Skip to Main Content

Tracking the Ghost Owl

By Sergio Harding

An image of four young but fledged barn owls on a ledge

Barn Owl Chicks in Rockingham County (CO Matt Gingerich)

Barn Owls and the VABBA2

One evening several years ago, while I was standing in the middle of a grassland somewhere on Long Island, NY, a Barn Owl flew over my head, pale and silent despite the flapping of its wings. It was a definite WOW moment.  The Barn Owl is known by several colorful names inspired by its appearance, vocalizations and secretive, nocturnal habits, including ‘ghost owl’ or ‘demon owl’.  In Virginia, it is  known from marshes in the Coastal Plain and in riverbank burrows but is more common in the pastures and hayfields of the Piedmont and western mountain valleys.  Our knowledge of the species’ current distribution in Virginia is shaky; we need your help to literally put this species on the map for the 2ndVirginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA2), in this, the Atlas’ Year of the Night Birds.

The Barn Owl shares the crepuscular/nocturnal habits of Virginia’s other owl species.  However, surveying for breeding Barn Owls is traditionally best accomplished during the daytime.  As its name suggests, the Barn Owl has an affinity for nesting in human-made structures, including old barns and silos.  These are sited in the same farm habitats where the owl hunts for prey, primarily small mammals.  Checking these types of structures during the daytime for evidence of owls can lead not only to documentation of their presence, but also to breeding confirmations.

Structures to be targeted for surveys should be in relatively good shape.  For example, many concrete silos can be found starting to fall apart, with their roof coming off; while they could still be potentially used for nesting, they are less attractive to the owls as they provide less shelter from the elements.  When surveying the interior of a silo or barn, bring a flashlight, binoculars, and look up!  This is where the owls are most likely to be found – you may even see a tray, shelf or box that was deployed in years past, when Barn Owl monitoring was actively being conducted by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and by volunteers.  Barn Owls will also nest on the floors of silos, although they are more vulnerable to predation there.  In addition to looking for owls, you can scan for other sign such as cached prey or prey remains (meadow voles and Norway rats are favored); pellets (small masses of undigested bones and fur); white droppings; and Barn Owl feathers and juvenile down.  You can also survey the exterior of the structure to look for evidence of pellets at the bottom of exterior chutes; these pellets may be regurgitated by the owls while perched at the top of a chute.

An image of two barn owls in a nest box

Barn Owl Nest (CO Jason Marks – Nest platform camera)

Barn Owls can breed at virtually any time of year, with past active nests documented across Virginia between January and November.  However, the recommended peak survey season is March through June.  Eggs are incubated for approximately one month, and young fledge 7-8 weeks after hatching.  In addition, one pair may re-nest following a nest failure or even after successfully fledging young, so there are good opportunities for finding nesting Barn Owls even later in the season.

Report your data through the VABBA2 eBird portal. We recommend reporting each survey site separately, as a stationary count.

Remember to always seek permission from landowners ahead of a survey, and not to trespass under any circumstances.  Landowners are by-and-large friendly, curious about the owls (which provide good rodent control), and more than willing to allow for these types of surveys to take place. If a landowner denies access, however, his/her wishes should be respected.  Not only are you acting as a volunteer of the VABBA2, which is sponsored by partners (including DWR, the VSO and Virginia Tech) who cultivate relationships with landowners across Virginia, but you are also representing the broader birding community.

Good owling!

Contributed by: Sergio Harding, Avian Biologist, VDWR

  • May 22, 2018