Identifying the owl
When you find a young owl, it is very important to identify the species. The correct course of action to take depends entirely on which species of owl you are dealing with. Please compare the owl you’ve found to the photographs below.
Please see Owlet identification and ageing for full details.
The rest of this page contains information which must only be used when dealing with nestling or fledgling Barn Owls. If the eyelid edges are vivid pink and not black/brown you have a young Tawny Owl and you need to look at What to do if you find a young Tawny Owl.
A quick guide to young Barn Owls
- It is very important to note or find out exactly where the owlet was picked up.
- It is not normal for young Barn Owls to be out of the nest before they can fly. Leaving them well alone is usually not the best thing to do.
- Adult Barn Owls will normally only feed their nestlings in the nest. Owlets on the ground will usually be ignored and will almost certainly die.
- Owlets that are too young to fly must be placed back in the nest.
- The owlet will not be rejected by its parents because it’s been handled by humans – they have very little sense of smell.
- Hand rearing the owlet and releasing it later is not the best thing for it.
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is an offence to wilfully disturb nesting Barn Owls whilst at or near the nest or to remove/damage/disturb nests, eggs or young at the nest. Getting up to an occupied nest and looking into it or doing anything else to it requires a licence issued by your Country Agency*. However, the Country Agencies are most unlikely to require anyone who returns an owlet to its nest on a single occasion to possess a licence. If repeated visits to the nest are required you should apply to your Country Agency for a nest inspection licence as soon as possible. Please see Licences to disturb nesting Barn Owls for further information.
*Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
Healthy young Barn Owls
Young Barn Owls are normally in the nest right up until they are ready to fly at around 9 weeks old. Barn Owls do not generally feed their young anywhere else. So long as one or more young remain in the nest that is where the adults deliver virtually all the food they bring in. Adults will normally only feed young on the ground below if the entire brood has fallen. Individual young ones that have fallen from the nest are usually ignored and die.
Therefore, if a young Barn Owl is fit and healthy, it must always be returned to the nest unless there is a very good reason for not doing so. You will need to find the exact nest position and make a quick visual assessment of the nest contents. If there is a purpose-made owl nestbox at the site do not simply assume that the current nest is in it. Similarly, if an adult is in, or flies out of, a particular cavity don’t assume that this is the nest cavity. You must check to ensure you have located the actual nest. If you place the owlet somewhere other than in its original hatching place it is unlikely to be fed by the adults and will probably die. It is vital that the owlet is placed exactly where it hatched.
How to check the condition of a young Barn Owl
If you are in any doubt as to whether the owlet you have found is fit and healthy, you should attempt to check it over. The following is a brief guide only. Please see checking the owl’s condition for more detail. Please consider the following, before you get started:
- A smaller owlet can be checked single-handed, but if it’s bigger than a man’s fist you should consider getting a helper to hold its feet.
- Although an owlet’s beak looks quite powerful, a peck is unlikely to cause much damage.
- An owl’s feet can clench powerfully and the talons are sharp so you should keep the feet pointing away from you and avoid contact with bare skin.
- You and any helper should wear thin leather gloves unless the owlet is exceptionally frisky or large in which case more substantial leather gloves may be needed.
Gaining information about the finding circumstances will help you decide the best course of action.
Firstly, where was the owl when it was first seen? Was it found directly below the nest? Did it fall onto loose straw/vegetation or a concrete floor? Do its wing feathers look long enough to have partly broken its fall? What has the weather been like? Prolonged rain may mean the adults have been unable to hunt – in this case the owlet is more likely to be starved. Was it found outdoors? Is the owlet soaked to the skin? What bodily position was the owl in when it was found and what is its position now? If it is standing, crouching or lying on its front with its feet tucked neatly underneath, it is probably fine. Lying on its side or back is not a good sign, unless you have just put it down in which case it should right itself shortly. If the owlet is alert and makes a long drawn-out defensive hiss or a bill-snapping sound this is a good sign. An owlet that plays dead may be perfectly OK but it may not be. If the owlet does a large watery dropping this suggests it has eaten recently which is a good sign. If you have kept it in a box for a while and find it has produced a pellet this is also a good sign.
Lay the owlet on its back, on the palm of one hand, with its feet pointing away from you, the back of its head resting on your wrist, and its legs and wing tips encircled by your thumb and index finger. Do this firmly but gently, so the owlet cannot escape by wriggling, or hurt you with its feet. With your other hand, move your fingertips slowly and lightly onto its chest and feel its breastbone (the raised bony ridge running down the middle). Either side of the breastbone, feel the flesh (wing muscles). How far does the breastbone stick up above the muscles on either side? A few millimetres is normal, more than 5-6 mm suggests that the owl has been underfed for a significant period. Run the tips of your fingers right down the breastbone and lightly onto the stomach. Does it feel like an empty hollow of loose skin or can you feel a solid lump? Does the owl’s skin feel warm or cold? Still with the owlet on its back and using your free hand, spread the wings alternately comparing their appearance and movement, gently move each leg in turn (be aware of the feet) and compare. It’s normal for small owlets to have slightly blue-looking eyes whereas larger owlets have large dark eyes. At all stages both eyes should look identical.
What to do next
- If the breastbone is only slightly protruding, something can be felt in the stomach, the wings both retract in the same way, the legs both move OK, the eyes look the same, and there’s no obvious injury then the owl is almost certainly fine and should be returned to the nest as soon as possible. In cases where the owlet is fit but the nest really is impossible to reach you should seek help to locate someone locally involved in monitoring nest sites so they can foster it in to a similarly-aged brood at a different site.
- If one of the wings, legs, or eyes is definitely not the same as the other then the owl needs to be checked over by a vet or experienced wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible.
- If the owlet is severely emaciated, it may need to be tube fed by an experienced person and then hand fed for a week or two before being returned to the nest. After a delay, returning to the nest is still advisable provided that the owlet is not fully fledged and there are still other unfledged young in the nest. It is an offence to keep a wild bird unless your sole intention is to return it to the wild and it is an offence to do anything that results in the bird being un-releasable. You must not keep and hand rear a single wild owlet otherwise it will become too tame to be released and you will have broken the law. Owlets that for some valid reason cannot be returned to the nest whilst they are still at least partially fluffy and within two weeks of finding, should almost always be passed to an experienced rehabilitator.
- If the owl has a solid mass in its stomach, don’t try feeding it.
- If its stomach feels empty but it has plenty of breast muscle, or has produced a pellet or a big watery white and/or black dropping don’t worry too much about feeding it.
- If its stomach is empty and it’s a bit thin on the chest and shows no sign of having eaten recently or produces a small greenish dropping, you should consider feeding it.
- In emergencies it’s OK to use raw poultry meat or raw lean beef, but not lamb or pork.
- Do not give pure lean meat without roughage, such as fur or feathers, for more than two days at a time and never give bone without roughage.
- Never use cooked meat, canned pet food, or any non-meat food, unless prescribed by a vet.
The ideal food is dead mice or poultry chicks, available frozen from pet shops, and thoroughly defrosted before use. A typical owlet should consume 2-3 day-old chicks or 4-5 mice per 24 hours. An owlet is unlikely to recognise white mice or yellow chicks as food straight away, whereas grey-brown food items may be readily eaten. Unnaturally coloured food items should be cut up (scissors are often best) and placed on a piece of wood in the box close to the owlet, half-matchbox sized pieces are OK. Although owlets can swallow surprisingly large items whole, the inexperienced carer should only place small items in the bill (thumbnail-sized pieces are OK for this) and wait patiently for the owlet to swallow rather than try and push the food down. Once a few bits have been swallowed the owlet should be left in peace and may well start to pick up and swallow the larger food pieces by itself. Please see feeding owls for more detailed information.
Finding the nest
Once it has been established that the owlet is fit and healthy, you will need to find the nest as soon as possible. You are likely to need a ladder for this. Before putting a ladder up, have a good look at where you think the nest entrance may be perhaps using a good torch and/or a pair of binoculars if appropriate. At the entrance there may be tell-tale large, white, bird droppings. There may also be tiny bits of white fluff that have come from the owlets, but you will only see these at close quarters. The nest may not be obvious and you may need to search for it for a while. If you can’t see a nest entrance from inside a building try looking around the outside. When your nose is within a few feet of the nest you’ll almost certainly be aware of a strong ammonia-type smell. Some cavities are impossible to see into but the smell often gives away the nest position. If the owlet you have is well-grown, well-feathered with little fluff, and very mobile, you may want to take a chance and place it at the entrance to the cavity or ledge where you think the nest is. However, if it’s small and/or still very fluffy this is not good enough – you must be sure you are looking at the actual nest entrance and place it just inside.
What does a nest look like? – The types of places Barn Owls nest
Barn Owls do not build a nest as such, but they do need somewhere dry and level to lay their eggs. The majority of recorded nests in the UK are now in purpose-made nestboxes located in farm buildings, trees, barn conversions, or on poles. Barn Owl nests are often situated in or close to human habitation. A very wide selection of nest site types has been recorded including, but not limited to:
- Wall tops.
- Cavities in walls or bale stacks.
- Old water tanks.
- Air ducts.
- Hollow tree trunks.
- Cavities in trees or rocks.
Obviously the nest will only be found somewhere the adult owls can get into. The minimum hole size a fully grown Barn Owl will land on and pass through is only 70 x 70mm and they can get through a vertical or horizontal slot only 65mm wide. The width of the ledge or cavity containing the nest may be as little as 200mm. Nests are usually at least 3 metres above the ground and may contain other owlets and uneaten or partly-eaten food items such as voles or mice. Barn Owls usually lay their eggs on a layer of “pellet debris”. Pellets are the indigestible part of the diet, mainly the hair of prey items, that have been regurgitated. Individual pellets are usually black-grey in colour and vary from thumbnail to whole-thumb sized. Even where the eggs were laid directly onto some other surface, by the time the young are well-grown, a mat of compressed pellet debris at least the size of a dinner plate will have accumulated.
Once you have found the nest
When you get close to the nest be aware that an owl may fly out – don’t let go of the ladder! From mid-summer onward there is a small chance that you may accidentally disturb an adult sitting on newly laid eggs (their second clutch). If this happens you should ascertain as fast as you can whether or not this nest has the ammonia smell and then leave as soon as possible. If the nest has the ammonia smell then this is where the first brood were raised and so you should place your owlet just inside. If there is no obvious smell then the first brood were, or are, being raised in a separate nearby cavity and you need to find it. Please note that young Barn Owls in a brood are never all the same age or size. There is normally a 2-3 day age gap between each of them. No owlet should ever be permanently removed or withheld from a nest simply because it’s smaller than the others.
Signs that all is well:
- The ammonia-type nest smell is strong.
- There are other young in the nest which become alert and defensive when they see/hear you.
- There are uneaten food items in or very close to the nest.
Signs that mean nothing:
- The other young are huddled together.
- The other young are lying down on their fronts.
- There are no food items visible in or near the nest.
- The adult(s) are not in the nest with the young.
- Adult Barn Owls are not often seen entering the nest site.
- A Barn Owl or owlet in the hand does nothing. Playing dead is perfectly normal.
Signs that all is not well:
- The ammonia-type nest smell is not very noticeable.
- The other live young are completely unresponsive.
- There are dead young on the ground below or in the nest.
- There are no fresh, moist, black and glossy-looking owl pellets in the nest.
- There are no other young.
In the case of a single owlet, or when there are no other surviving young, the chances of it being fed by the adults, even after only one night’s absence, will be greatly reduced. Once the adults’ pattern of owlet-feeding behaviour has been broken, it is unlikely to resume. In such cases the single owlet should be returned to the nest but you’ll need to place food just inside the nest entrance every night until either an adult resumes feeding, or the young owl stops taking the food you provide. If you are in any doubt about the owl’s condition, or your ability to care for it, please take advice from a vet or experienced rehabilitator.
Bear in mind that, unless you have an appropriate licence, it is illegal to handle any eggs or young in the nest.
Monitoring the owlet
After placing an owlet back in its nest it is a good idea to visit the place where the nest is the next morning to see if the owlet is on the ground again. If there is no owl to be seen, when you check the ground around the nest, then probably all is well. You may feel tempted to look in the nest but to do so has licence implications. If the owlet is on the ground again you can pick it up and check it over and, if all is well, you might consider putting it back in the nest once again. However, a second fall suggests an ongoing problem, typically an unsafe nesting place. Old-style nestbox designs where the tray-hole and nest are all on one level are much more likely to produce a fallen owlet than a deep-design nestbox where the nest is a good 460mm below the bottom of the nestbox hole. Deep nest cavities are often safer simply because the young birds cannot get out until they are already well grown and strong. Falling sometimes occurs because food is in short supply; the food-begging young become too desperate at the edge of the nest and topple out. However, fallen owlets are often underweight because they fell rather than this being why they fell. More often than not the nests from which they fall are relatively unsafe.
Getting help and advice
If you need further information or advice, please contact a local vet or rehabilitator, or the Barn Owl Trust. The RSPCA may be able to take birds that are injured or emaciated (0300 1234 999 – 24 hour service).
Before getting a ladder out, think about your own safety. Make sure you have a companion and a good torch. For awkward cavities a small mirror is often useful. If going alone, tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back. Whilst nest searching and assessing the situation, keep the owlet elsewhere, nearby and suitably contained. Never put your face to the entrance of a cavity and don’t put an un-gloved hand into a cavity, unless you know what is in there.