About the Barn Owl
Ecological role and foraging behaviour
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Barn Owls are specialist birds and highly adapted to suit their ecological role as hunters of small mammals in open habitat and low light conditions. Although small mammals are taken by a wide range of predators including buzzards, kestrels, cats, stoats and weasels (as well as other owls), none of these hunt in the same way as Barn Owls.
Although hunting from perches such as fence posts is frequent, especially in winter, hunting whilst flying is their main method. Typically, the owl will leave its roost site shortly after dusk and fly directly to one of its preferred hunting areas. Hunting usually consists of flying slowly back and forth across a patch of rough grass listening and looking downwards most of the time. When a small mammal is heard the owl hovers overhead concentrating intently on the source of the sound, pinpointing it and waiting for the best possible moment to pounce. The importance of hearing means that the bird is rarely more than three metres above the ground and whilst hovering over prey the owl may pause at about two metres before finally dropping into the grass. The final dive is usually face-first and at the last moment the head is thrown back and replaced by the feet with talons fully out-stretched.
Where suitable perches are available, a "sit and wait" or "post-hunting" method is also used - particularly in winter when energy conservation is important. Occasionally the bird will drop from its perch directly onto prey but more often it will switch to flight-hunting before the pounce. Hunting techniques vary according to habitat, ambient noise level, light levels, and wind. For example when hunting mice over bare ground, such as arable stubbles or sugar beat crops, the owl may see the prey very easily and pounce immediately. Compared to voles, mice are much more likely to see or hear the owl's approach. They are also faster moving and therefore much harder to catch.
In Britain, every Barn Owl's home range is likely to contain a variety of predators that eat small mammals but none of these have an identical diet or hunting method. Although there is a good deal of overlap between species, there's little direct competition because the Barn Owl's ecological role is so unique. Short-eared owls hunt in a similar way but they are migratory and active mainly during daylight. Tawny Owls are mainly woodland birds whereas Barn Owls avoid hunting between closely spaced trees. Kestrels prey on small mammals in open habitats but because they hunt by sight they are restricted to daylight hours and prefer shorter vegetation.
In its ecological role, and in so many other respects, the Barn Owl is unique.