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Barn Owls Of The Bahamas

First Published: 1997-05-01

As dark descends over the island it is not unusual to hear a shrill hissing scream from overhead. This eerie sound is call of the Common Barn Owl. So un-birdlike is its call that the unknown presence of a family of Barn Owls has given many old buildings and other roosting sites a reputation for being haunted.

These birds, which are found almost worldwide, are resident in the Bahamas and can be found on all the main islands. It is one of only two owl species still existing in the archipelago. The other is the Burrowing Owl, a diurnal, ground-dwelling species.

Archaelogical sites on New Providence reveal there were three other species of owls in the Bahamas in times past. There were numerous remains of other types of Barn Owls more than twice the size of any living today—standing almost a yard tall! It is thought by some that this large bird gave rise to the stories of the mythical beast found on Andors--—the Chickcharnie.

Barn Owls, being mainly nocturnal birds of prey, are rarely seen during the day. At night, when active in search of food, they are more often heard calling than seen. Their soft plumage is a buffy or rusty brown color above with underparts varying from white to cinnamon. Overall they are a very pale looking long-legged bird about 13-18 inches tall. The legs, which are longer than the tail, are feathered all the way to the feet. The darkest, largest birds are the females, the lighter ones being male.

Barn Owls differ from typical owls in their distinctive heart-shaped face. This facial disc is an adaptation to their nocturnal lifestyle and functions as a dish to capture and focus sound waves to the birds ear thereby making it easier to detect prey. Hunting at night they detect their prey more by sound than by sight. Their eyes are immovable in the sockets so the owl can only see in whatever direction the head is facing. To compensate owls are capable of rotating their heads nearly 270 degrees.

In flight the bird is absolutely silent. The secret of its silent flight is the owl's long, wide wings with soft, fringed feather that allow a smooth airflow over the surface. The result is twofold: the silent flight increases the bird's ability to detect moving prey on the forest floor even in total darkness, and the prey is not aware of the approach of the predator.

Of all the owls in the world, the Barn Owl is the most closely associated with man. Though it prefers open woodlands, fruit groves, grassy fields, and farms, it readily adapts to urban environments, finding suitable homes and nest sites in occupied and abandoned buildings and derelict cars. All of these areas provide a rich source of rayts and mice which are its preferred food. Resident Barn Owls feed on a greater amount of non-rodent material including amphibians, birds, and insects, than a North American owl.

Owls catch their food alive using strong taloned, grasping feet. Their hooked beak allows them to easily tear into the prey. A Barn Owl may consume at least three mice per day or about 11,000 mice over a 10-year life span. This saves a farmer about 130-tons of lost harvest through absolutely free rodent control. Imagine the rodent trapping potential of a single family of five birds. Just in terms of its benefits to agriculture, one can easily see the value of this bird. Farmers should consider it their best friend.

Barn Owls usually nest in natural or man-made cavities, abandoned or little-used buildings, barns, caves, cliffs, trees, and abandoned vehicles. Presumably, pairs of birds remain monogamous as long as they live and they may use sites over again for many years.

Other than selecting a suitable site for the nest, only one real nest is constructed. The base for the eggs if formed from owl castings (disgorged pellets), containing the undigested hair and bones of previous meals, and bird droppings. The female lays clutches averaging 5-7 eggs, one egg every two to three days. She incubates the eggs for a little over a month beginning with the first egg laid and is fed regularly during this period by the male. If conditions are right they will nest for 8-10 months of the year.

Given the clutch size and egg laying schedule, by the time the last egg is laid the first is hatching or about to . Both parents share in the rearing of the downy young. As young birds begin to grow and develop, they become baby sitters for their younger siblings hatching out and will offer portions of food to them. One by one the birds grow up and fly off from the nest at about 7-8 weeks old.

Staff and volunteers at the Bahamas National Trust Rand Nature Centre recently witnessed the development of a brood of four Barn Owls from downy chicks to fledglings. One interesting aspect of their development is that the downy plumage of the chicks, when molted, is replaced by adult plumage. There is no juvenile plumage stage in this species.

The four baby owls were accidentally separated from their parents and brought to the Nature Centre to be cared for. By keeping the family together and minimizing human contact, the young birds grew up as owls. Based on the way they behave now, we do not feel the birds became overly accustomed to humans. Very soon they are scheduled to be released from the Nature Centre and returned to the wild.