The amazing barn owl : a real farmer’s friend
[The Namibian – 4 June 2009]

Many natural processes really work in favor of people yet so often people do not recognize the value of the process. This is often the case with Barn Owls. These excellent predators of rodents, bats and small birds begin their main breeding season at the end of summer and by May many Barn Owl chicks have hatched and the activity in and around the nest is at its busiest.

Included in the amazing feats of Barn Owls is their sense of parental responsibility; long periods of baby care and non-stop provision of food. This medium-sized bird of prey will lay on average 6 eggs, the known record is 16 eggs, the female will begin incubating the eggs from day 1 and the chicks when they each hatch will have staggered ages of 4 – 7 days between each chick. To look after a brood of different age babies all requiring varying amounts of warmth attention and care is quite a job, but the truly amazing thing is the number of “pest animals” that the barn owl must provide on a nightly basis.

From day 1 through to day 55, about the time when the young Barn Owls leave the nest, each chick will have eaten more than 200 prey items. These prey items which most people term “pests” are most often rats and mice. Multiply the average Barn Owl clutch size of 6 chicks by 200 and the number of prey animals (pests) taken by the owls is 1200 in just two months. Add the amounts needed to sustain the male and female adult birds and the number increases by 300-400 prey animals. Add all the prey together and 1600 individual prey items are taken, in a 2-month nesting period. A good rain year usually becomes a rodent population boom year and Barn Owls will not stop at one clutch of eggs, but will attempt to raise a second sometimes even a third clutch. This will amount to clearing the land of thousands of “pesty” rodents.

Barn Owls are most closely associated with people ad they get their name from the fact that they happily and often move into areas where there is human habitation. It is the nature of animals to live where there is a food resource and around human habitation there is often a lot of food for owls, “pests” to people and favorite food for owls.

Traditionally in many cultures the negative superstition concerning owls, bad luck, illness even death in the area, has a very solid foundation. Our ancestors were not plagued by stupidity, but understood the danger of plague by pest species. Where there are owls there is owl prey, rodents, locusts, bats, seed eating birds and where there are these crops in the field and harvested crops in the granaries (or in a cupboard) can be ruined. No food or spoiled food will result in bad luck, illness even death.

NARREC often sees or hears of unpleasant behavior towards wildlife. In this week a farmer found a Barn Owl nest on his hunting tower. In the nest were chicks and eggs. Without compassion or understanding this farmer killed all but one chick and destroyed the nest. That a farmer does not want natural predators of pest species makes little sense. If the birds do nest in an inappropriate space, then with a little effort and assistance a whole clutch of Barn Owls can be moved (short distances) from the inappropriate nest space to a new site. It is important in this age when the use of chemical pesticides needs to be reduced that owners of land, the custodians of our natural environment understand and support processes on the land.

Liz Komen