Barn Owl Chicks

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Home, Parish of Kirkgunzeon – 13/5/20

For the past three years, I have been included on a Schedule One licence which allows me to monitor barn owl nests. Having spent a good deal of time building owl boxes, it’s satisfying that this paperwork allows me to check in on the birds which benefit from that work. It’s also fun that this licence allows me to connect “my” owls to a wider research project undertaken by the Galloway Nature and Heritage Trust, run by the famous and well-respected raptor worker Jack Orchel, whose book on merlins in Galloway represents a landmark in the study of that species.

One of my best owl boxes hangs in the shed where the bull lives, and over the last few weeks it has steadily become more obvious that birds are making active use of it. I built this box in 2017, and installed it in the autumn of that year. Within a few days, barn owls were often seen using this box for roosting and hanging around, and it has been occupied ever since. However, there had never been an active breeding attempt – the birds preferred to nest in a rotten ash tree a few hundred yards away by the river. This tree spectacularly collapsed during a storm in September 2018, after which the young birds were unceremoniously cast out into the world a few weeks before they were ready to leave. I was surprised to find that owls returned to this shattered, dysfunctional stump of a tree to breed again in 2019, when they raised three chicks to adulthood and the constant wheezing of young birds persisted well into November.

But in the last fortnight, the gloom of the bull shed has been split by a gentle scuffling and the steady hiss of young owls. I was left in no doubt that owls had finally opted to breed in my box, and it was exciting to visit them at close quarters with a torch last night. I opened the hatch and found three very small chicks mewling and huffing on a deep mattress of glossy vole hair. Owls often stagger the hatching of their broods, so it was no surprise to find the chicks lying upon three dirty white eggs. These may hatch in the next few days, or they might be abandoned depending upon the availability of prey and the inclination of the parents. I often find unhatched eggs abandoned in barn owl boxes once the breeding season has passed, and given that so much of breeding success depends upon a steady stream of mice and voles, it seems like the owls tend to hedge their bets and lay as many eggs as they can before later deciding how many to hatch and rear. It’s the same logic behind the staggered hatch of young – if you don’t know how the season is going to go, aim high and prepare to pare that back.

The chicks in this box were very young; certainly less than a week old. Their sealed eyes and gawky beaks made them ugly beyond all reckoning, but it will not be long before they start to develop some of the charm and beauty of adult birds. Fortunately, this box is in a busy spot and the birds don’t seem to pay much attention to my disturbance. A parent bird returned to the nest less than fifteen minutes after my quick visit, and normal business was resumed that night with birds bringing in a steady flow of prey throughout the darkness.

It remains to be seen whether these young owls will be ringed or if I should simply keep an eye on them. Either way, it’s been a very satisfying vindication of the work I put into building these boxes, and it’s a real privilege to have owls about the yard.

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