Our Barn Owl chicks are now 7 weeks old, and are almost ready to leave the nest. For the past couple of weeks they have been making good progress, developing their flight feathers and learning to feed themselves; now that the parents bring the food to the outside of the box and let the chicks handle it.
Last week I had a bit of a shock when I went to check on the naturewatch cameras to find the nest box apparently empty! The chicks have taken to climbing up to the box entrance and sitting on the porch; waiting for mum and dad to come back with food. I had to frantically check back through the previous nights’ camera footage to make sure that the birds had not been predated, or fallen from the box!
This is not uncommon in these birds, as many will be injured or killed by falls from nest sites when curiosity gets the better of them. They will now spend longer and longer periods outside the safety of the inner chamber and begin exploring the wider environment. At 7 weeks they may be only a week away from their first flight.
Whereas nestling birds of many species do nothing except stay in the nest, beg for food, eat and defecate, nestling Barn Owls ‘play’ like kittens. From three weeks old they have been increasingly mobile and at five weeks they were running, jumping, pouncing, and moving their heads comically from side to side, round and round, even turning their heads upside down!
Last weekend, we asked an official BTO bird ringer to come down to the farm and ring our barn owl chicks. Mike Smith came along last Saturday and I accompanied him whilst the chicks were extracted from the nest box and each was given a unique metal ring bearing a number which can identify where the bird is from and how old it is; this is to assist in the Barn Owl Monitoring Programme, which seeks to understand how the species population is faring. There are an estimated 4,000 pairs across the country; a very low number historically, when considering what a common sight these birds were just 50 years ago.
The metal ring is clasped around the young birds leg using a set of pliers and a record made of the number, where the bird was born and it’s gender; if this can be determined. Of our four chicks, three were confirmed female and the fourth was too small to tell although most likely a male. I learned that the way to identify gender is to look at the breast feathers; brown speckles indicate a female bird. It isn’t always possible to identify if the bird hasn’t developed enough adult plumage at the time of extraction.
It was an enormous privilege to witness the ringing of our Barn Owls, and especially so when I was allowed to ring one of them myself! I was amazed at how docile the chicks were; with the parents out of the box and likely to be roosting close by, we carefully extracted each chick from the box and placed them in cotton bags to keep them calm. I had imagined that we would need protective gloves when handling the chicks, but they were very well-behaved; simply freezing at the rear of the nest box and ‘playing dead’ when picked up!
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have been heavily involved in recording and interpreting what has been happening to British Barn Owls as this species has suffered a massive decline over the past 50 years; now numbers are increasing and the population stabilising (albeit much smaller than historically) thanks to captive breeding initiatives, an increase in the provision of artificial nest sites and better understanding of habitat requirements and ecology.
The mortality rate in Barn Owls is high, with many young birds killed alongside busy roads whilst still in their first year; as they learn to hunt for themselves they are particularly vulnerable. Many more starve to death as they cannot successfully hunt, or they lack the expertise in locating prey. Couple these factors with the inherent shortage of suitable habitat and it paints a bleak picture, but through the measures we have already mentioned things are turning around, and the bird ringing data has been instrumental in building up an accurate picture of mortality and dispersal so that conservation measures can be designed and implemented.
Landscape Management Trainee