New neighbours

In this difficult year, this family of barn owls has brought us so much enjoyment and being so close to nature has been such a pleasant distraction from the realities of 2020.

There were 4 healthy chicks varying in size. © Ashley Smith
The chicks were checked, weighed, measured and ringed. © Ashley Smith
Close-up of one of the chicks. © Ashley Smith

In 2018 we installed a Barn Owl nest in a small copse next to our house, which we had purchased from a company called Peak Boxes. Barn owls are cavity nesters and will often make use of man-made structures such as old buildings, barns, and artificial nest boxes to rear their young. The boxes are specifically designed for barn owls with two compartments and a balcony! One of these compartments is for roosting owls and the second compartment comprises of a corridor system which leads into a large nesting chamber. The corridor system encourages barn owls to enter but prevents jackdaws from taking the box over, as they are unable to bring in their preferred nesting material “sticks” around the corners in the corridor.

We then waited patiently for someone to move in, and finally in early 2020 we heard the tell-tale screech of a barn owl each night. We installed a wildlife camera close to the nest site which revealed to our delight a pair of barn owls showing courtship behaviour. It’s not flowers and chocolates with them. Instead, the male shows off his hunting prowess by delivering an assortment of small mammals including short-tailed voles, shrews and field mice, which he delivers into the box to encourage the female to go in. After a couple of weeks of this noisy courtship our new neighbours became secretive and the female disappeared into the nest compartment. Some seven weeks later we heard the first hissing sound of young owlets, and from then on both parents were hunting throughout the night. We observed them on one evening bringing 7 prey items to the box in 30 minutes. The arrival of food set off a cacophony of noise, with the parents often being what can only be described as mugged at the entrance of the box with hungry chicks snatching food from their beaks.

Ringing the chicks

A sweepstake was set up in our household to try and guess how many chicks were in the box. We were lucky enough for a friend who is a British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) ringer to visit and agree to ring the chicks under licence. Opening the box revealed 4 healthy chicks varying in size from almost fully fledged to the youngest still covered in down. The reason for this is that the female will often sit from the first egg she lays and so there can be 2 or 3 days between each chick hatching. All the chicks were checked, weighed, and measured and fitted with a BTO ring which helps with the monitoring of the UK owl population, before being returned to the box. While our ringer was here, he also ringed another local brood of 4 chicks, and what is interesting is that our area had much larger clutch sizes than other areas he had visited further south where nests only had one or two chicks. We can only assume that this year we have had a higher abundance of prey species available and good weather at the critical time in the chick’s development allowing the adults to hunt successfully.

Throughout the summer we then had the pleasure of witnessing these chicks emerge into the world, making their first tentative flights and exploring the local area. Whilst the birds were honing their skills the parents continued to feed them, but gradually the chicks became more independent and started to hunt for themselves. Then suddenly as quickly as they arrived, they disappeared although occasionally throughout the autumn we have had white ghostly flashes flying through the garden. Our winter job list is to install a nest box camera so we can watch the internal nest box antics of the chicks, if fingers crossed, they return next year.

by Ashley Smith

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