Select Page

Thinking of keeping a captive Barn Owl?

Barow captive jesses jenny holden at wot david ramsden220306 a scaled 1 small
  • Origins of captive Barn Owls
  • Barn Owls as pets
  • Ban Owls as ‘falconry’ birds
  • Important considerations
  • Health and veterinary care
  • Unwanted Barn Owls
  • Obtaining a Barn Owl

The owl’s origin does matter

Captive Barn Owls fall broadly into three categories:

  • Birds of wild origin that were injured and are now permanently disabled. These cannot be tamed.
  • Birds bred in captivity that were reared by their parents. These cannot be tamed either.
  • Captive bred birds that are tame because they were hand-reared from the time their eyes opened (imprinted).

Barn Owls as pets

We do not consider that Barn Owls make good pets.

  • Feathers are not designed for stroking – it reduces their natural waterproofing. 
  • Barn Owls have sharp talons and strong feet which can inflict deep puncture wounds and scratches.
  • Keeping Barn Owls indoors can result in your curtains and furniture upholstery streaked with long white droppings and your ornaments knocked over.
  • Barn Owls are naturally most active when hungry so most of the time they are completely inactive.
  • With imprinted Barn Owls the bond between “parent” and owl is never really broken so the owl may never grow out of certain juvenile behaviour such as calling for food. This can become extremely irritating.
  • Imprinted Barn Owls generally treat humans as potential mates or as competitors. As a result they can be very aggressive.
  • During the breeding season, which may extend through most of the year for Barn Owls in captivity, imprinted males can be particularly troublesome and noisy, especially at night.
  • Untamed Barn Owls prefer to stay out of sight and are unlikely to be seen in daylight or at close quarters.
Barow day captive jesses bc bowden id64939 010116 b cropped small

Barn Owls as ‘falconry’ birds

On the whole we do not recommend Barn Owls for training and flying free, and would strongly advise anyone interested in training and flying any bird of prey to seek advice and training from a reputable hawker or falconer.

  • Unlike dogs, which are social animals, Barn Owls have no sense of loyalty and cannot be trained in the same way, nor should you expect them to respond similarly. Even birds which have been flown regularly without a problem, can suddenly fly off never to be seen again.
  • A tame bird associates its human keeper with food. It can be trained to fly free and return to the hand for food, but it will only do so when hungry. This requires regulating the intake of food and very careful monitoring of the bird’s weight.
  • Owls are notoriously difficult to train, partly because, unlike daytime flying (diurnal) birds of prey, they do not have a crop – the food passes directly to the stomach. They feel “full-up” quite quickly and naturally wish to roost to digest the meal, rather than continue flying.
  • If your owl escapes or flies off wearing jesses (leather ankle straps) its leash or creance (a length of chord) is very likely to become entangled resulting in the owl dying slowly whilst hanging by its ankles.
Keeping a captive owl dead escaped captive barn owl

Important considerations

If, after reading the information above, you are still keen on keeping a captive Barn Owl, please consider the following:

  • Accommodation – a large aviary will be required. The expense of construction and long-term maintenance should be considered.
  • Breeding – Barn Owls can breed prolifically in captivity. Unless you have a specific reason for breeding, we strongly advise that you take steps to prevent it by: not keeping a pair, or denying them anywhere to lay eggs, i.e. don’t give them anything to get in, under or behind. Look out for eggs appearing on the aviary floor and remove as necessary.
  • Feeding  a suitable food supply will need to be sourced and sufficient freezer space will be required to store it.
  • Holiday care – it is not always easy to find a suitable person to do this for you – they will need to be able to put out food for the birds, and also be willing and able to deal with any problems which might arise while you are away. It is not advisable to simply provide sufficient food for a few days and leave the birds untended.
  • Licensing – in some circumstances, legal documents may be required.
  • Release – it is illegal to release captive-bred Barn Owls into the wild. An offence is punishable by a fine of £5,000 or 6 months imprisonment, or both per bird released. In any case, a captive-bred Barn Owl that is simply let go is not likely to survive more than a week.
Keeping a captive owl aviary design

Health and veterinary care

It is necessary to inspect captive birds to ensure that they remain healthy. You will need to know how to:

  • Handle them correctly, both for their safety and your own.
  • Check to ensure that they are free from parasites and not underweight.
  • Trim the beak and talons of excess growth.
  • Check the feet, particularly the soles, for signs of bumblefoot, a bacterial infection which can be a persistent problem with captive owls.

Illness in birds is often difficult to detect until it has reached a quite advanced stage. The first sign of trouble is usually a loss of appetite and general disinterest in things. As with most creatures, it is quite likely that owls will need medical treatment at some point in their lives.

Keeping a captive owl a tawny owl with bumblefoot

Unwanted Barn Owls

Captive Barn Owls have a life expectancy of about 20 years and people often find that their circumstances change or that for some reason they no longer wish to keep their Barn Owl. Alternative suitable homes can be very difficult to find. Bird sanctuaries often refuse to take captive bred Barn Owls as they already have as many as they can accommodate. 

Some people are tempted to simply let their birds go: it must be stressed that, quite apart from breaking the law, simply letting a captive-bred bird go is almost certainly condemning it to death by starvation. Most people are appalled by the idea of having a healthy creature destroyed, simply because it is no longer wanted. However this may well be the best option from the bird’s point of view if the alternative is a slow, painful death, or years of misery kept in poor accommodation with inadequate care.

Obtaining a Barn Owl

If, having considered all this information, you are determined to keep a Barn Owl and are able to provide everything it needs for the best possible quality of life in captivity, then you will be wondering how to go about obtaining a bird. Your local RSPCA, wildlife hospital or veterinary surgeon may be willing to put you in touch with local contacts if you are interested in providing accommodation for a disabled or unwanted captive-bred Barn Owl. A UK directory of contacts who take in injured owls (Owl Carers) is available here. If you decide to buy a captive-bred Barn Owl you must ensure that it comes with an Article 10 Certificate. Sound advice and further references on keeping and training birds of prey can be found in Understanding Owls: Biology, Management, Breeding, Training by Jemima Parry-Jones (1998), published by David & Charles – ISBN 978-0715312230.