Published by New Holland ISBN 978-1-84773-768-7

“Barn Owls are magnificent birds, drifting effortlessly through fading daylight or punctuating the black of night and always stopping observers in their tracks. The sight of a ghostly Barn Owl quartering a field at dusk is not easily forgotten, but many aspects of the lives of these captivating birds are little known to most people.”

Barn Owl by David Chandler aims to take you deeper into the world of the Barn Owl, looking at its habitat, courtship and survival techniques, as well as its distribution and closest relatives.

Containing insightful text coupled with stunning images, often of rarely seen aspects of the Barn Owl’s life and behaviour, this book introduces you to the fascinating world of this remarkable bird. The images have been taken by a range of expert photographers, including Nigel Blake (who will be known to many surfbirds readers from his captivating images added to the surfbirds galleries over the years) and Mike Read, who have spent many years studying and photographing Barn Owls.

There are over 200 owl species in the world, but within the Barn Owl family, there are just 18 species according to the IOC list of World Bird Names. The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) has an impressive global distribution. Its range includes most of the Americas, Caribbean Islands, much of Europe, parts of North Africa, most of sub-Saharan Africa, parts of the Arabian Peninsula, parts of Asia, Australia, Tasmania and various islands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, including the Galapagos, the Falklands, the Cape Verde Islands and Madagascar. It might just be the world’s most widely distributed land bird. Its heart-shaped facial disc must make it one of the most loved.

Taxonomists recognise many Barn Owl subspecies or races. The Clements checklist of April 2010 lists 30 subspecies. As Chandler notes, there is no single definitive list and some of today’s subspecies may well be promoted to tomorrow’s species. Two subspecies are found in mainland Europe. These are alba and guttata. One is found in North America – pratincola. These three subspecies form the main focus of David Chandler’s biography.

Birdlife International estimates the world’s population of Barn Owls as five million birds. According to Chandler this constitutes a big population across a very big range, and holding their own, all of which means that, at a global level, the conservation scientists are not worried about Barn Owls. But Chandler also notes that its status varies from place to place. This wonderful hunter has found its way on to the endangered species list in a number of US states, including Washington, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Connecticut. Between 110,000 and 220,000 pairs are thought to breed in Europe. This sounds good, but numbers fell from 1970 to 1990 and its fortunes varied over the next decade. It did well in some countries with increases in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany but badly in others with declines in Poland, Italy, Spain, the UK and Ireland, among others. Overall, its numbers are thought to have dropped. Because of this ongoing loss, Birdlife International has evaluated the Barn Owl as of ‘European Conservation Concern’.

A fascinating chapter on diet reveals some unexpected insights into this silent killer. Although researchers have identified voles and shrews as the main diet of Barn Owls in Europe, sometimes other birds are eaten. Disturbing communal roosts of starlings, blackbirds and sparrows (known as bush whacking) is not unusual and some Barn Owls may become habitual bird killers. Indeed research in Ireland has shown that birds are a large proportion of the autumn and winter diet of some Barn Owls. Here it is not unusual to find Water Rail remains in pellets and in times gone by, Corncrakes were even taken!

Cannibalistic Barn Owls were brought to the attention of the British public in 2007 when viewers of the BBC’s Springwatch programme witnessed a Barn Owl chick eat a live sibling. In another study, an adult female is known to have killed one of her own very young chicks as food for herself and in another case as food for one or more of its siblings.

More typically a Barn Owl eats three voles, rising to eight during the breeding season, every day.

A chapter on ‘setting up home’ reveals the highly sedentary nature of both European and North American Barn Owls. In Europe, even Barn Owls at high latitudes stay put in winter. Ringing recoveries suggest very few British Barn Owls leave the country and few Continental birds find their way to Britain. Birds in Britain and Ireland disperse just 12 kilometres on average.

Barn Owls are not very territorial. It is not unusual for more than one pair to hunt in the same area and communal nesting has also been recorded. Back in the 19th century Barn Owls sometimes lived in ‘owleries’ with several tens or more sharing a common roof space. Barn Owls also demonstrate remarkable loyalty and may stay put even when their home patch habitat is seriously degraded.

Perhaps as a consequence, most Barn Owls do not live very long. In Britain, only 37 per cent survive their first year, though the odds improve significantly after that. Typically if a bird makes it through its first year it will then live for another three. Traffic kills a lot of Barn Owls accounting for perhaps 50% of all deaths.

Releasing captive-bred Barn Owls to augment a dwindling wild population has been fruitful to a limited degree but certainly not universally. A study in Hertfordshire between 1988 and 1992 found that the number of breeding Barn Owls did not change even though 195 captive-bred birds had been released and they had raised 69 young. Another study of English reintroductions over 21 years found that Barn Owl numbers had gone up but no one could be sure that the captive-bred birds had contributed to the change in fortune.

In conclusion, this delightful book has been written for anyone in Europe or North America who wants to know more about the Barn Owl – an easy to read, enlightening biography. It does not claim to be the last work on an already well-researched species but whether you have seen one or many Barn Owls, there is much in this book that will extend your knowledge and appreciation of this glorious hunter.

Author David Chandler worked for the RSPB and Birdlife International for nearly 20 years. He is now a freelance writer and ornithologist and has written a number of books, including Kingfisher, All About Bugs and All About Garden Wildlife for New Holland. He is to be congratulated for yet another lively, informative, visually attentive biography of one of the world’s most loved bird species.

Martin Birch

You can buy this book at the discounted price of £8.99 through Amazon here