‘Not-So’ Common Barn Owl May Live Here

Rick Lewis A trio of barn owls blend into the landscape. These owls make their homes in the Canary Island palm trees here in Alameda
Rick Lewis

‘Not-So’ Common Barn Owl May Live Here

Leora Feeney

The common barn owl (Tyto alba pratincola) is considered the most widespread land bird globally with 28 sub-species. It is found on every continent but Antarctica. Alameda’s barn owls are a welcome neighbor to most residents, but numbers have diminished becoming a concern to birders and others.

This owl is rust-colored above with spotty markings. Males appear whitish from below; under-parts of the female are darker with a light cinnamon color. They are known for their heart shaped faces that focus delicate sounds from prey. Length is 11 to 17 inches; wingspan is 31 to 37 inches.

The short tails offer an elongated shape in flight. The female is largest.

The pale ghost-like color of this white-faced owl on adapted wings for gliding along at night for soundless approach, have made it a victim of unwarranted imagination. That it also has human-like vocalizations, especially when young are in the nest, adds to numerous superstitions dating back thousands of years.

The reality is that this owl has evolved not to frighten, but to be a master hunter of rodents. Farmers know that having a barn owl is an important part of a successful operation. Neighborhoods in Alameda have enjoyed the noisy nests, knowing that the birds are earning their place by reducing rat and mouse numbers without dangerous poisons or varied unpleasant traps. They also eat birds, insects and lizards.

The nests are a depression made with various debris on ledges found in empty buildings with openings as small as a broken window. They’re easier to locate in mature Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) with large feather-shaped fronds used to support the nest. Theserees are found in many Alameda parks and older neighborhoods.

I wonder if they were planted intentionally to provide homes for efficient pest control; we often see them in yards of farm houses, too.

Look at the base of these palms for sign of feathers, white wash, or pellets that the owls spit up with indigestible bones and other parts of prey. It can be the dickens to see them in the crown of a tree with dense fronds and deep shadows, but with patience you should succeed.

Neatening of palm trees disrupts nesting birds. It is important to check trees before trimming them to ensure we aren’t evicting owls or migratory species such as orioles that fly thousands of miles to use Alameda’s taller fan palms to raise families.

Highly manicured trees do not provide the same protections for nests against weather and predators as those with a dense crown. A diverse community of flora and fauna brings us closer to nature considered by many to be our most important teacher.

Barn owls usually produce one brood annually. They lay five to seven white eggs. Food availability is thought to reflect the number of eggs in a bird’s clutch. Incubation requires 27 to 28 days with young fledgling within 28 to 33 days. Adult owls live about 10 years.

The mystery owls evoke creates contradicting folklore. They’ve been thought to provide both good and bad luck, to represent evil and goodness. The Greek goddess of wisdom Athena declared her favorite bird to be the “little owl” closely related to our burrowing owl, Athene cunicularia. From that we have the origin of wise owls. We’d be wise to remember how important they are to balance our ecosystems too.

If Alameda Sun readers find barn owls in the city’s Canary Island palms, we would appreciate hearing from them. We’d like to monitor these owls and ensure that they remain a part of our community. Contact me at leoraalameda@att.net.