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The Barn Owl Trust

Conserving the Barn Owl and its Environment

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About the Barn Owl

Owl identification

Barn Owl portrait Nick Sampford

Barn Owl ID

Barn Owls have buff coloured upper surfaces, white under-parts, a distinctive white heart-shaped face, and when seen in flight the overall impression is usually of a large white bird. Foraging Barn Owls generally fly buoyantly back and forth, "quartering" areas of rough grassland. Barn Owls make a variety of shrieks, hisses and snoring sounds, but they don't hoot (that's the Tawny Owl). Although Barn Owls sometimes nest in hollow trees and may hunt wide forest rides or clearings, they are not woodland birds, prefering more open country. Most reports by the public are of birds seen whilst driving. Although daylight hunting does occur, dusk and dawn are the main peaks of activity.

Report a (UK) Barn Owl sighting or a roost/nest site on-line

Tawny Owl in tree 2

Tawny Owl ID

Tawny Owls are the most common and the most vocal of the five owl species, and together with Long-eared Owls, are the most nocturnal. Their calls "Hooo Hu Huhuhuhooo" and "kewick kewick" are very familiar in Britain (Twit twoo). They are slightly bigger than Barn Owls and vary in colour from dark brown through to pale grey. In a bright car headlight a pale grey Tawny can be confused with a Barn Owl. Tawny Owls are woodland birds that have adapted to live anywhere there are trees: city parks, wooded gardens, hedgerow trees, farm copses and of course dense woodland. In flight, Tawny Owls generally go directly to or from a tree (rather than repeatedly flying back and forth like a Barn Owl).

Little owl perched

Little Owl ID

Little Owls (like Barn Owls) are birds of open country but unlike Barn Owls they always hunt from a perch, typically going directly from a fence post to pick up a food item and returning with their distinctive undulating flight. Compared to Barn or Tawny Owls, Little Owls are very small - roughly half the length, height and wingspan - and very active during daylight. On an overhead wire or fence post a Little Owl appears as a dark grey/brown white-speckled "blob" about the size of two fists. Their repetitive calls may be heard at any time of day or night and include a plaintive "kiew, kiew" and a "wherrow, wherrow" reminiscent of a small dog barking.

Long-eared Owl

Long-Eared Owl ID

Long-eared Owls are medium-sized birds up to 300g in weight with a body length of up to 35cm and a wing span of approximately 95cm. They are mottled brown in colouration with orange/black eyes and prominent ‘ear tufts' though this feathering has nothing to do with their sense of hearing. As breeding birds, they are thinly distributed over much of the British Isles though numbers are augmented in autumn and winter with migrants from northerly climes. They prefer coniferous forest but will nest in any available woodland. Wintering birds may be spotted during the day roosting in quite exposed positions in leafless trees or shrubs. Communal roosting is commonplace in mainland Europe. It is estimated that there are up to 5000 breeding pairs of Long-eared Owls in Britain and Ireland but their activity pattern is extremely nocturnal and most unlikely to be observed. The male's call is a very soft hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, repeated every few seconds.

Short-eared Owl: photo Nick Sampford

Short-Eared Owl

Although similar in size to the Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owls tend to be slightly heavier with a slightly longer winger span. They are also mottled brown in colour but have yellow eyes and ‘ear tufts' that are much smaller and often unapparent. Short-eared Owls are both diurnal and nocturnal (active during the day and at night) and are birds of open countryside, hunting small mammals in rough grassland and frequently marshier habitat, including reed beds and wet upland areas. There are estimated to be around 2000 breeding pairs in the UK though migrants from further north may winter here increasing numbers considerably. As a result, and due to the species' habit of daytime hunting in open habitats, Short-eared Owls are much more frequently encountered than Long-eared Owls.

The Barn Owl Trust is dedicated to conservation & education and does not operate a visitor centre.
Barn Owl Trust staff and volunteers
Waterleat, Ashburton, Devon TQ13 7HU
+44 (0) 1364 653026