Plight of the night fliers

Living

Have you seen a barn owl in Mayo?

Ciara Moynihan

Ghostly figures once flitted through Mayo’s night skies with frequency, their bloodcurdling shrieks echoing out across the land. Their Irish name, scréachóg reilige – screecher of the graveyard – reflects their long cultural association with that most feared of Celtic supernatural beings, the banshee.
Now, it seems, these spectral creatures might be making a comeback. But before you dive under the duvet with your garlic and crucifix in hand, rest assured, they are on your side.
Barn owls, one of the few owls to screech rather than hoot, are expert nocturnal hunters, and if you have any interest in keeping the rat and mouse population in check, you’d do well to take an interest in their welfare. A pair of barn owls can devour up to 2,000 rats and mice during the breeding season.
Many people travelling through the countryside at night have seen these beautiful birds – their pallid form suddenly luminous in the car’s headlights, like fleeting apparitions from the otherworld. While they may appear pure white from a distance, closer inspection reveals remarkably intricate honey-coloured patterning on their upper wings, back and head. Their long legs, underwings, breasts and lovely heart-shaped faces, however, are almost alabaster, with just the faintest chest speckling.
Sadly, over recent decades, the barn owl population here has plummeted. They are now a Red-listed Bird of Conservation Concern in Ireland. As a top predator and a sentinel species indicating the health of our countryside, the decline in our barn owl population is extremely concerning.

Changing fortunes
Barn owls are home birds, only hunting within 20 acres of their roost or nest, and they will stay with their partner for life, only seeking a new mate if theirs dies. The importance of their surrounding habitat cannot be overstated.
Changing agricultural landscapes and practices have resulted in the loss of suitable habitats, with prey-rich foraging habitats and available nesting sites dramatically shrinking. The increased use and increased toxicity of anti-coagulant rodenticides have poisoned the very prey the owls must eat to survive, killing them in turn. The expansion of major road networks has dealt another hammer blow. Barn owls are among the most susceptible birds to vehicle collisions.   
But it’s not all bad news. BirdWatch Ireland recently reported early indications that barn owl numbers may be starting to recover in certain parts of their range. Even more welcome, this range includes Mayo, where some of the steepest declines in the country have been seen.
One of the reasons for this recovery may be the range expansion of non-native small mammal species, the greater white-toothed shrew and the bank vole, both of which are recent arrivals to Mayo and are taken as prey by barn owls and other predators.
Breeding pairs have moved into nest boxes provided for them by landowners and wildlife lovers within the county, and they have re-established nests in nesting sites that have not held barn owls for many years.
Barn owls are very selective about their nesting sites, plumping for old ruins, such as castles, abbeys and stately homes like Moorehall, though they will occasionally set up home in quiet outbuildings, such as barns or sheds.
They are also choosy about nest boxes. These man-made love nests must have a large enough interior, with a specifically sized entrance hole and an edged exercise platform where the breeding pair’s little balls of fluff (sorry, owlets) can get flight ready safely. The nest boxes must be located at a suitable height, away from human disturbance and far from busy roads, where too many have met their end.

Mayo survey
BirdWatch Ireland is undertaking a survey of barn owls in Mayo this summer, and they are requesting the assistance of the public and landowners, asking them to report any information on barn owls to help direct their survey efforts.
The Barn Owl Survey in Mayo aims to establish how barn owls are currently faring in the county. The findings of the survey will be used to ensure the protection of nest sites and to direct targeted conservation efforts, such as the provision of nest boxes to help the local population.
Mayo County Council Heritage Officer Deirdre Cunningham is urging everyone to keep an eye out for these graceful birds, and to provide information on the whereabouts of nest boxes they have or know of as well as any sightings of barn owls on the wing.
“We are delighted to be working with BirdWatch Ireland on the Mayo Barn Owl Survey, which is supported by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, under the National Biodiversity Action Plan, and Mayo County Council,” she explains. “Local knowledge will be very valuable to the survey, and we are encouraging people to provide information on nest boxes or report sightings of barn owls in Mayo.”  
The information provided by the public – the citizen-science element of the survey – is vital, explains John Lusby of BirdWatch Ireland. “It is a very special experience to glimpse the ghostly form of the barn owl floating silently over their hunting grounds in the dead of night, or to hear their eerie screeches and strange snoring calls. Everybody remembers such an encounter, and we are asking people to report this information to us, which will greatly help our survey efforts to locate nest sites and to determine the health of the population.”
He adds: “We are also looking for information on barn owl nest boxes in the county. Many different groups and individuals have gone to great effort to help barn owls in Mayo and have installed purpose-built nest boxes. We hope to get a better idea of how many nest boxes are in place and the portion that are being used by barn owl, and we would ask that anyone that has put up a nest box to let us know.”
It is important to note that barn owls are a protected species and can be very sensitive to disturbance, so everyone should bear in mind that nest sites should never be approached or interfered with in any way.
It’s also worth noting that although nocturnal, barn owls can be sometimes be seen hunting shortly before dusk. Very occasionally, they can be seen during the day, when relocating from one roosting site to another.
These wonderful birds, with their silent soft-feathered flight and out-of-this-world hunting senses, have been muses for artists, writers and poets for centuries, while also serving a vital role in our ecosystem. Let’s do what we can to help them regain their foothold here in Mayo.
And if you do hear their scream, remember: It’s not your soul they’re after, it’s the little furry souls we’d rather not have inside our houses and farmyards.

Any information on barn owls in Mayo (sightings, deaths, nest sites and nest boxes) can be reported to the Barn Owl Survey, available at www.birdwatchireland.ie. For information on how to build a barn owl nest box, see the BirdWatch Ireland website or teagasc.ie.

Folklore and mythology

Barn owls are also known as white owls, as reflected in their scientific name, Tyto alba. ‘Alba’ is the Latin word for white, while ‘tyto’ (τυτο) is the Ancient Greek word for owl, based on an onomatopoeic interpretation of the more-familiar ‘twit-twoo’ owl call.  
Found the world over, barn owls have been the subject of mythology, folklore and fable wherever they appear. It’s not just in Ireland that the poor innocent barn owl has been associated with bad omens and death. These shy creatures’ nighttime screams have given them a bit of a spooky image elsewhere too.
In Japanese folklore they were believed to be a demon, while in Tangiers, barn owls were thought to be the clairvoyants of the Devil. The Native American Newuk tribe believed that anyone who led an honourable life would be reincarnated as a great horned owl, but an evil person would come back as a barn owl.
That said, other traditions value them as benevolent spirits helping the souls of the departed reach heaven safely, or embodying protection and wisdom.
The Ancient Greeks, for example, believed that the sight of a barn owl would bring victory in battle. In India, the barn owl is the ‘vahana’ or transport of Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of Wisdom.