The process of barn owls raising their young is a dance of nature marked by dedication, adaptability, and the raw instinct to survive.
For bird enthusiasts and rehabilitators, understanding this process offers both a window into the life cycle of these magnificent raptors and crucial knowledge for aiding in their conservation.
Let’s embark on the journey of how barn owls rear their young, from the delicate egg stage to the fledgling’s first flight.
Stages of Rearing Young Barn Owls:
- Courtship and Mating: This period involves mutual preening, vocalizations, and the male offering food to the female. Their bond strengthens, setting the stage for raising a brood.
- Choosing a Nesting Site: Barn owls are cavity nesters, often opting for secluded sites like barn lofts, tree hollows, or man-made nest boxes.
- Egg Laying: A female barn owl usually lays 3-6 white, slightly rounded eggs. These eggs are laid at intervals of 1-2 days, resulting in a staggered hatching pattern.
- Incubation: Lasting about 30 days, the incubation period is a time of vulnerability. The female stays with the eggs, relying on the male to bring food.
- Hatching: Due to the staggered laying pattern, chicks (or owlets) hatch at different times. This results in a nest with owlets of varying sizes and developmental stages.
- Feeding and Growth: Owlets are altricial, meaning they are born helpless. Both parents feed them by tearing up prey into small, digestible pieces. Over the weeks, the owlets grow rapidly, their downy fluff giving way to true feathers.
- Fledging: At around 50-55 days, young barn owls take their first tentative flights. However, they continue to return to the nest and rely on their parents for food for several weeks.
- Independence: Eventually, the young owls start hunting for themselves and stake out their own territories. This period can be perilous, as they face threats from predators, potential food scarcity, and other challenges.
Considerations for Human Intervention:
- Nest Disturbance: It’s essential to minimize disturbance to nesting sites to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the young.
- Rehabilitation: If an owlet is found injured or orphaned, it’s crucial to contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. They have the expertise to provide the care required for the bird’s best chance at survival.
- Conservation Efforts: Erecting barn owl nesting boxes in areas with declining natural habitats can provide these birds with the much-needed space to rear their young.
Hatching to Week 3
During the first three weeks after hatching, it is common for barn owls to have around 4 eggs, although sometimes only 1 or 2 will successfully hatch. After hatching, the owlets have a thin covering of down, but they are not able to keep themselves warm at this stage.
The female barn owl takes on the role of brooding the owlets, keeping them warm and protected until they are around 3 weeks old. Meanwhile, the male owl takes on the responsibility of hunting and bringing back small mammals to feed the rapidly growing chicks.
At this young age, the owlets make soft chittering sounds, particularly when uncovered. By the time they are 3 weeks old, they are capable of swallowing whole shrews or small mice.
Around the age of 3 weeks, the birth down is replaced with a thicker down, enabling the owlets to keep themselves warm. This change allows the female owl to have increased freedom to help the male with hunting duties.
The owlets are now capable of feeding themselves, although squabbles over food are not uncommon. They become more mobile and by 5 weeks, they can run, jump, pounce, hiss, and click their tongues.
It’s quite entertaining to see them move their heads from side to side, round and round, and even look upside down! The characteristic heart-shaped face begins to show, and the flight feathers can be seen underneath their white fluffy down.
When they are hungry, the owlets call endlessly for food with a distinctive food-begging call. It’s interesting to note that some surprising behavior has been observed, including nestlings feeding each other instead of eating food themselves.
At around 6 weeks old, well-fed owlets can be 100g heavier than adults!
Even after the young owlets are fledged, food continues to be brought to the nest. This period is marked by wing flapping exercises, which send tiny bits of white fluff in all directions.
By 8-9 weeks, the owlets will have made their first short flights, and by 10 weeks old, they start to resemble adult Barn Owls and are quite competent flyers.
The average number of young that fledge is around 2.5, but in situations where food is plentiful, broods of 6 or even 7 owlets have been recorded.
During the process of fledging, the young owlets repeatedly return to the nest and can still be found roosting together in the nest during the day.
Week 10 and Beyond
Once outside the nest, the young owlets engage in “play-hunting,” which involves pouncing on anything that moves.
They receive little to no training from their parents and instead learn to hunt through their own instincts. The earliest recorded prey capture by an owlet was at 72 days old, and by their 12th week, their dependence on adult food decreases.
At around 10-12 weeks old, they begin to roost outside the nest by day, often in nearby trees. Over time, they learn the advantage of dry roost sites after experiencing wet conditions. However, roosting in trees, such as in ivy, can persist until temperatures drop in November.
Around 12 weeks of age, the owlets gradually venture further away from their parents’ home range until they instinctively leave to find their own territory.
This process is known as dispersal, and by 14 weeks, most of the owlets have left their parents’ home range. While some young may be chased away by the adults, records also exist of young owls being tolerated for several months after fledging.
Complement this with a dive into their habitat preferences through Barn Owl Occupation. Understanding their dietary patterns via Feeding Barn Owls is also essential. At the heart of this knowledge is our pillar page on Barn Owl.