Build it and they will come

Outdoor Living

Barn owls will happily set up home in specially constructed nest boxes, as one Mayo man discovered


Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

Wildlife is struggling. Many native habitats and the animals that live within are thinning out, and while most people would like to help, it’s often hard to know where to begin. 
Nest boxes for birds are a great starting place. Like many Irish birds, barn owls are suffering major declines. While there are multiple pressures causing this, one thing that will help your local owl family is somewhere nice to set up home. Owls really appreciate nest boxes, and if you build one in the right place there is every chance they will come. 
Nathy Gilligan learned this for himself here in Mayo. “Ten years ago I built a barn owl nest box at the gable end of my garage. I didn’t know if they would come into my garden and for a full eight years there was no sign of them. Then in March 2020, during the good weather in the first Covid lockdown, like many like many others I set about painting the house and garage. 
“One sunny afternoon I was getting to grips with the garage, when out from the nestbox came a large white owl. After all that time they had moved in! For the last two years there has been a hive of owl activity around my house. 
“A pair bred in 2020, when they raised three young, and again 2021, when four more were produced. That’s seven more barn owls that have gone into the neighbouring countryside. On a dry, moonlit summer night there are barn owls constantly flying in and out at the end of our garden. 
“While they don’t seem to use the nest box much in the winter, when I assume they are roosting in trees and other buildings in the area, they are never far away. I see them regularly after dark over neighbouring fields.
“There is no guarantee they will choose my nest box to breed in 2022, but at the moment it’s looking good. They know it’s there and it has made a comfortable home for them over the last two years.’’

Nest box know-how
Putting up one of these nest boxes is a win-win for the owls and for people. In some areas barn owls are short of their natural nesting places, such as old barns or hollow trees, and the nest box gives them a safe, dry place to rear their young. 
It can provide a real sense of accomplishment to provide barn owl family a home. We can help this iconic Irish bird to survive. So many have yet to experience the thrill of having a large, white owl fly silently out of the darkness just meters over their head.
For adjoining farmers and food businesses, the owls bring in a natural and efficient form of vermin control, which saves the costs and the burden of strict procedures associated with the use of rodenticides. 
For instructions on how to build an owl box, the Cork Branch of Birdwatch Ireland has produced a helpful publication: ‘How To Make a Barn Owl Nest Box’. 
There are two types of nest boxes: interior and exterior. Interior boxes are first choice if you have access to an open shed or disused building that the birds can easily fly into. It is cheaper to make and being protected from the weather will last for many years. 
An exterior box is required when you have to place the box outdoors, such as the outside of a building, on a large tree or even on top of a free-standing high pole. These are a little more expensive as they require exterior-grade wood and need to be well sealed to withstand the elements. 

Up close
“My own experience shows that you don’t need to be a large landowner,” Nathy says. “The gable end of my garage faces out onto fields and even with lawnmowers and kids playing in the back garden, the back of the garage is relatively undisturbed and the owls are content.’’ 
For assistance in how to choose the best location for a nestbox, Britain’s Barn Owl Trust have a number of excellent notes and videos at www.barnowltrust.org.uk/barn-owl-nestbox.
After many years of struggling, barn owls are starting to slowly increase again in parts of Ireland and nest boxes are helping. More and more people are putting up these boxes either individually or by engaging with nest box schemes run by local community groups or through schools. 
Birdwatch Ireland will gladly assist with any queries. If you do put up a nest box, record the position via the Birdwatch Ireland online survey form. If and when the owls move in, Birdwatch Ireland will likely ring the chicks as part of the national survey, and you will have a chance to get up close and personal with one of Ireland’s most endearing birds.
Yes, build it and they will come.

Watch
For an intimate view inside Nathy Gilligan’s Mayo nest box, Birdwatch Ireland collated a beautiful short video that charts the growth of the four chicks in 2021, from the time they hatched until the moment of fledging.
‘A Barn Owl breeding season in five minutes’ – filmed by licence with a nest camera – is available on YouTube.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.