The Owls Won’t Wait

With all human activity currently paralysed by the coronavirus pandemic our feathered friends are getting on with life as normal. This means that our local barn owls are getting on with their breeding season probably encouraged by the lack of human interference while COVID-19 restrictions persist.


Life carries on as normal for barn owls.

With a gradual easing of the lock-down precautions we are permitted to carefully venture out again in limited numbers to undertake the initial annual barn owl box inspections to establish whether any of them contain breeding youngsters. This task can only be carried out by licenced operatives as barn owls are a protected species.  With the disastrously wet weather we experienced earlier and the scarcity of roosting owls found on our winter maintenance visits, we expected it to be a dismal year for barn owl reproduction. To our surprise this was not the case, although numbers found were not as great as we have experienced previously.


Government safety measures are observed.

Strictly conforming to the rules and people number restrictions dictated by the Government, two of us ventured out duly masked , travelling in separate vehicles, wearing gloves, applying frequent antiseptic hand gel and remaining two metres apart at all times and began our tour of the boxes which normally takes at least 3 days.


We were apprehensive that with ladder work and the close contact routine that normally prevails this would make the task extremely difficult. Not so! We began carefully adhering to all these new requirements at a gradual pace and were surprised how quickly we created a routine way of working that met all the rules of operation.


One put the ladder up and stood back while the other climbed up to inspect the box and record whether there was a young owl presence. When known he climbed down and his colleague removed the ladder and placed it back on the vehicle.


We then drove separately to another location. The landowner of each location had been duly telephoned in advance to ensure they were agreeable to us attending and were given the reassurance that we would maintain social distancing at all times.


The ladders were clamped back on the vehicles and the next box  location was driven to.


The inspections revealed a reasonable number of barn owls had mated and produced a brood, although the first box we visited revealed 4 very young kestrel chicks. They hadn’t been hatched long and possessed none of the normal fieriness they develop as they grow.


Four very young kestrels found in the first box visited.

The initial inspections identify which boxes have owl broods in and allow us to establish their size to determine when they are old enough to have identification rings fitted.  Due to the variation in sizes even in one box brood this is quite complex and means many return visits to specific boxes to ensure the birds receive their rings at the required stage of development. Often this is based on noting the size of the smallest member of the family and calculating when it will be ready. This is complicated further on some occasions when food is in short supply by the smallest one being eaten by its siblings in the meantime. It also often means that the smallest one’s bigger brothers and sisters are very large and a handful to deal with on the return visit.

Kestrels develop much quicker than barn owls so these had to be visited again a week later when they were the right size to ring without being too large and give us major handling problems. Even at the size they were a week later they were sufficiently aggressive to shred the fingers of the ringers with their talons and beaks. That is when the hand sanitiser gels become useful to disinfect the wounds.

Despite the pain inflicted and the difficulty it is to remove the talons and sharp beaks which are embedded in the flesh of the handlers, it is always felt to be a privilege to be in close contact with such magnificent creatures.

On our initial tour around the scores of boxes we found that many contained old jackdaw nests which we duly cleared out as we progressed. Jackdaws always fill them full of twigs and mud which prevents barn owls who breed later, from utilising them. This operation is time consuming and extremely messy with the long twigs jammed in making them difficult to remove. The mud by the time we visit has become so dry it has turned to dust and the large quantity contained often blankets the whole of the immediate vicinity under a dense dust cloud as it is cleared out. It also covers the person clearing it making the masks we were wearing doubly beneficial.


Three barn owl eggs in another box.

The barn owl chicks discovered were generally very young with a number still revealing eggs waiting to hatch. One box had 3 newly hatched young in with one egg still unhatched. If the food supply becomes scarce the unhatched one being the smallest, is the one likely to be eaten by its siblings.


These chicks had only just hatched with one egg awaited.

Some boxes had roosting adult owls in with no young in evidence whereas others had the mother in the box with the young with the proud father often in residence in a neighbouring box. Sometimes the young owls are found in one box with the two adults residing in a neighbouring box. The male stays close to assist the female with food gathering for the young.

However quietly we approach, the acute hearing of the adult owls invariably detects our presence leading to them fly out before we are able to get near. They return as soon as we have finished to either tend their young if chicks are found or to roost if not.

The following pictures show some more broods we discovered this year.


Three other chicks. Note the larder of prey left in the box by the parents for the youngsters to eat.


Further chicks found with development still required to assume the classic features of their parents.


When very young, as in this box, movement is limited.


A single very young chick was found in this box.


Another box found with a single chick in which was still little more than a ball of fluff and far from the size we would be able to ring it.


Two chicks huddling together in a far corner of another box. Facial characteristics have begun to form in them.


These in a further breeding box were the most advanced of all the young found.

The two pictured above (one is shielding the other) were judged to be nearing the size to be ringed. We therefore returned a week later to undertake the task.

The picture below shows how much they had grown in a week and the adult feathers that had formed.


A week later they were looking more like adults.


Now recognisable as one of the most beautiful birds in the British countryside.

The whole breeding check/ringing activity occupies several authorised people for many months of the summer in our area before all are satisfactorily recorded. The results are then forwarded to allow population records to be kept for the whole country.


A newly recorded owl ringed and then carefully returned to its box.

Originally severely endangered, years of conservation effort have restored their population number but it is only with continuing nurturing by volunteers that it will be maintained.


A volunteer recorder proudly holding one of these valued birds. 

The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group volunteers in addition to these summer checks, spend many months each winter maintaining our scores of group barn owl boxes in preparation for summer usage by breeding owls. This has been undertaken since 2007 when we erected our first boxes and began attempting to restore the local population. It has proved to be a huge success story for our group and justification for the considerable effort spent.

Our volunteers with their considerable experience now offer their help to capture data at breeding time for other areas of Sussex. This in addition to tending the large Southern Mid Sussex barn owl conservation area we have created and maintain ourselves. The overall commitment given to preserving this species therefore is huge and we are very grateful to our volunteers for the time and the hard work provided to achieve it.

We are also very grateful to Hassocks Field Society who generously contributed £500 towards the funding of our barn owl conservation programme at the end of last year. This has helped us enormously with our ongoing costs.