Have you seen barn owls out and about during the winter months? Although lovely to see, it isn’t usually a good thing.
Barn owls originally evolved in warm, dry climates where food is in abundance all year round. It is unsurprising then, with the cold, wet and often snowy winters that are so characteristic of Scotland, that our barn owls have a particularly hard time during the winter months and are often struggling to find food. RSPB Scotland's Jen Mullen shares some of the challenges these much-loved birds have faced over winter.
Threats barn owls face in winter
Colder weather means less food
As temperatures start to drop in winter, small mammals become less active which means a lot less food is available for barn owls and they need to work extra hard to find it. This often results in the owls being forced to feed during daylight even though they are naturally nocturnal hunters. This lack of food is particularly dangerous for barn owls as they are poorly insulated and therefore need more food in winter, not less, to provide them with enough energy to stay warm.
Wintry weather impacts hunting
Barn owls are known for their incredibly sensitive hearing. Thanks to their heart-shaped face, which helps channel even the tiniest sound into their inner ears, they can capture prey in total darkness. Sadly, winter weather can have a detrimental effect on this incredible skill. Snow cover, heavy rain and wind all mask the tiny noises that the few rodents that are out and about will be making, meaning even owls can’t hear or locate them.
Rain is also a direct problem to barn owls as their feathers are very soft (this helps them achieve near-silent flight allowing them to go undetected by their prey) and not water resistant, making rainy weather less than ideal for hunting.
Risk from road traffic
The above factors force barn owls to change their feeding habits due to desperation. In winter, they are more likely to hunt for prey near roads as it will be easier for the owl to spot prey scurrying along the road side than in a snowy field. There may also be some roadkill on the verge that will make for an easy dinner. The owls will be so focused on catching their prey that they will fly low across the road, making them vulnerable to being hit by oncoming vehicles. This would be less of a problem if the birds are hunting in the evening but other factors are pressuring the birds to hunt during the day, when road traffic will be much busier. The Barn Owl Trust estimates that a staggering 3,000 – 5,000 barn owls are killed each year on UK roads.
Ways to help
While we can’t control the weather, there are some things we can do to help. If putting up a nest box, please make sure it isn’t placed close to any busy roads. If you see a road casualty and it is safe to do so, please stop and report the find to your local wildlife officer and to the Barn Owl Trust. This is extremely helpful in identifying accident black spots and monitoring for environmental hazards and poisons, and potential wildlife crime.
It isn’t all doom and gloom. Barn owls in Caithness were badly affected by the particularly poor winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11 but that population has now recovered. This population is also considered to be the most northerly population of barn owls in the world!
You can find out more about barn owls on our wildlife guides and you can find out more about what to do if you find a dead or injured owl on the Barn Owl Trust website.
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