Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
Read Caption

A South American barn owl, Tyto alba tuidara, peers into the camera at Brazil's Jardim Zoológico de Brasília.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

With its banshee call, dark eyes, and bright white face, a barn owl could pass for a winged ghost, moving silently against the night sky.

In fact, many cultures associate the barn owl with superstition. In England, where barn owls often live in graveyards, one of these birds flying by the window of an invalid symbolizes approaching death. The Zapotec people of Mexico also saw the barn owl as a fatal omen, and the ancient Egyptians believed barn owls occupied “the realm of death,” likely due to their nocturnal habits.

But it’s also true that barn owls are a boon to their ecosystems, preying on agricultural pests such as rats and mice. They’re one of the most widespread bird species on Earth, with 10 subspecies inhabiting every continent except Antarctica.

Barn owls don’t migrate, instead thriving year-round in numerous environments, including open lowlands, farmlands, and deserts. True to their name, barn owls may use isolated buildings for daytime roosts, and are at home living among people in cities and suburbs.

Coloration

Their back and wing colors vary from light, buff hues to tawny golds and grays, allowing them to blend into many types of habitats. Their undersides can be red or white; owls with white bellies may reflect moonlight and stun rodents into becoming an easy meal. In one study, voles froze longer in the presence of white-bellied owls than red ones.

Sometimes barn owl breasts are spotted, especially among females. Males tend to prefer spotted females, perhaps because it's a sign of robust health: Females with more spots may have fewer parasites.

Perfect predators

Barn owl bodies are primed for predation, with heart-shaped facial discs that funnel sound into their ears, alerting them to the rustlings of small mammals, snakes, fish, and insects. Their eyes are twice as light sensitive as our own, giving them superior night vision, and they’ll also sway and bob their heads slowly to increase their depth perception.

Once an owl has honed in on a victim, the downy feathers on its wings and legs enable it to swoop down without making a sound and grab the animal with strong talons. Barn owls’ three-foot wingspan is also huge in relation to their one-pound weight, which lets them quietly glide rather than flap.

Like many owls, barn owls swallow prey whole, then regurgitate tough material like fur and bone into what’s called an owl pellet.

Mating and reproduction

Barn owls begin to breed when they’re about a year old. During courtship, males perform elaborate displays, including moth flight, a strenuous physical feat in which a male hovers and dangles his feet in front of the female.

About 75 percent of mating pairs stay together for life, but they will separate if they’re not producing enough young. Sometimes both males and females will have more than one mate. (Related: “Why do barn owls divorce?”)

Barn owls can breed year-round, producing one or two clutches annually that range in size from three to 11 eggs, depending on the availability of prey. The birds prefer to make their tree nests in open areas like fields and marshes, where they can hunt more easily.

The female lays her eggs two to three days apart so the chicks won’t hatch all at once, incubating them for about 30 days. The male brings the brooding female food and continues after the chicks have hatched; the female tears the meat into smaller pieces for the owlets.

By two weeks of age, they’re able to swallow prey whole. At about eight weeks the chicks will fledge, though they’ll hang around home until about 15 weeks of age while their parents continue to feed them.

Conservation status

Global barn owl populations range somewhere between four million and about a billion, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Though their populations are stable, keeping them that way includes protecting their habitat and prey, as well as providing artificial nest boxes in areas where deforestation has removed trees.

Owl vision explained