Barn owls: scarily effective predators that need our help

By Kat Holmes

Thank you to Chris Tudge and his daughter Florence for sending in these incredible pictures of a barn owl taken with their Ltl Acorn 5310WA camera trap. Florence loves nature and the outdoors and her father is a farmer who obviously appreciates his local barn owl.

Barn own camera trap

Image; Florence & Chris Tudge

As with any picture of an owl, I am instantly drawn to its beautiful and most definite face – few species have such an open and human like face. As with many species it can be that one person loves the same feature that another person finds frightening. Perhaps it is the owl’s face which leads many cultures to fear owls or the thought of this face (and head) turning all the way around as if out of a horror movie…

If you are placing your camera trap in a dark and secluded barn or looking for a barn owl at dusk (their most active time), rest-assured that they can only turn their heads ‘almost all the way around’ – 270 degrees apparently!

Barn own camera trap

Image; Florence & Chris Tudge

 Heart-shaped face

The heart-shaped face of the barn owl is actually an incredible hunting tool. Barn owls use it like a satellite dish to pick up the tiniest of sounds, like a mouse moving under snow, and to direct these sounds to its lopsided ears. If, like me, you think lopsided ears are not a great advantage (especially when wearing glasses!), you would be wrong.

The higher ear captures sound from above while the lower captures sound from below, which allows the barn owl to successfully hunt their small mammal prey in complete darkness and gives them the most accurate hearing of any animal recorded.

It is actually thought to be the loud screeching noise barn owls make that has earned them the affectionate name of ‘demon owl’. However, barn owls also ‘yap and snore’ and actually can’t hoot!

Their piercing eyes may also be an intimidating or alluring feature depending on your point of view. In fact the barn owl’s forward facing eyes detect incredible amounts of light incredibly quickly, meaning they can detect the slightest movement instantly.

Barn own camera trap

Image; Florence & Chris Tudge

 Ghost birds

Another of their names is the ‘ghost bird’ due to their silvery colour and silent flight. The barn owl’s feathers are soft with frilly edges, which doesn’t sound very deadly but means they absorb sound and create one seriously stealthy predator. In fact, military aircraft engineers have even tried to emulate this affect – although I can only assume not by applying soft frilly edging!

Barn owls help humans in other ways. They can effectively rid a farmer’s land of crop-damaging pests. Farmers are increasingly recognising this beneficial relationship and encouraging the birds onto their farms with nest boxes and preserved hedgerows – a win-win solution for owl and farmer.

Yet recent harsh winters have seen barn owls decline in the UK, where they have traditionally been found in every region. They are also threatened by habitat conversion, roads and poisoning by pesticides, particularly rat poison (which is ironic as it is not required when you have a resident barn owl). This pattern of decline has also been seen in other parts of their range; there are thirty subspecies of barn owl and their range covers every continent except Antarctica!

In the UK the RSPB believe there are roughly 4,000 breeding pairs of barn owl and 25,000 individuals which winter in the UK between October and March. However, last year it was feared that numbers had reduced to only 2,000 breeding pairs. Hopefully conservation actions taken by farmers and the general public have helped barn owls over the last year.

You can do your bit by leaving a patch of land to grow wild, providing havens for rodents or by avoiding applying rat poison. Alternatively, you could get advice on placing an appropriate owl box or join your local wildlife trust or many other groups helping conserve barn owls.


If you spot a barn owl please record the sighting with your local environmental record centre. Yorkshire and Suffolk Wildlife Trusts also have dedicated and interactive websites where you can submit sightings.

If you’re a farmer and want to encourage barn owls onto your land, the RSPB provide excellent advice.



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