Barn OwlBarn Owl

I have seen a bird at night, was it a barn owl?

If you saw the bird at night (not dawn or dusk) it was most likely an owl, however in Northern Ireland barn owls are often confused with long-eared owls – find out about the main differences between them. If you got a good look at the bird (in car headlights or with a torch for example) try comparing it to images online.

If you are still not sure or didn't see the bird clearly, did you hear it make a sound? Barn owls make wheezing, rasping screeches, while a long-eared owl has a more hooting, barking call - again an online search for bird calls may help you compare. If you are still unsure, think about the habitats that surrounded the area where you saw the bird; long-eared owls are more often associated with conifer trees or younger deciduous trees where they often nest in old nests from another species. Barn owls on the other hand are most often associated with derelict or quiet agricultural buildings and significantly more mature deciduous trees than long-eared owls.

If you are still not sure, try keeping watch the next calm, clear moonlit night and you might get a fantastic view of the owl!

Can I put up a nest box in my garden for a barn owl?

It depends on your location really. Barn owls are associated with open countryside where they hunt, so a small suburban garden backing onto farmland might actually be a suitable location, but generally a small urban garden will not be appropriate. Have a read of the advisory sheets from the Barn Owl Trust before you decide and please bear in mind that they are large, heavy boxes that should not be camouflaged, so you may decide the effort is not worth the potential gain. Instead, why not ask any farmers in your acquaintance if they would host a box on your behalf.

I have a barn owl nest box but no barn owl. What can I do to encourage them?

The first thing you should consider to encourage barn owls is provide them with foraging habitats – they will initially be attracted to an area by food. See how you can help for more detail.

An often overlooked step, particularly in a busy, productive farmyard, is to stop using or minimise the use of rodenticide. Rat poisons enter the food chain and build up in top predators like barn owls. Follow the CRRU code if you must use rodenticide (

Finally, ensure your box is still in good working order. If outdoors, it must be completely waterproof as barn owls will not use a damp box. If the box faces into the prevailing wind, rain is likely to be driven inside no matter how waterproof you have made the roof. Ensure the box is not camouflaged by overhanging branches or ivy; the entrance hole must be obvious to a passing owl. Check the inside has not been filled with sticks by other birds and remove if necessary. While there, check for evidence of barn owls visiting the box - whitewash, feathers, pellets.

I've found a pellet, is it from a barn owl?

Many birds produce pellets, including some of our garden birds, so we need to look closely to decide if it might be from a barn owl. Bird pellets do not smell and are not unpleasant to handle. Firstly think about where you found it. While it has the potential to be a barn owl pellet no matter where you found it outside, if you found it inside, for example in a farm building, then it is looking more likely, as most raptors don't venture inside buildings. 

The next step is to look closely at the outside of the pellet. Most birds will ingest vegetation or seeds, so if you can see the pellet has seeds, leaves or anything of a vegetative nature then you can rule out barn owls.

If all you can see is fur and perhaps bones sticking out then you may have a barn owl pellet, however other raptors do produce similar pellets including buzzards, ravens and of course long-eared owls. Generally a long-eared owl pellet will also contain insect remains while a barn owl pellet will never have insect remains - have a look at images online to verify.

If you are keen there is plenty of guidance online for dissecting pellets, why not have a go at identifying what mammals have been eaten?

Just a warning, fox scats can be mistaken for pellets - if it is long and thin and has a curl at the end, it is fox scat and best left alone!

I think I've found a barn owl nest. Can I photograph or video it?

No, not without a licence from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. 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. 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. 

Even under licence great care must be taken, as barn owls are extremely susceptible to disturbance at particular stages of breeding. Please do report any nest sites to Ulster Wildlife, detailing the evidence found - whitewash, feathers, pellets, sights and sounds of the adults/chicks - as this will enable barn owl conservation work to be focussed in that area.

Ringing of barn owl chicks also requires a licence and must be carried out by an appropriately qualified bird ringer.