How To Find And Identify Barn Owl in NJ

By sbarnes October 14, 2014

Barn Owl by Tony Hisgett

By Michael Britt


Introduction Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is a medium-sized owl and the sole member of the family Tytonidae in North America. All other New Jersey owls are members of the family Strigidae. Johnsgard (1988) evaluated twenty-three comparative traits between Tytonidae and Strigidae; in most cases there were differences. According to Bruce (1999), there are fourteen species and twenty-eight subspecies of Barn Owl worldwide. As with the taxonomy of any bird species, there is always debate and almost constant re-evaluations, leading to updates in our avian knowledge base. There are nine subspecies of Barn Owl in North America; Tyto alba pratincola, being the subspecies found in New Jersey. According to Johnsgard (1988) Barn Owls, “are…distinctly tropical to sub-tropical in distribution, their ranges rarely extending more than 40 degrees north or south of the equator.” However, Barn Owls are widespread in temperate regions as well. Barns can be found in most of the United States, although they are very uncommon to rare in parts of New England, the upper Midwest, and the northern plains. This is in part because of harsher winters and in some cases loss of habitat (nest sites, changes in farming practices, etc.). Good populations exist in the mid-Atlantic states, the entire south from east to west, and up along the Pacific coast. The species was introduced to Hawaii in 1958 and is absent from Alaska. Barn Owls undoubtedly benefited from the spread of agriculture in the U.S. From a global perspective, Barn Owls are found throughout Central and South America, throughout Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, parts of south-central and southeast Asia, throughout Australia, and on many islands. It will be interesting to see if Barn Owl extends its range northward with global climate change.

This stunning portrait of a hunting Barn Owl at Wallkill River NWR was captured by Herb Houghton.

This stunning portrait of a hunting Barn Owl at Wallkill River NWR was captured by Herb Houghton.

Barn Owls have been documented nesting during every month in the U.S. This is the case in New Jersey as well but winter nesting is probably only attempted during milder years. Barn Owls in the south can sometimes raise two and more rarely three broods a year, when weather and prey base allow. In New Jersey, one brood is probably the norm, from late spring to summer. Bunn, Warburton, and Wilson (1982) believed that Barn Owl’s natural history started as a cliff dwelling bird. This is probably why these owls have such an affinity for nesting in cavities. Barn Owls are not very picky and will nest in tree hollows, on ledges in vertical mine shafts, or even excavate a burrow. There is a strong affinity however for manmade structures (which may offer better shelter) and this will be looked at below (When and Where to Look). Barn Owls are not very territorial and defend only the immediate nest site. Nesting colonies have been documented in areas with high concentrations of rodents. Katy Duffy (1985) has been banding migrant owls in Cape May for years. Her data shows that both juvenile and adult Barn Owls migrate through the peninsula. Since New Jersey is near the northern extent of the species’ range in the east, these northern birds at least, appear to be short-distance migrants and attempt to escape the coming winter. The timing of the migration is from late September to mid November. Being a “southern species,” Barn Owls may perish during periods of intense cold and heavy snow cover. Barn Owls are chiefly predators of small rodents but will also prey on insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even fish. Cannibalism of nest-mates has been documented by Walker (1993). Barn Owls will hunt considerable distances from the nest site. Walker (1993) found that the birds may disperse up to ten miles from the nest/roost site in the desert and plains of the western U.S. Furthermore, according to Walker (1993), “Circumstantial evidence based on pellet findings in the Coronado Islands shows that these island birds make repeated trips of about ten miles over water, and possibly through fog, which often covers the southern California and Mexican coastlines in May and June.” Walker (1993) found that Barn Owls do not hunt during inclement weather and that their hunting success drops considerably during wet/humid conditions (silent flight may be negated and rodents harder to detect with a dampened ground). On the contrary, Walker (1993) observed that food is stockpiled during favorable conditions. Since Barn Owls are such adept hunters of small rodents, the species is being used throughout the world for integrated pest management. The Barn Owl Box Company (2009) notes that nest box programs have been very successful on vineyards, sugar cane plantations, orchards, vegetable farms, and livestock farms in the United States. There is no reason why a nest box program would not work in New Jersey, if re-implemented and on a wider scale.

Identification Barn Owl (especially the female) is noticeably larger than both Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) and Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus). Not only is the Barn greater in length, weight, and wingspan than these two Asio owl species but it also has relatively wider wings (consult your favorite field guide for measurements). In addition, the Barn Owl’s head is disproportionately wider than its body. Long-eareds and Short-eareds have a more uniform shape, with the head and body being about the same width. All three of these owls hunt mainly by coursing, so long as there is some type of breeze. Of the three, Barn has the least erratic coursing flight, usually following a favored pathway and is generally easy to follow in good low-light binoculars. Long-eared is the most erratic, appearing almost bat-like, when coursing. For this reason and because they have the darkest upperparts, Long-eareds can be quite difficult to follow in the dark. Both Barns and Short-eareds can appear quite pale at a distance in flight and it takes considerable experience with both species to separate the two. When hunting, a Barn’s wingbeats tend to be deep, fluid, and below the horizontal plane; except to hover, ride an updraft, or bank and dive for prey. Meanwhile, Short-eared Owl has a very distinctive method of coursing, where there is a noticeable interval between each wingbeat and this is where the “moth-like” comparison originates. In strong winds this interval disappears and Short-eareds tend to move about quite rapidly. Also, after the down-stroke, Short-eareds bounce their wings well above the horizontal plane. Barn Owl’s upperwing is two-toned tawny and gray. Both Long-eareds and Short-eareds have darker upperwings with buffy primaries (panels) that have dark tips. While Barn Owl has a rather clean underwing (except for some spotting), both Long-eared and Short-eared have a dark carpal comma and dark wingtips. In flight, Barn Owl has the most extensive head projection, the wings appearing well set-back on the body. Even in the dark, a Barn Owl’s heart-shaped, white facial disk stands out and I have found perched birds this way. Both Long-eared and Short-eared Owls have yellow eyes (versus the Barn’s dark eyes) surrounded by dark eye patches. Both Long-eareds and Short-eareds are streaked below, while the Barn is spotted. Female Barns tend to be more heavily spotted than males. Some Barn Owls (more typical of females but there is overlap) are quite buffy in the breast region and this can be seen well in the field, even at night. Male Barns tend to be more ghostly below. All three species will pause and hover low over the vegetation. I have even observed Barn and Short-eared Owl hover-hunt Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) style, from heights of 15-20 feet in windy conditions. I have limited experience with hunting Long-eared Owls but would not be surprised, if they also utilize this behavior. All three species will also fly high, especially to and from hunting areas. The main reason for this in my opinion, is to avoid Great Horned Owls. Since all three species can be found hunting the same open habitat, it is best to get a good look, before making a call. Time of year can help narrow things down but should never be the sole basis for identification! As a breeder, Short-eared Owl is believed to be extirpated (a very rare occasional breeder at best) in New Jersey, so generally will not be encountered from May through early September. Long-eared Owl does breed but in very low numbers, preferring mixed or wet woodlands. From late September through April, all three of these species can occur. Although Long-eareds fly with their ear tufts flattened, one is much more likely to confuse it with a Short-eared and not a Barn Owl.

When and Where to Look While it could be argued that southwestern New Jersey, with its abundant marshes and farmland is the Barn Owl capital of the the state; northeastern New Jersey is the easiest place to find one. The area from the Hackensack Meadowlands, east to the outer boroughs of New York City and south to the Raritan Estuary, is loaded with Barn Owls. Just check the species’ eBird bar chart for confirmation! This area has some extensive marshes, lots of old landfills, still plenty of “brown fields,” and airports to hunt. Not to mention, the urban core has extensive light pollution that makes it much easier to spot birds at night. A couple I know, often went to Menlo Park Mall in Edison at night to watch Barn Owls fly through the lights. Others have mentioned seeing them over car dealerships in New York City and at Giants Stadium. I have observed Barns in the lights at 16th Street Park in Bayonne on several occasions. Lots of gulls fly around at night as well, so be careful.

Barn Owl roost/nesting site in Middlesex County (photo by Michael Britt).

Barn Owl roost/nesting site in Middlesex County (photo by Tom Boyle).

Late summer through November is the best time to look for Barns. With fledging, juvenile dispersal, and migration, there are simply more owls to see. Looking for a bird that prefers to hunt mainly on the wing, is not wise on a calm night. Instead, choose an evening that has a 10-15 mph breeze. On still nights, Barns will do a lot more perch hunting. To see Barn Owls you have to be out in the DARK. Taking notes on one nest site for over ten years now, I have found that Barns usually do not leave the roost site, until 45-50 minutes after sunset. The same approach you use for Short-eared Owl, generally will not work for Barn Owl. This rule of thumb is not absolute however. The stresses of winter or rearing a brood, demand flexibility. At the aforementioned nest site, I have observed the parent birds departing 15 minutes after sunset in mid-late summer to commence hunting. After a heavy snow in early December 2003, I observed five Barn Owls hunting Liberty on the evening of 12/8. Just 8-10 minutes after sunset, the first Barn was coursing over the dredge-spoils site. Before you know it, I observed three Barns hunting the field. I then quickly made my way over to the marsh by the administration building, where a fourth bird was hunting. On my way out, I observed a fifth Barn by the boat launch, flying high towards Liberty from Caven Point. I am not certain if this was an influx, all the resident birds out hunting at once in good light, or a combination of the two? During that same winter, one Barn regularly made its final sweep of the dredge-spoils site, as half the sun’s disc was breaking the horizon over Brooklyn. However, Barns usually return to roost when or just before the chorus of songbirds starts. Probably one of the most effective ways to observe a Barn Owl is to find a large grassy/weedy field in a city. With such limited habitat, you can be sure that the site will get utilized at some point, during the night. In my experience in northeastern New Jersey, Barns seem to favor upland areas versus marshes for hunting. I have only observed Barns hunt over mixed saltmarsh (Spartina and stunted Phragmites) a few times at Liberty and Tremley Point. Urban marshes tend to be disturbed and chock-full of invasive species. I have never observed a Barn Owl hunting over a large monoculture of Phragmites. Most of my observations tend to be over old landfills and brownfields that are usually some combination of Mugwort, cold season grasses, Little Bluestem, and limited Phragmites.  In less disturbed areas, such as along New Jersey’s Atlantic coast and Delaware bayshore, Barn Owls hunt heavily over areas of high marsh, as stretches of Salt-meadow grass and Spike grass (good Meadow Vole habitat) are more prevalent. Large fallow farm fields should also be scrutinized. Barn Owls like to follow lines such as fences, field edges, and drainage ditches. You will also notice that Barns often come from the same direction, this is indicative of a nearby roost or nest site. If I were looking for Barn Owls in rural parts of New Jersey that have plenty of hunting habitat, I would probably start my search by looking for suitable nest sites (old barns & silos, large tree cavities, etc.) or put up nest boxes. When looking for nest sites, please do be mindful of private property. Do not enter suspect structures that could have weak stairs, floors, foundations; contamination, or other hazards. Also, be aware of your surroundings. One night while waiting to see if anything flew out of the old Medical Center in Jersey City, a prostitute walked up to my car. I quickly fled the scene, as to not be mistaken for a “John!” I am happy to say that I never had to go to Keansburg or Brig, just to see a Barn Owl. It is essential to be still and quiet, when attempting to see a creature that has the most acute hearing of all animals. It is said that Barns can hear their prey chewing on vegetation and actually discriminately select prey of a specific size (e.g., juvenile rats, plump voles) using auditory clues. I have had Barns come so close that you can hear them crashing down into the weeds after prey but remember silence is golden. Squeaking works with Barns and they will come in to check you out, albeit briefly. Such things should not be abused or done for any length of time! Barn Owls typically roost in the type of places that they nest. However, they will roost in both coniferous and deciduous trees as well, probably preferring the latter in winter. I once flushed a Barn from a grove of evergreens at Liberty and the species has been found in various types of evergreens in the Hackensack Meadowlands too. As for breeding birds, I have observed or heard of them nesting in the following: an old train tressel on Newark Bay in downtown Bayonne, upstairs in one of the Jersey City Incinerator Authority’s buildings, several active and inactive buildings in the Hackensack Meadowlands, Giants Stadium, Yankee Stadium, the GAF plant in Linden, the tower at the old Keyport Air Marine, a “certain” church steeple, train bridges along the Hackensack River, various locations under the New Jersey Turnpike, old munitions sheds along the lower Raritan, derelict buildings on Ellis Island, in the old CRRNJ terminal at Liberty, and the derelict waterfront structure behind the Tropicana plant in Jersey City to name a few. With some of these locations, it is quite evident that Barn Owls are highly tolerable of noise. Barn Owls do exhibit strong site fidelity, however it is important to consider the following two quotes. Taylor (1994) states that, “65-75% of Barn Owls in north temperate regions die in their first year before reaching breeding age.” According to Keran (1981), “Most individuals have a short life span; mean age at death of 572 Barn Owls banded across North America and reported to the Bird Banding Laboratory was 20.9 mo.” This means that the aforementioned nesting sites are being reoccupied by new birds every couple of years.

Former nest site in Keyport, NJ.  A combination of old industrial buildings and nearby foraging habitat made this a suitable location for Barn Owls (photo by Pete Bacinski).

Former nest site in Keyport, NJ. A combination of old industrial buildings and nearby foraging habitat made this a suitable location for Barn Owls (photo by Pete Bacinski).

Agonistic Interactions

I have observed Barn Owl interact with other raptors on a handful or so occasions. On 12/08/03, a Norther Harrier (Circus cyaneus) coming to roost in the dredge-spoils site at Liberty chased and dive-bombed a hunting Barn Owl, causing it to briefly perch low or on the ground. Before dawn on the morning of 1/8/04, a wintering Short-eared Owl aggressively interacted with a Barn Owl, over the dredge-spoils site. The Short-eared came very close to or may have actually made contact. On 1/11/04, I observed the same Barn Owl hunting the dredge-spoils site at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. A Northern Harrier quickly emerged from the field and chased the Barn, which retreated to a dense grove of deciduous trees. When the Harrier was far enough away, the Barn slipped out of the grove and left the field.

At dusk on 11/17/08 in the Hackensack Meadowlands, a coursing Barn Owl briefly perched on a pole, until one of the wintering Short-eared Owls dive-bombed it and drove it out of the area. At this same site on 12/17/08, a Short-eared Owl again started chasing a Barn Owl. However, for the first time I actually watched a Barn turn the tables and chase the initiator around a bit. This next scenario is more circumstantial. On 10/7/11, I observed a single Barn Owl at the Ocean Terminal. Ultimately, two Barns took up residence and were roosting together in a young, swampy grove of deciduous trees. At night they flew across the way to hunt the Bayonne Golf Club. On the evening of 11/3/11 however, a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) was observed perched in an adjacent treeline. Only a single Barn was observed that evening and not until one hour and fourteen minutes after sunset, the latest I have ever seen a Barn leave roost! That was the last time I saw Barn Owls at the site for the rest of the fall through winter. Whether they were displaced or consumed remains a mystery.

Barn Owl chicks from a bridge nesting site in Monmouth County (photo: NJA archives).

Barn Owl chicks from a bridge nesting site in Monmouth County (photo: NJA archives).

Most Memorable Barn Owl Encounters

My life Barn Owls (circa 1994) were a nesting pair (shown to me by an early mentor, Chris Hayduk) in an abandoned building at the end of the Ocean Terminal in Bayonne. While every Barn Owl experience is memorable, the following are perhaps the top three. One summer day in 1995, I was leaving “The Millions” (160 acres of landfill that the Bayonne Golf Club now sits on) at dusk, when I noticed a Barn Owl coursing over the Mugwort. The owl perched on the edge of a factory, so I rode my bike towards it for a closer look. The Barn started bobbing and weaving its head (to gain depth perception), as I approached. The owl then dropped of the building into a glide and started circling at a height of about 20 feet. Suddenly, it started dive-bombing me and I had to hit the ground several times to avoid being raked. This account could have very easily went into the previous section and I have no doubt that this was a territorial dispute. On 08/08/03, I was observing a Barn Owl nest site that has been active for decades. Three young Barns were sitting on the edge of the nest site, emitting the food-begging call (soup-slurp). I could tell when the parents were getting close because the call would suddenly become more incessant. The parent owls made three prey drop-offs (two Norway Rats, one smaller rodent) during my visit. Each time the young birds would converge on the parent bird in a frantic squabble and the victor would fly away with the prize to a nearby perch to eat in peace. Seeing a hungry Barn Owl run to claim a rodent dinner is quite a sight! Finally, a friend and I had a “Nine Barn Owl Night” on 8/14/06. We started with a single Barn hunting Liberty at dusk. Next, a family group of seven Barns was observed at a historic site in the Hackensack Meadowlands. We ended, watching a single Barn master the wind, as it coursed over the old PJP landfill under the Pulaski Skyway. Apply what you learned in this article and you will undoubtedly build your own memorable Barn Owl encounters. Perhaps one day you will catch up to the 109 submissions I currently have for the species in eBird (plus the many others before I started keeping notes)! Happy hunting.


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Acknowledgements I would like to thank Tom Boyle, Scott Barnes, Rick Radis, Marshall Iliff, Chris Wood, Mike Hiotis, and Frank Sencher for helpful references, comments, and suggestions. Mike Britt