Box clever and you could help re­vival of a rare bird

Accrington Observer - - THE LAUGHING BADGER - SEAN WOOD

I HAVE had two en­quiries about in­stalling nest boxes for barn owls re­cently, and there are a cou­ple of read­ers with large out­build­ings ham­mer­ing away as I write, in­tent on at­tract­ing the ghostly white beauties to their coun­try­side homes. The time is nigh if any­one else is think­ing along the same lines.

As barn owls’ nest­boxes need to be ‘jus­tright’, I have been in touch with the real ex­perts at the Barn Owl Trust. But first, a lit­tle his­tory. Fos­sil records in­di­cate the Barn Owl ap­peared on earth ap­prox­i­mately two mil­lion years ago, which is long be­fore mod­ern man ap­peared, and their fos­sil bones have been found at Earl Stern­dale and Creswell Crags.

At Cress­well, a gorge hon­ey­combed with caves and smaller fis­sures near Bakewell, stone tools and re­mains of an­i­mals, in­clud­ing the an­cient re­gur­gi­tated pel­lets of barn owls, were dis­cov­ered in the caves by ar­chae­ol­o­gists, pro­vid­ing fas­ci­nat­ing ev­i­dence of life dur­ing the last ice age.

The barn owl was feared by an­cient Euro­peans and revered by Na­tive Amer­i­cans, and few birds have such a su­per­nat­u­ral rep­u­ta­tion - one fu­elled by the bird’s ghostly white ap­pear­ance, silent flight and in­ter­mit­tent screech.

The UK pop­u­la­tion has de­clined by over 70 per cent in 50 years and, to a large ex­tent, only sta­bilised by the pro­vi­sion and main­te­nance of nest-boxes.

Nest and roost sites have been lost through a wide va­ri­ety of causes, in­clud­ing the gen­eral de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of tra­di­tional farm build­ings, un­sym­pa­thetic barn con­ver­sions, loss of hol­low trees due to Dutch Elm dis­ease, and the gen­eral ‘tidy­ing up’ of the coun­try­side.

Church tow­ers are usu­ally net­ted-off to pre­vent ac­cess by birds and mod­ern farm build­ings are gen­er­ally un­suit­able un­less a nest-box is pro­vided.

Barn owls pre­fer open habi­tat and usu­ally hunt by fly­ing slowly back and forth (quar­ter­ing), about 3m above the ground, look­ing and lis­ten­ing for their prey.

If suit­able perches such as fence posts are avail­able, the owls may save en­ergy by hunt­ing from th­ese. Its diet con­sists mainly of small mam­mals, par­tic­u­larly field voles, com­mon shrews and wood mice. Prey is of­ten swal­lowed whole and the in­di­gestible parts, the bones and fur, re­gur­gi­tated as a pel­let.

Barn owl habi­tat in­cludes rough grass­land, field mar­gins, hedgerows, wood­land edge, stub­ble fields, drainage ditches and farm­yards.

Within their home range a pair of the owls may have one breed­ing site, one or two roost­ing sites and per­haps a few sites which they only visit, or roost in oc­ca­sion­ally.

May is the time when most eggs are laid, nor­mally in a dark cav­ity or on a ledge in an old build­ing or hol­low tree. Nor­mally be­tween four and seven eggs are laid over an 8 to 21 day pe­riod.

It is not sur­pris­ing that some read­ers would like to have a barn owl nest­ing in their grounds, and this is to be en­cour­aged, es­pe­cially as the cir­cu­la­tion area of this col­umn has the least barn owls in the UK. How­ever, strict guide­lines need to be fol­lowed.

Your prop­erty should be at least 1km, and prefer­ably more, from the near­est mo­tor­way or dual car­riage­way, be­cause th­ese roads ac­count for a great num­ber of barn owl deaths each year.

If you have a large build­ing that a barn owl can en­ter at, say, at least three me­tres above the ground, then this is al­most cer­tainly the best place to put a nest-box.

Boxes in build­ings are eas­ier to erect, cheaper to ob­tain and last a lot longer. The ex­tra shel­ter af­forded by the build­ing will ben­e­fit the owls.

If there’s a build­ing with no ac­cess, a small hole can be made rel­a­tively eas­ily. And re­mem­ber, it’s the ‘hole’ the owl is after, and this needs to be vis­i­ble from the ac­cess point.

Build­ings that are in hu­man or agri­cul­tural use are usu­ally suit­able, as barn owls can get used to al­most any kind of ac­tiv­ity as long as they can stay out of sight.

A tree box is a next-best op­tion. Tree boxes are more ex­pen­sive and more dif­fi­cult to erect. They don’t last as long, and the owls won’t have much shel­ter. But, hey, any port in a storm for this lo­cal rar­ity.

As al­ways, let me know how you get on. If you don’t own a man­sion, a farm, or a wood­land, you can join a lo­cal barn owl group. Check out www.pe­bog. org.uk/barn-owl­in­for­ma­tion »

The barn owl is a bird with a long his­tory

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