely by the female. The young hatch asynchronously because incubation begins with the first egg; so a nest usually contains young of different ages. The young fledge at 52 to 56 days of age. Nestlings will often hiss at an intruder and, if older than a couple of weeks, may spread their wings, fall on their backs, and throw their talons up while hissing constantly. They move their monkey-faced heads from side to side and up and down, swaying in a very characteristic fashion. On Martha’s Vineyard, the young of the first brood typically fledge during July. It is possible in some cases that more than one pair of owls uses the same nest site successively. Some pairs raise two broods, and the young of the second brood typically fledge during December. Most pairs fledge three to five young, with some rearing up to eight per brood (Ben David). The 1983 Sandwich nest contained three young in September (Pease).
Rarely, adult Barn Owls have been observed capturing barn cats and bringing them to the nest for the young, but in general the birds concentrate on smaller prey. They are primarily hunters of rodents but also take some small birds.
In the fall, there is evidence of migration or dispersal of young birds and some adults. A banded individual from Martha’s Vineyard was recovered from as far away as Maryland. Several resident pairs on Martha’s Vineyard are known to leave their nest site in a barn and winter in a dense pine grove a couple of miles away. In winters when there is snow accumulation, both the amount and duration of cover are matters of life and death for the Barn Owl. Massachusetts is at the northern edge of this species’ range, and in cold winters with deep snow mortality is high. It is conceivable that a very severe winter could temporarily extirpate the species at this latitude. Martha’s Vineyard is a bit more temperate than most other areas of the state and consequently has little snow, thus making rodents more accessible to the owls in winter. With its still rural, open environment, Martha’s Vineyard remains the stronghold for the Barn Owl in Massachusetts.
The Barn Owl is listed as a species of special concern in Massachusetts.