Barn Owl (Tyto alba) by Allee Forsberg
If Australia’s Sooty Owl is a clear starry night, its cousin the Barn Owl surely must be a golden autumn sunset. We have long associated owls with the fall. Look around and you’ll find them on autumn wreaths or keeping company with front porch pumpkins. Owls have always fascinated me, to the extent that it became a personal goal to see every owl in North America in 2018. From staggering, intelligent eyes, to the endearing sleepiness of a daytime roosting owl, or even their covert and cryptic nature that makes owls a rewarding challenge to find in the field—whatever our reasons, we simply love them.
Within the Barn Owl’s genus Tyto, we globally recognize about seventeen owl species, with scores of documented subspecies. The Barn Owl alone has some thirty subspecies. In North America, our Barn Owl is classified as the subspecies Tyto alba furcata—and remains our only Tyto owl. Since bird classification is constantly changing, it’s possible the American Barn Owl may gain autonomy as a species someday. All Tyto owls share similar, recognizable features such as sweetheart face set with brown marble eyes, and large head atop a slim body supported by long, feathered legs. Where the Great Horned seems wise and the Saw-whet adorably bewildered, the Barn Owl is perhaps our most graceful and classy owl. Until you hear her speak, that is. Barn Owls have one of the most hair-raising screams, enough to make anyone believe in spooks.
Throughout my owl year, I came to learn that while some owl species in the U.S. are very localized or have a very specific window of time spent over our borders, others are very widespread and tend to stay put. Barn Owls are an interesting player on that field. While they are the most widely distributed owl species in the world—occurring everywhere except Antarctica, making them of low conservation concern—they appear on the endangered list in the Midwest. Since Barn Owls are strictly nocturnal their population size is difficult to gauge, however factors such as changes in farming practices and habitat loss prompted Indiana in 1984 to enact a management program for Barn Owls.
That’s not to say Barn Owls couldn’t survive without humans, and because of their common name people often wonder how Barn Owls ever lived without man-made structures. While we see less and less old-style barns, honestly these structures were just conveniently accessible to opportunistic owls—but the name may also originate from the belief that owls were a bad omen, initiating the old-world practice of nailing an entire owl or an owl’s wings to the side of a barn to ward off evil. In truth, the bigger challenge for Midwestern Barn Owls is the loss of prairie for hunting voles, pesticides eliminating food sources, and land development including the clearing of old growth trees which may have provided nesting cavities.
So, if you’re lucky enough to see a Barn Owl in Indiana, remember its sensitive status here and enjoy the rare treat you’ve been given. But as with all birds, especially with sensitive species such as owls, we should consider ourselves stewards of conservation and act with care and consideration toward these amazing animals we share our space with.