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Stealthy Hunters in the Night: Barn Owls in West Texas

photograph by Eric Bell A barn owl roosting in the rafters of a farm building in Dell City.

They're perhaps the most efficient hunters in West Texas. Searching and striking in silence, they can hunt on the darkest of nights, with stunning precision.

To some, barn owls are spooky. But they play a helpful role in the ecology of West Texas. Weight-for-weight, they consume more rodents than any other creature.

Barn owls are modest in size, typically a foot in length, with a wingspan of about 3 feet. But their appearance is unmistakable. The owl has a white, heart-shaped face. Large, black eye-slits interrupt the pale mask, and the feathers above the bird's bill resemble a nose.

Barn owls are the most widely distributed owl. They're found on every continent but Antarctica. And the owls are at home on the Llano Estacado and the lower elevations of the Trans-Pecos.

Stealth is the key to the owl's survival. While hunting at night, or at dawn or dusk, they don't make a sound when they fly.

Michael Nickell is museum scientist at the Sibley Nature Center.

“The structure of the feathers – it's very soft,” Nickell said, “but the leading edge has these little barbs, and the trailing edge is very wispy and kind of jagged. What that does is is it helps reduce turbulence. That basically muffles any sound. So they are silent fliers.”

Like other owls, barn owls rely on their hearing – they can hunt by sound alone. One ear is higher than the other, which allows the raptor to locate sound with precision. The barn owl's round facial disc funnels sound to the ears.

“So they have the amazing ability to hear even the slightest of rustling noises even on the darkest of nights and locate prey,” Nickell said.

In West Texas, that prey includes bats, lizards, insects and other birds. But the main meal is rodents. Sometimes, they're better at controlling rodent populations than humans are with poison.

“They are some of the best hunters of all the owls,” Nickell said. “You could make the argument that they are the farmer's best ally.”

Barn owls hunt in open areas and forest edges, and they roost near feeding grounds. A breeding pair establishes and patrols its territory. As their name suggests, the owls will roost in old barns – but also on the ledges of buildings and cliffs, and in hollow places in trees. They keep multiple roosting places, where they will rest during daylight hours, and pause at night between hunts.

Barn owls mate for life. As with other birds of prey, the male makes a ritual presentation of food as part of courtship.

The female cares for the young in the first days after their birth, so the male must hunt for himself, his mate and the young. As they mature to fledglings, the female teaches the owlets to hunt.

Despite the owl's hunting prowess, starvation is the most significant threat to both mature birds and owlets. It's estimated that two-thirds of young owls die before reaching maturity – mostly for lack of food.

When the hunting is good, barn owls will cache food, stowing carcasses in their roosts.

“You've got to get the food when it's there,” Nickell said, “because you don't know if there's going to be a meal the next day. So they have the ability – 'Well, I've got this extra rodent, I'm not really hungry right now, or the kids aren't hungry this second, so I'll stick it here and just let it wait for a while to be on hand when we're ready for it.'”

Barn owls are unique in classification – their own family of owls. Their legs are longer, and, unlike other owls, their tails are square. And – they don't hoot.

“They just have absolutely blood-curdling screeches once they feel the least bit threatened,” Nickell said. “They'll make clacking noises with their beaks and hiss and bob and shake their heads from side to side, and make these screeching noises.”

Stealthy, ghostlike in appearance, with piercing cries, barn owls have been given dark nicknames. They've been called “Ghost Owls,” “Demon Owls” and “Death Owls.”

But for West Texans, they're welcome neighbors.