Coun­try Di­ary

Barn owl boxes clearly help th­ese much-loved birds build their nests and raise their young — but it’s im­por­tant to re­sist over-mon­i­tor­ing

Shooting Times & Country Magazine - - GAME SHOOTING -

I’ve been build­ing barn owl boxes for the past few years. We have some ex­cel­lent habi­tats for barn owls across the open moors and rough field mar­gins, but our main prob­lem is suit­able nest­ing sites.

There is no short­age of trees in this part of Galloway but the huge ma­jor­ity is com­mer­cial soft­wood; trees like Sitka spruce and lodge­pole pine. Th­ese vast plan­ta­tions have lit­tle value for breed­ing barn owls and, while the birds some­times roost in the deep thick­ets, they do not have much to of­fer nest­ing birds. The dark, sway­ing trees are much more use­ful to long-eared owls, which lay their eggs in the aban­doned re­mains of crow nests.

There are a few old ash trees out on the hill and I worked hard to get boxes up where I felt they would do most good. Some of this ef­fort was mis­guided and one of my boxes has now been up for eight years with­out a sin­gle sign of oc­cu­pancy. I was on more re­li­able ground hang­ing boxes in the rafters of old cat­tle sheds and one seemed to have in­stant suc­cess; a white feather was found on the hard earth floor less than a week af­ter the box was put in.

I re­sisted the temp­ta­tion to look too closely at the nest box for fear of dis­turb­ing the oc­cu­pants, so I set up my trail cam­era nearby to see whether or not the box was “ac­tive” or whether I had sim­ply had a sin­gle vis­i­tor. I re­turned the fol­low­ing day to find my mem­ory card full of pho­to­graphs.

Two owls had bus­tled and shuf­fled around the plat­form of the box for sev­eral hours and I flicked through the im­ages with de­light. Re­sist­ing the temp­ta­tion to over-mon­i­tor the box, I with­drew and let the sheds re­turn to peace and quiet. A fort­night later, I heard owls call­ing from the shed when I was out lamp­ing and was thrilled to think that my box was help­ing them.

I re­turned later in the sum­mer to re­set my trail cam­era. I rea­soned that chicks would now be emerg­ing and I wanted to get some footage of the young­sters. By this stage I had been granted a li­cence to check barn owl boxes from Scot­tish Nat­u­ral Her­itage as part of a long-term barn owl mon­i­tor­ing project in Galloway. Ten days went by and the cam­era re­vealed that the only ac­tiv­ity at the box was a visit from a sin­gle pi­geon. From this I as­sumed that the coast was clear and went in for a closer look. A thick cob­web across the door­way added fur­ther proof that no­body was home.

Peer­ing in through the door, I found that the box was car­peted with a deep bed of dead voles. Mounds of corpses lay strewn in a mat al­most 3in deep and many of them were mum­mi­fied, frozen for­ever in a dry, twisted ric­tus — lit­tle yel­low teeth bared like Egyp­tian mum­mies.

In the far corner of the box were two small, white, al­most spher­i­cal eggs. I came away from the box quite con­fused. Read­ing through my books on barn owls, I found that barn owls can lay large clutches of eggs and one or two of­ten don’t hatch. It’s pos­si­ble that th­ese owls reared a large brood of healthy owlets and the two eggs were sim­ply the left­overs, but I couldn’t rec­on­cile the thought of large, mucky, scuf­fling chicks crowded to­gether in a small space for an ex­tended pe­riod with­out leav­ing a sin­gle mark on the pure white eggs.

It seemed more likely that the nest had been aban­doned af­ter only two eggs were laid, but judg­ing from the vast sur­plus of food that had been gath­ered and wasted, it was hard to see hunger as a cause. I can’t ig­nore the pos­si­bil­ity that dis­tur­bance might have played a part, since this is a func­tion­ing agri­cul­tural shed that can see lots of ac­tiv­ity dur­ing the sum­mer months.

To some ex­tent this is un­avoid­able, but my fam­ily re­mem­bers barn owls breed­ing in th­ese sheds when they were in far more ac­tive use. I’m con­fi­dent that the box is in a suit­able spot but if dis­tur­bance did play a part, we must take ex­tra care next year.

There is also the chance that one, or both, of the adult owls was pre­dated. We have a healthy pop­u­la­tion of goshawks in the forests around the hill and it is not un­com­mon to find the re­mains of dead barn owls strewn around their favourite pluck­ing posts. What­ever the rea­son,

I am tan­ta­lised by this progress and can’t wait to ex­per­i­ment with more boxes.

“It’s pos­si­ble that the owls reared a healthy brood and the eggs were sim­ply left­overs”

Pa­trick Lau­rie is a project man­ager at the Heather Trust. He has a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on black­grouse con­ser­va­tion and farms Galloway cat­tle in south-west Scot­land.

A barn owl at a nest box; old cat­tle sheds make good sites for nest­ing boxes for th­ese shy birds

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