by Karla Bloem,
Executive director of the International Owl Center
Between being primarily nocturnal and very well camouflaged, owls are not often seen. Reliable estimates of populations of most species don’t exist. For some of the especially secretive species, their nesting range isn’t even well known. When it comes to owls, there is a lot that isn’t known.
Barn owls in Minnesota make for a fun mystery. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union consider barn owls to be an “accidental” species in the state. Although there are certainly historical records of them nesting in the state, Minnesota is only considered to be at the very edge of their range, and it is assumed they never had a stronghold here.
Barn owls vary in color from whitish to toasted marshmallow and are fairly slender. They stand just over a foot tall and their call is a loud, blood-curdling shriek that sounds akin to a car’s fan belt screeching for half a second. They are very nocturnal and like to nest in old, wooden barns or cavities in dead or dying trees.
The Eastern Screech-Owl, a small red or gray owl with ear tufts that stands about six to eight inches tall, likes to go into garages, sheds and barns during the winter for shelter. Because of this habit they are often incorrectly identified as barn owls. Besides the size difference, screech-owls have yellowish eyes while barn owls have brown eyes.
Young Great Horned Owls make repeated, screeching begging calls in late summer and early fall that can be mistaken for barn owl screams. The young Great Horned Owls, however, will give their call repeatedly, roughly every 15 seconds, sometimes for hours on end. Barn owl screams are more intermittent.
Over the past 18 years that I’ve been doing owl programs in the region I’ve talked to a lot of people who are at least 60 and grew up on farms in Southeast Minnesota. After ruling out the possibility of misidentification, it seems that a lot of people used to have barn owls on their farms, but the species pretty much disappeared in the mid-1960s.
What happened? No one is certain, but it is probably due to a change in agriculture. Barn owls are not built for cold weather with their long, gangly legs. But most farmers used to have a big, red barn with livestock that came inside in the winter which would generate extra heat in the barn. The livestock had food, which also attracted rodents, which the barn owls could eat. The livestock also had pastures, which provided the perfect areas for barn owls to hunt. The disappearance of pastureland and big old barns used by livestock may be leading factors in their disappearance from the entire northern portion of their range.
Barn owls are the rabbits of the owl world. They have short life spans (usually one to two years), and they can start reproducing at seven months of age. They usually have five to seven young per brood, and in warm climates can have two or even three broods per year. They can disperse widely and wander.
I have heard barn owls on two occasions near Houston — once in 2014 and once this year. A barn owl with West Nile Virus was found near Ferryville, Wis., several years ago, and a few years ago one was seen on Goose Island south of La Crosse. They are very rare, but they do show up. Documenting just how often they are showing up now is very important to determine how many are in the area and if they are increasing or just pop up rarely and randomly.
It is also important to document their historical abundance, since I have the impression that they were somewhat common at one time, but simply weren’t ever officially documented because the people who saw them didn’t consider them rare.
If you have seen a barn owl in the past or more recently in Southeast Minnesota, Southwest Wisconsin, or Northeast Iowa, please report it Karla Bloem at the International Owl Center by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, calling 507-896-6957, or mailing the Owl Center at PO Box 536, Houston, Minn., 55943. Please include photos, videos, or recordings you may have made, no matter how poor the quality is, since hard evidence is very helpful.