As humans close their curtains and prepare to turn in this evening, all around the country, young Barn Owls are preparing to take flight for the very first time.
Many of these owls will have spent their early weeks in specially constructed nest boxes, provided for them by members of volunteer-led barn owl groups around the country. This includes Wexford Barn Owl Project – a small team that works with members of the public around the county to provide nesting habitats for Barn Owls.
Since its formation in 2020, the Wexford Barn Owl Project has installed over 160 barn owl boxes around the county, and this figure continues to grow as more members of the public get on board. However, according to one of the group founders, Mark Stanley, the group got started by accident.
“I was asked to ring owls in 2020 by someone and I told them that I couldn’t because, although I have a general licence for ringing, you need a schedule two – a specific endorsement to ring Barn Owls because it is a protected species,” he explained.
Mark contacted the National Parks and Wildlife Service and was advised to contact John Lusby of BirdWatch Ireland who had a National Barn Owl ringing project already established. He did so, and was added to the BirdWatch Ireland licence. A few days later, he had ringed the small brood of two chicks – the first to be ringed in Wexford for many years.
“I now had a Barn Owl Schedule Two licence so it kind of made sense to see what else I could do to help Barn Owls in the county. I was told about Miley and Colin, who are out and about looking for birds of prey every evening. It just kind of grew from there,” he said. “A couple of farmers donated timber and we approached Chadwicks in town and they gave us timber. Then we started making boxes and getting them up and we thought, we better call ourselves a group. Derek joined us then with his van and his ladder and all of a sudden, there was four of us.”
The Wexford Barn Owl Project was formed, specifically as a sub-project of the BirdWatch Ireland initiative run by John Lusby.
The Wexford Barn Owl Project helps landowners around Wexford to install Barn Owl boxes on their property. These nest boxes serve as safe and secure nesting sites which can be monitored easily. Quiet or disused barns, derelict or ruined houses or other abandoned buildings are some of the best places to install a nest box.
“BirdWatch Ireland have produced a fantastic publication called the Barn Owl booklet, which can be found on their website and on our Facebook page. It basically tells you what we are looking for, what the ideal Barn Owl habitat is. Basically, they go for rough, unimproved grassland. Barn Owls are birds of open farmland,” explained Mark. “You can site external boxes on trees, maybe on the edge of a field, but generally, if you have a deserted shed or barn and it is not too busy, an internal box in there is brilliant. Barn Owls are a bit like us. Why wouldn’t you want to live in a nice, warm, dry and snug place as opposed to stuck in a leaky, windy hole in a tree in the rain and cold?”
On the day that we meet, Mark, Colin and Miley are visiting a box south of Wexford town that they installed in March. The nest box was successfully adopted by a pair of Barn Owls and today, the team are here to ring the chicks so that they can be monitored once they leave the nest. Using a thermal imager, they were able to detect the presence of chicks in the box with minimal disturbance earlier in the season. By July, it was time to see them up close and, to do this, Mark was tasked with ascending a ladder and skilfully plucking each chick from the box one by one.
Mark takes each chick and notes down several observations about them, including their height and the estimated time since hatching. The latter figure is determined by measuring their wing feathers. Meanwhile, their sex can be determined be looking at their facial disk and calculating the bird’s ‘flecking score’ – the amount of flecking they have across their body. Female Barn Owl chicks tend to have a darker facial disk and more flecking on their underbody than males. These three chicks range from 47 to 56 days old, meaning that they are almost ready to fledge. Most Barn Owls are ready to fledge by the time they are 60 days old, so the team got to this box just in time.
“The welfare of the birds is key,” said Mark before he carefully fits a ring on to the leg of one of the chicks. “In a perfect world, we wouldn’t ring them at all, but it is a necessary evil. We glean so much data from ringing.”
After the ringing process, the Barn Owl chicks are returned to their box. The team waits around quietly for up to thirty minutes to ensure that they settle in once again.
While the chicks are healthy at present, they have a tough road ahead of them. Eighty percent of Barn Owls chicks don’t survive their first year, explained Mark.
“There are a number of things that affect mortality in the first year. The vast majority of birds that die are youngsters. What youngsters do once they fledge and learn to hunt and feed themselves is disperse to find territories of their own. Lots of young birds use our road network as dispersal lanes and a lot of major roads with grassy verges are full of rodents and offer easy hunting,” explained Mark. “But Barn Owls don’t have good peripheral vision. They have fabulous eyesight and superb hearing but if a Barn Owl wants to look over there, it has to turn its head. What they tend to do is hover by grassy verges and the sides of major roads looking and listening for rodents and they get clipped by cars. This results in a lot of road deaths.”
The overuse of rodenticides in Ireland and subsequent secondary poisoning of Barn Owls is another factor that has a negative effect on their populations, said Mark.
“Unfortunately, there is a massive overuse of rodenticides in Ireland. Rodenticides use anti-coagulants and they’re designed not to kill their targeted vermin straight away because otherwise, those animals become bait shy,” he explained. “Rats, mice and other species ingest the rodenticides and stagger around for several days before they die. As a result, it is much easier for birds of prey to catch them, so kestrels in the day, Barn Owls at night. The level of rodenticide needed to kill an adult rat, for example, would wipe out an entire brood of Barn Owls.”
Attracting Barn Owls to an area is an effective way of managing rodents that some landowners are beginning to embrace.
“If you want to get rid of rodents, attract a pair of Barn Owls. People have forgotten that colloquially, once upon a time, the Barn Owl was called the farmer’s friend. Even now, if you look at old stone barns or farm buildings, you will see these little apertures high up in the eaves which were designed to let the Barn Owl in to use the barn space. Farmers knew that, if you have Barn Owls present, they’re better ratters and mousers than anything else,” said Mark.
In addition to assisting people with the installation of Barn Owl boxes on their property, Mark and the Wexford Barn Owl Project hope to raise awareness about Barn Owls and how they can help to keep rodent numbers down.
“If you can create awareness then hopefully, things like rodenticides will be a thing of a past.”
Roads and secondary poisoning from rodenticides aren’t the only threats faced by Barn Owls. Modern farming methods that have resulted in the removal of hedgerows, more intensive farming and the use of pesticides have greatly reduced the prey-rich foraging habitat that Barn Owls need. Loss of safe nesting and roosting sites have also contributed to their decline. Indeed, Barn Owl numbers have plummeted in Ireland by over fifty percent in the last 25 years alone and are now a Red-listed Bird of Conservation. According to Mark, it is ‘impossible to say’ how many Barn Owls we currently have in Wexford.
“We know that they are more thinly spread in the southeast than anywhere else in Ireland. A combination of intensive farming and various methods have pushed the Barn Owls back to the west and the southwest. The west and southwest are kind of their heartland so levels are relatively sparse in the southeast, but we’ve got close to 160 boxes in the county now,” he said.
According to Mark, several of the boxes, including the visited on that day, were adopted in the first year of installation.
“That shows a number of things. Firstly, it shows us that, if we build them, they will come. It also suggests there’s a shortage of alternative natural sites. Barn Owls will adopt hollow trees and apertures, but they’re not called Barn Owls for nothing. Over centuries, they have evolved to take advantage of man-made structures.”
Whether an owner of a barn or not, there are many ways that people can support Barn Owl population in Wexford, said Mark.
“I would say just about everyone can do something about a box. If they can’t site them on their property, they may have a family member in a rural area with a barn or a tree or another suitable place,” he said. “Taking one on as a community can be even better and is a fantastic way to involve children. I would love a few more groups in Wexford, particularly in the south of the county so down along the Hook, Duncannon and in New Ross.”
Those who want to put up a Barn Owl box are asked to give a donation to the project, or pay directly into their Chadwicks account, said Mark. This is how the group makes the bulk of their funding, in addition to public donations and grants from Wexford County Council.
While most of the Barn Owl chicks will have fledged by the end of July or early August, the Wexford Barn Owl group will continue to spread awareness and encourage the uptake of Barn Owl boxes by attending events and shows around the county. Those who are interested in finding out more about obtaining a Barn Owl box, or about Barn Owls in general, can contact them via their Facebook page Wexford Barn Owl Project.
Wexford Barn Owl Project is one of many locally-led projects around the country aimed at helping Barn Owls in Ireland. Across the county border, Wicklow Barn Owl Group is following in their footsteps. The project, which is a partnership between the NPWS, Wicklow County Council Heritage Officer, the Wicklow Raptor Study Group and BirdWatch Ireland, was established this year.
“The first bit of work we did was on social media, which worked very well. We promoted what we are doing and promoted the idea that we would supply boxes to farmers and landowners and that was very popular,” explained County Surveyor, Oran O’Sullivan. “We also got quite a few reports of birds, more than we would have had previously. The Barn Owl population was known in Wicklow to be down to just two pairs, which were found last year through the national survey.”
“We’ve had about 20 reports of Barn Owls this year so far, which is higher than we expected.”
The Wicklow Barn Owl Group has put up 21 nest boxes this year, with up to 12 more due to go up in the coming months. While these boxes were not installed in time for the Barn Owl breeding season, Oran said they are hoping that they will be adopted and used by Barn Owls next year.
In the meantime, they are calling on members of the public to report any Barn Owl sightings to the group.
“This is very good time for getting the word out there because Barn Owls and Long-eared Owls all have young out at the moment. They make a fair bit of noise and move around a bit so they’re easier to spot,” he said. “We really appeal to anyone who sees anything, to get on to us on Facebook or our email firstname.lastname@example.org.”
According to Oran, many of the reports they have received to date have been, not from birdwatchers, but from people who work or travel late at night such as delivery drivers and doctors and nurses finishing night duty. All of these reports are valuable to them.
“We are very pleased with the start we’ve made and next year we hope to have owls in the boxes,” he said. “The more knowledge we can build up, the more we can get a picture of what’s going on for Barn Owls in the area.”