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Halloween Barn Owls

Knockhatch Blog

Halloween Barn Owls

Knockhatch Blog

Hi guys,

With Halloween coming up we thought we thought we’d chat about one of our spookier animals here at Knockhatch, the barn owl

The British barn owl is probably our most iconic native owl, they are immediately identifiable by their white frontal plumage, and heart shaped face and their graceful flight. Barn owls have not always been viewed as favourably as they are today. In British folk law the barn owl has gone by many names such as the ghost owl, corpse bird and the night hag, judging by these names it’s easy to see that the barn owl was not very popular, this is largely thought to be due to the barn owls nocturnal habits and their preference for nesting in sacred or spooky settings such as churches, graveyards, castles and derelict buildings.

It must be said that the barn owl does have some slightly eerie vocalisations (particularly when heard at night) rather than hooting, barn owls tend to let a loud and piercing screech, this screech may be linked (alongside foxes) to tales of banshees and wailing spirits. Some of the barn owl’s adaptations have also been thought to contribute to their bad reputation; one of the most iconic features of the barn owl is their heart shaped face. This facial disk serves a valuable purpose as it channels sound towards the ears and gives the barn owl a fantastic sense of hearing. Another adaptation that is essential to the barn owl is its ability to fly silently, due to serrations on the feather edges and small gaps between the feathers which allows air to past through without any resistance, creating silent flight. This allows them to hunt small rodents whose hearing is finely tuned to even the stealthiest of predators. However both of these adaptations have contributed towards the barn owl’s ghostly reputation. When viewed flying the barn owl appears to float silently above dark fields (and sometimes graveyards), their large black eyes set against the white facial disk which has been thought to resemble a skull. In fact if you were to picture the iconic cartoon image of a ghost, you can see how the barn owl shares some striking similarities.

All of this combined led to the barn owl being attributed to all manner of evils. The most common myth about the barn owl was that it heralds the coming of death, it was thought that the screech of a barn owl heard near a house was an omen of death, this myth, so widespread at the time it features in many of Shakespeare’s plays such as Macbeth, Henry VI and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to name but a few. Another common superstition at the time was that a barn owl flying over a farmer’s fields (not uncommon considering the barn owls preferred habitat) was a sign of a bad harvest. Due to their negative press barn owls unfortunately faced heavy persecution, it was generally thought that the best way to protect yourself from the omens of the barn owls was to kill them, one such method was to hang the body of a barn owl from a barn or house to ward off evil and doom. This practise lasted right up to the end of the 19th century.

Today we know that barn owls are not bad omens or evil, in fact they are vital parts of our ecosystem. We know for example that rather than being signs of a poor harvest they are actually incredibly beneficial to farmers as a natural form of pest control, over the course of a year a pair of barn owls and their offspring can eat up to 4,000 prey items (the majority of them rodents). Barn owls serve as an incredibly important part of our ecology as they keep the rodent population in check. Unfortunately while attitudes to the barn owls have changed, so have the challenges facing them and they face greater pressures than ever. With the changes to our farming practises reducing prey availability, habitat destruction and fragmentation, the destruction of our hedgerows (a vital feeding ground for barn owls), road traffic collisions and the use of rodent poisons, these days the scariest thing about barn owls is their declining population. However there are things that you guys can do to help the barn owl, with an estimated 70-80% of barn owls using barn owl boxes for nests, putting one up can be hugely beneficial. Avoiding the use of rodent poisons can also greatly reduce the risk of indirectly impacting not only barn owls but other native predatory birds. Lastly, maintaining and revitalising our lost hedgerows and rewilding barn owl habitats can be hugely beneficial. With these continued efforts, hopefully one day our native barn owls could become a common sight in our night time skies again.

If you’d like to see our barn owls we have three; two British barn owl hatchlings and Pippin our Ashy Faced Owl, they can be found up by the owl sanctuary and will usually be flying in the 13:30 or 15:00 display.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and we look forward to seeing you all around the park this Halloween.

Ben Anderson