Friday, 8 February 2019

A Barn Owl by Day

We are so lucky to live in this part of the country - there’s so much variety in the landscape, with hills, woods, water, and a farming landscape with plenty of hedgerows and a fairly mixed agricultural economy. That doesn’t insulate us entirely from the big declines there have been in many formerly common farmland species. Turtle doves are no longer a feature of our summer landscape, for example, and birds like yellowhammer and corn bunting that I used to see easily I now have to hunt for.  The curlew’s call has ceased to be the reliable indicator of Spring that it used to be, and the winter flocks of lapwings, if seen at all, are much smaller than I remember them as a child.

But I was delighted the other day, driving up into Forden on the road from Chirbury, to have a really good and close view of a barn owl. It was late afternoon, but a very bright and sunny day, and the owl was just to my right, flying along the top of the hedge. This is something barn owls do a lot, and sadly quite a few are hot by vehicles. I recall standing for a long time outside the Halfway House pub on the Welshpool to Shrewsbury road, watching a barn owl drifting up and down the hedge on the other side of the road with solemn purpose.

But that was late at night, though under street lights. This was in bright sunshine, and the intricate patterning on its golden-buff back and wings was wonderfully visible. I was able to slow almost to the bird’s speed, there being nothing else on the road, and that allowed me to glance back at the distinctive heart-shaped face, which, like the underparts, is white. In fact the whole bird looks white when seen, say, in one’s headlights at night - and this, along with its shrieking cry which is uttered in flight, has given it a reputation as a bird of ill omen in folklore.

Like most owls, the barn owl is a night feeder, and you would think was plenty enough darkness at this time of the year, without the bird needing to hunt by day. However, we had had a touch of hard weather with some ice and snow, limiting the bird’s hunting options - and the breeding season starts quite early for barn owls. They can sometimes have two broods in the year, but they begin to breed in February or even earlier in a mild season, and it’s not impossible that this bird already had young to feed.

Barn owls feed mostly on voles, mice and rats, but will take other prey too. They do of course nest in barns and other buildings, but also in holes in trees or cliff sides. As with other birds of prey, the indigestible parts of their prey are egested as pellets, and examining these will give an idea of what the birds have been able to catch. The barn owl is found very widely in the world, and in most parts of the British Isles, but they are at risk from changes in the way we live and farm, and I’m glad to still see them fairly frequently in these parts.

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