With their distinctive heart-shaped faces and rich golden feathers, barn owls possess an allure that captures the human imagination. But beyond their mystical appearance lies an intelligent, resourceful owl with a unique personality.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to what a barn owl’s personality and behaviors are like: Barn owls have a complex range of vocalizations and facial expressions to communicate. They are fiercely protective parents but otherwise usually tolerant of humans.

Extremely efficient hunters, barn owls can catch prey in total darkness thanks to their amazing hearing.

In this comprehensive guide, we will uncover what decades of research and observation can teach us about the barn owl’s habits, quirks, and behaviors that hint at an inner life we are only beginning to understand.

Complex Vocalizations Reveal an Expressive Nature

Screeches, Hisses, and Snores

Barn owls possess an impressive vocal repertoire, using various calls to communicate different messages. From the chilling screeches they emit while defending their nests to the snore-like sounds made among mates, barn owls reveal an expressive nature through complex vocalizations (DeBenedictis, 2020).

Their screeches, often heard at night near nesting sites, may deter potential predators or proclaim territory. The eerie hisses signal aggression toward intruders. And the rhythmic snoring signals contentment between paired owls.

Regional ‘Accents’

Intriguingly, differences can be detected among barn owl populations in various regions. A 2022 study analyzing recordings found distinct regional “accents” in screech calls based on rhythm, pitch, and frequency patterns.

Just as human regional dialects have distinctive features, so too do barn owl calls vary across their global range in ways likely linked to localized environments and genetics (Huetz et al., 2022).

Communicating with Nestlings

Barn owl parents use an affectionate “purring” call to communicate with helpless nestlings waiting to be fed in dark nesting cavities. As the owlets grow, parents emit loud hissing and screams during nest provisioning, perhaps to overcome poor visibility while maneuvering in tight spaces or to control amount of food nestlings receive (Bunn et al., 1982).

The nest environment shapes complex communication behaviors essential for raising young.

Barn Owl Vocalization Type Distinctive Features Functions
Screeches Loud, raspy screams lasting up to 3 seconds Territory defense, predator deterrence
Hisses Prolonged, hoarse hissing Aggression against intruders
Snores Rhythmic snorting sounds made repeatedly Communication between mated pairs

The Fiercely Protective Barn Owl Parent

Selecting Nest Sites

When it comes to selecting a prime nesting spot, barn owls are true real estate aficionados! They scout for abandoned buildings, barns, silos, nest boxes, and hollow trees that provide safe, peaceful sanctuaries to raise their young.

Unlike noisy songbirds, these silent hunters avoid areas near busy roads or housing developments. A 2013 study by the Barn Owl Trust found the two most important factors influencing nest site selection were isolation and limited human disturbance.

Once they’ve found the perfect quiet corner, the female lines the nest with regurgitated pellets and feathers. Interestingly, one study discovered that the bigger the nest, the greater the number of offspring. It seems female owls are excellent judges of nursery capacity!

Raising Hatchlings as a Mated Pair

While the female sits dutifully on the eggs, the male assumes the role of primary hunter, often bringing his mate an average of 3-5 mice or voles each night. Now that’s devotion! After about a month-long incubation, the eggs hatch asynchronously, which means the owlets emerge over a period of several days.

This size disparity establishes a natural “pecking order”, as the bigger chicks often outcompete their younger siblings for food. To ensure each mouth gets fed, the parents tear up prey items into tiny bits to distribute equally among the brood. Talk about meticulous parenting!

For their first week, the helpless young rely completely on their parents for warmth, protection, and nourishment. While mom stays vigilant at the nest, dad keeps working overtime to provide enough mice and voles to meet the growing appetites.

At around 2 weeks old, the owlets take their first steps out of the nest and start awkwardly flapping their wings. As their flying and hunting skills improve over the next several weeks, the parents gradually wean them off free food service.

By the time they fledge at around 7-8 weeks old, the juveniles are ready to head off on their own, thanks to the patient parenting and bountiful banquets they received in the nest.

Defense of Nest Against Intruders

Though normally calm and peaceful, barn owls become ferocious fighters when defending their turf. Several ornithology studies have described nesting owls fearlessly diving at human observers, talons extended, if they stray too close to an active nest site.

This behavior likely evolved to deter potential egg or chick predators like minks, raccoons, snakes, and feral cats. One particularly memorable account describes an angry mama barn owl drawing blood from the scalp of a biologist examining her nest box!

Beyond dealing out defensive wounds, barn owls have a surprisingly wide repertoire of alarm calls they use to deter intruders. The sharp barking “kreet kreet” warns interlopers to back off, while drawn out screeching seems to signal serious trouble and provoke mobbing behavior from the mate.

Sibilant “seeeeth” calls recruit older fledglings to join in driving away the threat. With these blaring sirens and dive bombing patrols, barn owls make it crystal clear trespassers will be dealt with harshly!

Clearly when it comes to parenting, the normally mild-mannered barn owl is fiercely protective of its offspring.

Stealthy Hunters Perfectly Adapted to Nocturnal Hunting

Specialised Hearing and Flight Allows Hunting in Complete Darkness

Barn owls have several adaptations that allow them to be effective nocturnal predators. Their dish-shaped face collects and amplifies sounds in order to precisely locate prey in pitch black conditions. Barn owls can hear a mouse moving in grass from over 50 feet away (Audubon).

Another adaption is their near-silent flight, enabled by soft feathers that dampen noise. By flying slowly and listening carefully, barn owls can hunt by sound alone in complete darkness. Their light body weight compared to wing size gives them exceptional manoeuvrability to grab prey undetected.

Barn Owls Consume Over 1,000 Rodents Per Year

A barn owl family with 6 chicks devours over 4,000 rodents per year. Adult barn owls eat about 3-4 small mammals per night on average. Their speed and agility make them formidable hunters – able to snatch a mouse in under a second once prey movement is detected (Owlcation).

Common prey includes voles, mice, rats, shrews, bats, and other small mammals. Due to their voracious appetite for rodents that damage crops or spread disease, barn owls provide valuable ecosystem services to humans.

The ‘Silent Flight’ of Barn Owls

A key hunting adaptation is the barn owl’s near-silent flight, which allows them to approach prey undetected. The front edges of their wings feature soft fringes that dampen airflow, while the fluffy upper body feathers further muffle wing beats.

By flying slowly and calmly, barn owls can hunt precisely using only auditory cues. Even at close distances, the noise made by their wings remains very faint. This allows barn owls to precision-strike prey from odd angles without being noticed.

Barn Owls Living in Close Proximity to Humans

Roosting and Nesting in Barns and Silos

Barn owls are quite tolerant of human presence and will readily roost and nest in barns, abandoned buildings, silos, and other structures. Their preference for nesting in cavities high off the ground originally made barns and silos quite suitable.

As agricultural practices have changed and fewer classic barns remain on the landscape, barn owls have adapted by using other manmade structures.

Barn owls mostly hunt over open habitats like fields, meadows, and marshes. Nesting in barns near these ideal hunting grounds provides barn owls with a formidable habitat edge. Access to rodents around barns gives barn owls an ample prey base.

Structures like barns and silos mimic the rocky crevices and tree cavities that barn owls use for nesting in natural settings.

Reactions to Encroaching Urban Areas

Barn owls show mixed reactions as urban and suburban areas expand into their rural habitats. Some barn owls have adapted to city life, nesting on building ledges and hunting in urban parks and gardens.

But most barn owls shy away from heavily populated areas with bright night lighting and loud noises.

Studies have found reduced breeding success for urban barn owl populations. The combination of fewer nest cavities, increased disturbances, and scarcer prey creates challenges. Urban areas also increase risks of barn owls being hit by vehicles.

Overall, barn owls fare best in quiet rural settings or at the edges of developed areas.

Success of Nest Box Conservation Projects

To boost barn owl populations, conservation groups and agencies have initiated nest box programs across North America and Europe. These projects provide artificial nesting sites in areas of suitable habitat but limited natural cavities.

Using nest boxes has proven an effective way to increase barn owl reproduction and allow research into their breeding ecology.

For example, one study in Oklahoma found significantly higher nesting rates in areas with nest boxes versus natural sites. Nest boxes must be regularly maintained and monitored for best results. While not a panacea, nest boxes provide helpful refuge in the face of dwindling natural nest sites.

Threats Facing the Barn Owl Population

Declining Habitat Forces Relocation

The majestic barn owl is facing major threats as human development encroaches on its natural habitat. According to Audubon, the loss of old barns, hollow trees, and other sheltered spots for nesting has forced barn owls to relocate.

Since 1970, the barn owl population in the American Midwest has declined by 66%. Without sufficient places to nest and raise their young, barn owls may continue to disappear from areas they once called home.

Barn owls thrive in open and varied habitats like farmland, grasslands, and along forest edges. As these areas are lost to urban sprawl and development, the owls are pushed out. And finding new nesting sites can be tricky – barn owls are very selective about appropriate real estate.

They need enclosed, dark spaces with available rafters or cavities high off the ground. The decline of old wooden barns and hollow trees has severely limited options. Conservation groups like The Barn Owl Trust are working to provide more suitable artificial nesting boxes, but habitat loss remains an ongoing threat.

Increased Vehicle Strikes

Another major danger to barn owls comes from vehicles. Barn owls have a low flight pattern, often hunting only a few feet off the ground. This habit frequently brings them into the path of cars and trucks. One study found vehicle collisions accounted for 43% of barn owl deaths in parts of England.

Roads bisecting the open habitats favored by barn owls pose a constant hazard.

Owl-vehicle encounters spike in the fall and winter months, likely due to the owls’ increased hunting activity and movements during breeding season. Young fledglings learning to fly are also extremely vulnerable.

Conservationists have tried measures like warning signs and reflectors to alert drivers, but reduced speed limits in high risk areas may be the best solution. Without changes, many more magnificent barn owls will fall victim to vehicle strikes.

Climate Change and Extreme Weather

Though barn owls are well equipped to endure cold winters and snow with their thick plumage, climate change may bring new threats. More frequent extreme weather events like heavy rainstorms, flooding, and drought can negatively impact barn owls in several ways.

Heavy downpours and rising water can flood grasslands and destroy nests in hollow trees or burrows. Barn owls don’t build their own nests, instead relying on existing cavities, so flooding is especially destructive.

Drought and reduced rainfall shrink wetlands and fields, reducing the small rodents and insects barn owls depend on. And spring storms and cold snaps can be deadly for young owlets unable to thermoregulate.

Scientists predict barn owls will need to shift their range northward in response to a warming climate.

On top of these direct effects, climate change may also exacerbate other threats like habitat loss. There’s much still unknown about how barn owls will adapt, but conservationists agree minimizing other dangers gives them the best chance in an uncertain future.


Beyond the otherworldly appearance, barn owls reveal charming behaviors from vocal duets between mates to earnest cooing at their hatchlings. We find an impassioned parent, a cunning hunter, and a tolerant neighbor living alongside humans.

While barn owls face escalating threats, increased conservation efforts focused on this species offer hope. As we come to better understand the barn owl and its place in local ecosystems, we more fully appreciate the wonder of its unique personality that has captivated people for millennia.

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