Barn owl

Barn owl ©Danny Green/2020VISION

Barn owl

©Andy Rouse/2020VISION

Barn owl perched

©Jon Hawkins Surrey Hills Photography

Barn owl

Scientific name: Tyto alba
The beautiful barn owl is, perhaps, our most-loved owl. With its distinctive heart-shaped face, pure white feathers, and ghostly silent flight, it's easy to identify. Look out for it flying low over fields and hedgerows at dawn and dusk.

Species information

Statistics

Length: 33-39cm
Wingspan: 89cm
Weight: 300g
Average lifespan: 4 years

Conservation status

Classified in the UK as Green under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2015). Protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

When to see

January to December

About

Perhaps our most familiar owl, the barn owl will sometimes hunt in the daytime and can be seen 'quartering' over farmland and grassland looking for its next small-mammal meal. However, it is perfectly adapted to hunt with deadly precision in the dark of night: combined with their stealthy and silent flight, their heart-shaped faces direct high-frequency sounds, enabling them to find mice and voles in the vegetation.

How to identify

The barn owl has a mottled silver-grey and buff back, and a pure white underside. It has a distinctive heart-shaped, white face, and black eyes.

In our area

Barn owls are under serious threat in Northern Ireland with fewer than 50 breeding pairs estimated to be left and only a few known active nest sites. Once a familiar sight, this iconic bird has declined drastically, estimates suggest by as much as 60% since the 1930s. It is now one of our rarest and most endangered birds, red-listed on the Irish Birds of Conservation Concern and protected under the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985. Nest sites are protected all year round even if they are not in use.

Although nocturnal in Northern Ireland, on still moonlit evenings you might be able to spot a barn owl hunting over field edges and roadside verges for its next meal. Best places to see them include the Lough Neagh basin, south Down, the Ards Peninsula and the shores of Lough Foyle. Barn owls rely almost exclusively on small mammals, such as house mice and wood mice, given the absence of voles here, making them a great friend to farmers and homeowners alike.  

Distribution

Widespread, but absent from the Highlands of Scotland and under threat in Northern Ireland.

Did you know?

Throughout history, barn owls have been known by many different nicknames, such as 'Ghost Owl', 'Church Owl' and 'Screech Owl'. But the name 'Demon Owl', in particular, illustrates how they were considered by some rural populations - something not so difficult to understand when you hear their piercing shrieks and hissing calls.

How people can help

The Wildlife Trusts are working closely with farmers, landowners and developers to promote wildlife-friendly practices. Across town and country, The Wildlife Trusts manage many nature reserves for the benefit of the wildlife they support. You can help by supporting your local Trust and becoming a member; you'll find out about exciting wildlife news, events on your doorstep and volunteering opportunities, and will be helping local wildlife along the way.