Nidderdale’s Barn Owls
Barn owls Tyto alba are probably one of our favourite birds, easily recognised if not quite so readily seen, unless of course you can see in the dark. Actually barn owls are probably mainly crepuscular; that is they are primarily active at dawn and dusk, of the twilight. That’s lucky for us because it means we can enjoy watching them as they hunt across the fields before it gets too dark for us to see them. They do however also hunt at night, that is nocturnally. What’s more, they can be seen around Upper Nidderdale but be aware, despite me saying they are easily recognised, they can be confused with short-eared owls which are diurnal (occurring or active during the daytime rather than at night). Short-eared owls Asio flammeus (amber listed) however, breed here on our moors, if they can avoid persecution, and move to more favourable feeding places such as our coasts and lower ground in winter where their prey, small mammals, especially voles, and also some birds is more easily found in winter. 2014 was a very successful year locally (Nidderdale/Harrogate) with more barn owls reported to me than ever before. I would attribute this to a ‘vole year’ and I suspect that because of the mild winter many of these birds survived which accounts for why so many birds are still around. Kestrels also seem, from my non-scientific observations, to have also increased locally. In fact the barn owl population status for the UK has gone up from amber to green, that is of no conservation concern (BTO Fact File). This is partially due to the fact that barn owls have one of the largest ranges of any bird, they can be found as far afield as Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia, North & South America and live in a variety of habitats including open country, savannah and farmland.
In Britain we have at least five species of owl: the barn, short-eared, long-eared, tawny and little. The jury is out as to whether the eagle owl is a British species because there are those who think it’s an escapee and those who believe that they do migrate here, very occasionally, from Scandinavia. The little owl was apparently introduced to this country, as early as 1758, to catch cockroaches in large country houses and some describe it as a naturalised exotic. Barn owls however have been with us for a lot of years, they were for example recorded at Cresswell Caves in Derbyshire in the Late Devensian period, which wasn’t yesterday. Barn owls in the past have had a number of different names including ‘Ginny Ollit’ in Yorkshire and Screech Owl. We may love barn owls today, but that wasn’t always the case. Until around the 1950s they were nailed spread-eagle to barn doors to ward off storms; or skinned and attached to fire screens with the facial disk pinned between the outspread wings like a central rosette, presumably to prevent the house catching alight. Anyway, let us know if you see any barn owls in Nidderdale, we would love to know their local status, and drive carefully at night, cars are barn owls’ biggest nightmare.
Cocker and Mabey, ‘Birds Britannica,’ Chatto and Windus 2005
Yalden and Albrarella, ‘The History of British Birds,’ Oxford University Press 2009
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
Nidderdale Birdwatches Blog on owls.