About barn owls

Barn Owl (c) Margaret HollandBarn Owl (c) Margaret Holland

With its characteristic heart-shaped, white face, white under-parts and buff upper feathers, the barn owl is one of the most recognisable and also one of the most studied owl species in the world.

About

The barn owl (Tyto alba) is a specialist predatory bird that hunts at night across Ireland for small mammals across open lowland rural areas.

In Northern Ireland, a barn owl’s diet consists mainly of pygmy shrews, mice and juvenile rats. They may also take frogs, bats and small birds. Barn owls eat all of their prey and then regurgitate the indigestible parts in the form of a pellet.

How to identify 

With its characteristic heart-shaped, white face, white under-parts and buff upper feathers, the barn owl is one of the most recognisable and also one of the most studied owl species in the world.

The barn owl does not hoot – it screeches, hence its Irish name: an scréachóg reilige – the screech owl. 

The barn owl is most often confused with long-eared owl, the only other resident nocturnal owl in Northern Ireland. Find out about the key differences between them.

 

Where to find it 

Although not numerous, barn owls are found in all six counties of Northern Ireland with many reported sightings from County Down and around the Lough Neagh basin. They favour low lying ground with an open aspect where they can hunt efficiently using their broad wings and acute sense of hearing.

Barn owls will nest in hollow trees and in buildings and if they can remain out of sight, they will nest in sites with human and agricultural activity.

The majority of buildings used by barn owls are derelict or rarely used and over 3m in height. Barn owls will use chimneys, wall cavities, wall plates or even spaces between bales as nest sites.

Barn owls will also use tree sites, particularly hollow trunks and hollows in the broken ends of large branches; they only need an access of 70mm x 70mm. Barn owls do not favour trees in dense woodland unless there is an open approach to the site, for example along woodland rides or glades.

Conservation Status

Barn owls have been in decline in Northern Ireland for decades as a result of agricultural intensification and habitat loss. The last population estimate in the 1980s put the breeding population at only 30 to 50 breeding pairs.

In Northern Ireland, barn owls are protected under Article 4 and Schedule A1 of the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 as amended by the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. In brief, it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage, destroy or disturb the bird, the nest, the egg or the dependant young at any time.