The mysterious Barn owl (Tyto alba) is a species native to Ireland and has long been held in fascination by the public as a rarely seen nocturnal hunter. The Barn owl’s ghostly white appearance, front-facing eyes and silent movement when in flight add to it its sense of mystery. In many countries, the owl is often associated with myths, legends and with wisdom and prophecy. In Ireland, the Barn owl’s haunting call has given rise to the myth of the Banshee whose wail was an omen of death for those that heard her.
Once common across Ireland, in recent decades its population has declined, and its home range is now restricted to areas in both the Southwest and Midlands. The Barn owl populace is approximated to have declined by over 50% in the past 25 years and it is now listed as a species of concern on Ireland’s IUCN Red List. Recent studies would suggest that the Irish breeding population is estimated at 400-500 pairs.
The Barn owl is a voracious hunter of rodents which helped the bird earn the reputation as ‘the farmer’s friend’. As the name suggests the Barn owl breeds in farmyard outhouses and barns as well as abandoned buildings such as castles and churches.
The barn owl is a highly skilful predator and its acute hearing alerts it to the presence of rodents and other small mammals rustling in the long grasses and hedgerows. Their feathers are extremely soft, ensuring that they make little to no sound during flight. This adaptation allows the Barn owl to hover undetected over its prey species. The Barn owl flies very low and slow, and their relatively large wingspan means that they can carry their prey over long distances.
The main drivers which have led to a population decline; are the loss of habitat, such as the removal of hedgerows and small-scale tillage in favour of agricultural intensification. The use of pesticides and herbicides is a major concern, and it is known that these toxins can affect a range of wildlife that may consume prey that has been exposed to and consumed bait. Sadly, Barn owls have been identified as one of the most susceptible birds to vehicle collisions. The loss of suitable nesting sites has also led to a reduction in its numbers in recent decades.
As an apex or top predator, the Barn owl sits at the top of its food chain and is seen as a sentinel species whose survival will depend on and be of benefit to the health of the Irish ecosystem.
For more information and helpful advice on how you can help Barn owl conservation please download the BirdWatch Ireland Barn Owl booklet (funded by Heritage Council, the Conservation and Research Department of Belfast Zoo, Fota Wildlife Park, Dublin Zoo and Kerry County Council).
BirdWatch Ireland. n.d. Barn Owl – BirdWatch Ireland. [online] Available at: <https://birdwatchireland.ie/birds/barn-owl/>
Hatch, N., 2010. Stealthy barn owl remains one of Ireland’s rarest hunters | Magill. [online] Magill.ie. Available at: <https://magill.ie/archive/stealthy-barn-owl-remains-one-irelands-rarest-hunters>
Lusby, J., 2018. Barn Owls in Ireland. [online] Youtube.com. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YESLEPyNPK8>
Lusby, J. and O’Clery, M., 2014. [online] Birdwatchireland.ie. Barn Owls in Ireland. Information on the Ecology of Barn Owls and their conservation in Ireland. Available at: <https://birdwatchireland.ie/app/uploads/2021/01/Barn-Owl-information-and-conservation-advice-booklet-_For-Web.pdf>
Reigel, R., 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.independent.ie/news/campaign-to-protect-barn-owl-that-inspired-banshee-legend-40523963.html>