Posts Tagged ‘Barn Owl’

Toe Dusting

December 10, 2010

We met a Barn Owl this week. We liked him, but he didn’t care for us. As a matter of fact, when your author walked in to our store where the local animal rescue people had brought it for educational purposes, the owl lowered its head and shook it in the universally recognized shake of disapproval. The rescuers of the owl told me not to take it personally, but I knew better. That owl was rescued after an encounter with a high voltage electrical line which it would not have encountered were it not for humanity’s insatiable desire for electricity. He had no use for me or any other of my fellow Homo sapiens, except possibly for those who rescued him and now care for him.

The rescuers assured us the owl was “toe dusting.” Fairly new to its role as a teacher of humans, the owl was stressed and toe dusting was the physical sign of that stress. Ornithologists hold that Barn Owls lower their heads and shake it over their talons, either as an aggressive signal or as a defensive behavior.

Toe Dusting

I don’t believe it. They do it as a message of disapproval, just like that herbaceous Mountain Goat on the Olympian Peninsula in Washington State a few weeks ago when it gored a man in the leg and then stood over the man until he bled to death. The animals are getting angry with us and who can blame them?

But even if it was threatening me, that owl has the softest eyes of any bird I’ve ever seen up close. Mind you, if I were a field mouse or a vole scuttling across a snow field on a cold, crystalline night and looked up when that owl’s shadow crossed the snow I doubt that I would find anything soft about those eyes. I would see the eyes of a minister of death. And that shadow I would see the instant before my death would be the first clue I had that an owl was anywhere nearby: Owls are about the only land-dwelling animals who never make a sound they don’t intend to make.

But I was in no danger from the owl, and I loved his eyes. They reminded me of Edward Howe Forbush springing to the defense of Barn Owls in his magisterial Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. Defending them from unjust persecution, he called them “benefactors to mankind.”

Like Forbush, I may be susceptible to emotional projection and may have mirrored my own consciousness when I looked in those eyes, but I don’t believe that either. Those were the wise eyes of an old soul looking out at me.


The rescuers also brought a Merlin with them. Nothing soft about a Merlin’s eyes I can assure you. Falcon eyes put one in mind of Yeats’ horseman,

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!


Here is our post on identifying Barn Owls and here is more on Barn Owls and Halloween. George Orwell also wrote about Barn Owls.

Barn Owl Babies

April 3, 2010

In case you’ve missed it, here is a link for a streaming webcam of an owl box where two Barn Owls are tending to new born owlets.

Warning: Be prepared to lose track of time.

The 2009 National Wildlife Photo Contest

December 3, 2009

We’re back to share with you some of the winners from this year’s National Wildlife Federation photography contest winners. Not only are the photos great, each has something to teach us about the natural world.

As we noted last time, Rob Palmer of Colorado won the Grand Prize in this contest as well as the London Museum of Natural History’s prize.  In that photo, a Bald Eagle was about to dine on a Red-winged Blackbird.  In this one, a Bald Eagle is about to eat a Starling.

Rob Palmer

The lesson about nature from this photo is easily summarized: Starlings lack rear-view mirrors.

Next we have this photo, of another Starling, made by Karen Bloodworth. From it we learn that Starlings not only lack rear view mirrors: When young, they are easily confused about who is supposed to feed them.

Karen Bloodworth

Next is a photo made by Patricia Kline.  The Halloween message is clear:  Protect your pumpkins from Barn Owls wearing masks. That is a Barn Owl, right?

Patricia Kline

We leave you with this one, shot by Marcia Olinger.

Marcia Olinger

Two possibilites exist about nature’s lesson in this photo.  One hypothesis is that squirrels can’t read.  Or perhaps they can read, but are scofflaws.  Either way, signs warning them to keep away from the bird food won’t work.

You can see all the winners here and we recommend spending a few minutes with them. All of them remind us that we are not separate from nature, but a part of it.  Here is an article about the contest with larger photos but be patient, sometimes it takes a long time to load.

If the squirrels are eating the bird food you put out, here is a squirrel-proof feeder that doesn’t care if they can read.

Identifying Barn Owls

April 5, 2009

Barn Owl

Mostly, of course, you don’t see owls; you only hear them in the night. Still, there are those times; just before full darkness at night or when there is barely enough light before sunrise for humans to walk about without bumping into things, when you might get a glimpse of one, flying low over a field or through an opening in the forest.

How do you know whether that owl you just saw in the twilight was a barn owl?

Barn Owls have two cousins that resemble them.  All three species are about the same size and, from a distance, look about the same.  All three hunt in the gathering dark. The Short-eared Owl and the Long-eared Owl are about the same size and can be difficult to tell apart in the gathering darkness. Here are some suggestions.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

First, remember where you are.  As a general matter, in North America, the further south you are, the more likely it is to be a Barn Owl.  Although the ranges of all three overlap, especially in winter, Barn Owls are more frequent in the South.  Short-eared Owls breed in Alaska and northern Canada south to the center of the United States.  Long-eared Owls breed from central Canada to the central United States.

Barn Owls are rare in the northern United States.  And, if you are in the Rocky Mountains, the higher you are, the less likely you are to encounter a Barn Owl.  They won’t be soaring over Pike’s Peak.  In fact, you are unlikely to encounter one anywhere above 10,000 feet.

Beyond that, your location won’t tell you much, since any one of the three can be found all over North America.  You’ll need three more clues to be certain what it is you just saw.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

First, of the three birds, the Barn Owl is the palest and most uniform in color.  In the fading light, they can even resemble the pure white Snowy Owl.  If it flies directly overhead, it will appear to be white. (Long-eared Owls have streaks all the way down their bodies; short-ears are streaked only part way down the breast.) While you are unlikely to see the orange tinge of the owl’s heart-shaped face, if the bird is uniformly pale you are safe in identifying it as a Barn owl. Both Short-eared Owls and Long-eared Owls have darker wings which are two-toned and high contrast.

The second clue is flight style.  Barns fly with regular, steady wing beats.  If you notice a slight jerky rhythm in the flight, you are probably not looking at a Barn Owl.

Your third clue may be sound.  Barn Owls are the vocalists of this group, often emitting a high-pitched hissing sound.  Short-eared and long-eared owls seldom make a sound in flight.

Finally, a consensus exists that barns and short-ears start hunting a little earlier than long-ears.  If it is too dark to make out much of anything, assume it’s a long-ear.  Unless you really want it to be a Barn Owl. Nobody can be absolutely certain if it is almost full dark.

But, for the most part, identifying owls is a matter of sounds in the night.  We’ll be back next time with some clues about that.


For more on Barn Owls see our popular post Halloween and Barn Owls.

The photo of the flying Barn Owl was taken by someone named Jurgen.  The drawing of the short-eared is from Lydekker, R. 1895 The Royal Natural History. Volume 4. Frederick Warne and Co. (from  The photograph of the long-eared is by Pavlen.  All three photos come from Wikipedia because your loyal scribe has no photos of any of the three.

%d bloggers like this: