Wildlife & Nature to See in January : Barn Owls

A good time of year to spot an elusive and slient favourite

Wildlife to See in January : Barn Owls

Image by Laurie Campbell

Image by Laurie Campbell

Firstly, a white emblem of British wildlife, the Barn Owl (Tyto alba).

The Barn Owl is an evolutionary example of function meeting beauty. The heart-shaped face, whilst captivating, is a feature designed to conduct sound to their ears. Their large wing-span allows for measured, hovering flight, perfect for picking up rodents. And those beguiling eyes are highly movement-sensitive, detecting any action in the shadows.

Late January and into February is a good time to watch for Barn owls, as male owls start to hunt more in the daytimes, gathering food to present to females. The best chance of seeing an owl hunting is at dawn or dusk. Hunting usually takes place over grassland, or hedgerows, and involves the owls hovering and listening for small mammals. Look out for owls perched on fence posts, ready to take flight.

Within the UK, the barn owl’s most common meal is the field vole, but they will also eat mice and shrews. These are consumed whole, and indigestible parts, fur/bones/teeth, are regurgitated out as smooth, black pellets.

Barn owls tend to reside in low-lying, rural areas. As their name suggests, they have been linked with farming through the years, due to a combination of feeding from arable land, and, more obviously, roosting in barns. A high proportion of Britain’s owls can be found in the south of the country, due to more stable numbers of prey.


Now is around the time for breeding, and, rather sweetly, pair bonding is mostly monogamous. Look out for aerial displays, as the male selects a nest site. This begins with the ‘moth flight’, where the male bird hovers in front of the female to show off his chest- not unlike certain men at the gym! The pair will often chase one another, whilst calling. To see such a haunting white shape fly overhead, it’s easy to see the innocent origins of many a ghost story.

Image by Laurie Campbell

Image by Laurie Campbell

Following the advice of BBC’s Springwatch (and Autumnwatch) I would recommend a trip to see Barn Owls at Cornwall’s Lost Gardens of Heligan.

An old family plot, the gardens were surrendered to foliage over-growth, after the owners entered WWI. The award-winning restoration team now care for 100 acres of ground, with wildlife including foxes, badgers, Hawk-moths, and the owls themselves. Creative Director Candy Smit says, “Heligan is so much more than a garden restored; its own special atmosphere encourages exploration and contemplation, satisfying the broadest range of horticultural and wildlife interest.”

Perhaps the most exciting feature of the garden for wildlife fans, is Horsemoor Hide, where visitors can watch video streaming from a series of wildlife hot-spots. Peter Stafford, the site’s managing director says of the Hide, “It is the unique combination of people, location and technology that is creating something really special here at Heligan, and we invite you to share in our wonder as some of these secret lives of the wild are being revealed.”

Although, as Springwatch’s footage of owl chicks eating one another shows, nature can be cruel! This is how Heligan’s most infamous owl became known as Hannibal. According to Heligan’s website, Hannibal has now attracted his own mate, so we can hopefully look forward to another season of Barn owl chicks.

For those for whom Cornwall is too far a stretch, the gardens feature several live webcams on their site, including in the owl nestboxes: http://www.heligan.com/

For more information about Barn Owls, check out the Barn Owl Trust: http://www.barnowltrust.org.uk/

Or for owl-based events, try: http://www.barnowl.co.uk/

Article by Lizzy Dening You can follow Lizzy on Twitter or go to her website