In New York, resident barn owls nest in all seasons and will double brood within a year if the prey populations are abundant. For example, in 1938 a female laid eggs in March and the again in November. The following year, the same female had nestlings in July then again in December (Levine 1998).
While Barn Owls are difficult to locate because they rarely vocalize and are nocturnal, a comparison of the two New York Breeding Bird Atlases show that the number of blocks where Barn Owls have been reported has greatly declined. During the first Breeding Bird Atlas, Barn Owls were reported from 126 Breeding Bird Atlas blocks with 64 blocks where probable or confirmed breeding was recorded (Andrle and Carroll 1988). Between 2000 and 2005, the second Breeding Bird Atlas reported a total of 28 blocks. Fourteen of those blocks were recorded as probable or confirmed breeding (McGowan and Corwin 2008). The current breeding records are largely clustered from three areas: Staten Island, Kennedy Airport, and the north shore area of Long Island around Oyster Bay. Barn Owls now appear to be very rare in upstate New York and not particularly regular in their occurrence. In addition, breeding success for this species often depends on human intervention such as the placement of nest boxes in suitable habitat.
When comparing data from the two Breeding Bird Atlases, it appears that the number of breeding Barn Owls in New York is declining. Between 1980 and 1985, probable and confirmed breeding was reported from 64 Breeding Bird Atlas blocks in 30 counties (Andrle and Carroll 1988). A decline is noted in the second Breeding Bird Atlas (2000-2005) with probable or confirmed breeding reported from 14 Breeding Bird Atlas blocks in 10 counties. Most of the counties where there was confirmed breeding Barn Owls are in southern New York (McGowan and Corwin 2008). Barn Owls seem to be responding to nest box placement in areas in southern New York. For example, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge has several nest boxes in place that are used regularly by Barn Owls. The milder climate and placement of nest boxes may be two reasons why this species has persisted in southern New York. Breeding Bird Survey data is too sparse in New York to determine trends (Sauer et al. 2007). There is limited data available for non-breeding season, therefore trends are not specifically known.
Historically, Barn Owls were known from Long Island, Staten Island, the Finger Lakes region, Hudson Valley, Genesee Valley, Wayne and Monroe counties along Lake Ontario, and the lowlands of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario (King 2005). They continue to persist in some of these counties. It appears that the Barn Owl range may be decreasing in New York as most regular occurrence of Barn Owls are now on Staten Island and Long Island.
While one of the main reasons why Barn Owl populations are unstable in New York is due to New York generally being the northern limits of its range, there are several other factors that may affect populations in the state. Barn Owls are dependent on open, grassy habitat where small mammal populations are fairly abundant. In New York, farmland provides most of the suitable habitat for this species. However, farmland is decreasing statewide and many of the remaining farms are replacing hayfields with row crops. In addition, Barn Owls are known to use farm structures for roosting. Screening has been placed in the openings of these farm structures to exclude Rock Pigeons thereby excluding Barn Owls. Secondary poisoning may also happen in more populated areas as people try to control rodent populations. Automotive collisions are also a threat (King 2005).
It appears that Barn Owl breeding success in New York is heavily dependent on the placement of nest boxes in suitable habitat. Each nesting pair needs approximately 0.25 square miles of suitable habitat surrounding a nest box. Preservation and expansion of dense grass foraging habitats are also important. Grassland habitats can also be managed by light grazing or mowing to maintain the habitat without altering dense ground cover used by small mammals (NatureServe 2004). Another potential management tool is taking advantage of Landowner Incentive Programs to protect grassland habitats.
It would be valuable to determine the feasibility of using captive-raised Barn Owls to restore local populations (King 2005).
Barn Owls are often found in open and partly open country including grasslands, marshes, and agricultural areas. They are often around human habitation. Barn Owls are cavity-nesting birds that use natural as well as human-created cavities. Preferred man-made structures include large platforms within barns and silos, tunnels dug into silage in roofed or topless silos, and barn cupola shelves. They have also used feed bins, church steeples and belfries, platforms within commercial and industrial buildings, attics of abandoned or occupied houses, ledges within chimneys, and platforms beneath bridges (NatureServe 2004). Foraging habitats are typically open areas, such as grassy fields (natural and agricultural), wet meadows, and fresh and salt water marshes. Barn Owls typically use dense conifers as roost sites during the winter, but have used nest boxes as well (NatureServe 2004).
Barn Owls are predominantly found in the southern part of New York in Bronx, Kings, Nassau, Queens, Richmond, and Suffolk counties. However, they are occassionally found in other areas of New York excluding mountainous areas and the very northern part of the state.
In the Americas, Barn Owls are found from southern Canada and the northern United States south to southern South America, Greater Antilles (except Puerto Rico), and Lesser Antilles (AOU 1983, Marti 1992). Population densities vary within this range with low densities at the northern periphery (Marti 1992). Populations in northern North America are partially migratory. Barn Owls have been introduced (1958 and later) in Hawaii and are now on all the main islands (AOU 1983). Barn Owls occur in the Old World from British Isles, southern Russia, and southern Siberia south through Eurasia and Africa to southern Africa, Madagascar, East Indies, and Australia.
Barn Owls are characterized by their whitish, heart-shaped face. The head lacks ear tufts and the eyes are small and dark. Upper plumage is golden-brown with varying amounts of gray. The breast and belly are whitish and can be lightly to heavily speckled with black. Barn Owl body length varies from 30-37 centimeters and their wing span range is 104 to 120 centimeters (NatureServe 2004). Generally, females are larger and heavier than males and are also darker and more speckled, although there are variations in both sexes that can make it difficult to determine the sex of individuals. Juveniles are similar to adults. Young males are more buff on the breast, but lack the heavy speckled appearance of adult females. Molt patterns can be used to determine age until about 36 months (NatureServe 2004). Females lay 5-7 white eggs. Barn Owls rarely vocalize. However, they have up to 15 vocal sounds and two non-vocal sounds have been described (Bunn et al. cited in NatureServe 2004). "B. Colvin (pers. comm.) described the five most frequently heard vocalizations: 1) the "contact call" is a drawn-out screech frequently given in flight when approaching a nest site from a distance; 2) the "alarm call" is an intense screech made in response to human or other disturbance which is typically given at a nest site and only after chicks have hatched; 3) "squeaking/ticking calls" are rapid, high-pitched notes which are associated with pair bond maintenance or distress situations; these calls are commonly produced during courtship, incubation, and first evening flights after chicks have hatched; 4) "snoring" is a greatly varying hiss which is repeated persistently by juveniles in and out of the nest; this call is used for food begging and may be heard at nest sites from sunset to sunrise; and 5) the "defensive hiss" is a very loud and prolonged hiss typically produced by nestlings when disturbed" (NatureServe 2004).
Barn Owls can be found throughout the year in many parts of New York State. However, they are most often found on Long Island and the New York City area during the breeding and non-breeding seasons. Barn Owls are often difficult to locate because they rarely vocalize and are nocturnal.
The time of year you would expect to find Barn Owl reproducing in New York.
Tyto alba (Scopoli, 1769)
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Information for this guide was last updated on: December 31, 2007
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2019. Online Conservation Guide for Tyto alba. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/barn-owl/. Accessed December 12, 2019.