Why do barn owls need protecting?
With its heart-shaped face and ghostly-white appearance, the barn owl is one of our most distinctive and well-loved countryside birds. If you’ve been lucky enough to see one, it’s a sight you’ll never forget.
Unfortunately, the future of this iconic creature is in peril, with less than 30 to 50 breeding pairs estimated to be left in Northern Ireland. Extreme weather conditions, loss of suitable foraging and nesting habitat, combined with the build-up of toxins from consuming poisoned prey have all taken their toll. Without urgent help, barns owls could be lost forever.
How is Ulster Wildlife helping?
Although funding for our barn owl conservation project ended in 2016, we are still committed to helping the barn owl thrive. This is only made possible thanks to support from our members and donors, and our passionate volunteer barn owl fieldworkers who are at the forefront of efforts to save this species.
Together with help from a full-time volunteer, we are able to monitor barn owl populations and distribution through an annual survey; supply nest boxes for barn owls to roost and breed in suitable areas; provide advice to landowners on managing land for barn owls, and record and map public sightings and signs of barn owl occupation, so we can target our conservation efforts.
How can I help barn owls?
It's great that you want to help barn owls. Find out about the different ways that you can get involved and make a difference below.
Report a sighting
Sightings of barn owls (dead or alive) are vital in helping us to track down and protect these elusive birds.
Barn owls can be spotted at any time of the year and in almost any area/habitat but the most useful sightings are those seen during the breeding season (March – July). This is because barn owls home range contracts during the breeding season when they are feeding the female or chicks at the nest, so a sighting during those months is more likely to be close to a nest site than in other months. During winter, barn owls can forage up to 5km from their roost site.
Provide a home for barn owls
Barn owls need places to roost and nest and a well designed and properly sited nest box is a perfect option. You can build and put up a nest box either indoors in an open shed or outbuilding, or outdoors on a tree.
Nest boxes can be erected at any time of year, as long as there is no risk of disturbance to barn owls - please follow the guidance from the Barn Owl Trust provided in the links above.
It is a good idea to check the inside and general condition of a nest box every year. The check should take place after any chicks have dispersed and before a barn owl pair begins their courtship for the next breeding season, i.e. between beginning-October and January.
Volunteer with our annual survey
Every summer, our dedicated volunteers help survey the countryside to discover new barn owl roost and nest sites, so that we can target our conservation efforts around specific areas.
If you'd like to help with our annual barn owl survey in your area, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Manage your land for barn owls
- Provide areas of grassland that are not cut or grazed as this is the ideal habitat for foraging barn owls e.g. a fenced-off strip alongside field boundary.
- Hammer posts into the middle of suitable habitat to allow barn owls to perch and conserve energy while hunting.
- Scatter grain near field boundaries to encourage rodents out of the hedgerows and into fields where barn owls can hunt.
- Place log piles in old disused parts of your land to encourage mice out of hedgerows where barn owls can hunt.
- Plant up disused areas of your land with trees and maintain thick, healthy hedgerows to contribute to the survival of the barn owl.
- Before starting any building work or tree maintenance on your land, make sure you look out for any signs of barn owl activity to minimise disturbance.
Avoid using rat poison (rodenticides)
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 Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use code if you must use rodenticide.
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. 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 to provide them with suitable foraging habitats – they will initially be attracted to an area by food. See 'How can I help?' above 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 Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use 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.
How can I tell if my nest box or outbuilding is being used by a barn owl?
Barn owls are very elusive and predominantly nocturnal, but there are some telltale signs that could indicate the presence of a barn owl nest site:
Barn owls droppings are mainly white and they dry to leave a white chalky substance very similar to white-wash.
Barn owls regurgitate the undigested remains (mostly bones, teeth and fur) of their prey in the form of a dark coloured pellet that is often the size of your thumb but can vary significantly.
The presence of any barn owl feathers indicates that the site was probably visited between May and November which is usually when barns owls moult.
Noisy chicks and adults
Barn owl chicks make an unmistakable snoring sound when begging to their parents for food. Listen out for this in the summer months during June/ July – it's as they as they get older that the sound really begins to travel. Adult females make similar calls earlier in the year, around January/February as she waits in the nest for the male to feed her prior to egg laying.
I've found a pellet; is it from a barn owl?
Many birds produce pellets, including some of our garden birds, so you 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 is 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, Environment 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 dependent 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 focused in that specific area.
Ringing of barn owl chicks also requires a licence and must be carried out by an appropriately qualified bird ringer.
Read our annual barn owl survey reports
Every summer, thanks to help from our dedicated volunteers, we survey the countryside for sights and signs of barn owl nest sites. This data, in combination with sightings received from members of the public, is used to track changes in the distribution of barn owls and to help target our conservation efforts.