American Barn Owl Sound and Calls | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Barn Owl Sounds and Other Secrets

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Barn Owl in Flight
Photo Credit
Albert Beukhof

The Call of a Barn Owl is Not a Hoot!

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With its heart-shaped face, piercing yellow eyes, and eerie scream in the dark, the barn owl is an enigmatic creature. Here, you can hear this bird’s unusual call and learn about the most silent and stealthy owl of the night.

How Big Are Barn Owls?

At least 46 different races of barn owls have been identified throughout the world, but this page features the American barn owl specifically—also known as tyto furcata. The American barn owl is quite different than its European cousins.

The American barn owl is a medium-sized raptor that grows to around a foot in length and has a wingspan of up to four feet. It’s larger than a screech owl but smaller than a red-tailed hawk. A good-sized bird comparison is a crow—American barn owls and crows are about the same size. 

If you’re unsure how big a crow is, think of a small cat!  However, unlike a cat, the barn owl only weighs between one and one-and-a-half pounds.

What Does a Barn Owl Look Like?

The most striking feature of the American barn owl is its large, heart-shaped, and white face. It is ringed by darker feathers in stiff, tight rows, known as a facial ruff. This ruff reflects and augments sound similar to a satellite dish, funneling sound waves toward its exceptionally sensitive ears. This allows the barn owl to pinpoint the location of prey with remarkable accuracy, even in complete darkness.

close up of an american barn owl
Close-up of the American barn owl. Credit: Renhue

Rather than having external ear flaps like most owls, the barn owl has asymmetrical ears hidden in its feathers, which contribute to its keen auditory senses. The right ear and its opening are tilted slightly upward, while the left ear and its opening are tilted slightly downward. This asymmetry helps the barn owl locate the direction of sound both horizontally and vertically, allowing the owl to determine the vertical location of its prey with incredible precision.

The barn owl also has soft fringe-edged feathers that don’t “swoosh” as they move. Its soft feathers minimize turbulence, allowing for near-soundless movement through the air. Silent flight is another adaptation that aids its hunting success. This element of surprise is essential for catching unsuspecting prey, primarily small rodents like voles, mice, and shrews. 

Barn owls exhibit light or white plumage—like that on their faces—on their chest and belly. The rest of their feathers, including their long, rounded wings and short tails, can range from golden brown and cinnamon to gray and deep black. The owls living in colder regions are darker red in color and display larger but fewer black spots. While females tend to have darker plumage than males, there really isn’t much difference in their appearance. 

What Do Barn Owls Sound Like?

Most of us associate owls with a “hoot” similar to the Great Horned Owl, the owl of storybooks.

However, the sound of a barn owl is not a hoot but a raspy shriek. Some folks compare it to a harsh scream. It lasts about two seconds. Listen to the sound above, compliments of The Macaulay Library at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Male barn owls make this sound more frequently, using it to beckon their mate to inspect a prospective nesting site. Females will sometimes use the screech to ask for food from the male.

Why Are They Called Barn Owls?

True to their name, barn owls prefer to roost in abandoned barns or other buildings. They also like densely wooded areas and, generally, quiet places. 

In fact, researchers surmise that the barn owl’s preference for rural areas might be a direct result of their sensitive hearing, which can be overwhelmed by human noise. Experts have determined that man-made sound definitely interferes with barn owl hearing, but they don’t know to what extent.

What Do Barn Owls Eat?

These deft hunters love meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) in particular, but they’ll eat any small mammal, including rats, ground squirrels, and gophers. 

Generally speaking, they eat whatever kind of rodent is most available to them—and abundant.  And when I say eat, I mean bones and all! Barn owls swallow their prey whole, coughing up pellets of indigestible material about twice daily. 

Across American crops, vineyards, and orchards, barn owls are increasingly used in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as an alternative to extremely toxic pesticides. The bird’s efficient hunting prowess plays a vital role in controlling rodent populations, preventing them from reaching levels detrimental to agricultural ecosystems. It is estimated that a single barn owl can consume thousands of rodents each year, making it a valuable natural pest control agent.

Perched on a fence post, tree branch, or the edge of a barn, the barn owl patiently scans the fields and meadows, its keen eyes and ears searching for the slightest movement. They can hunt in total darkness of night almost exclusively through sound, though they do have excellent low-light vision as well. But they cannot track through smell or body heat the way some other animals can. 

Once the barn owl identifies its prey, it swoops silently, its powerful wings propelling it forward with astonishing speed. Its sharp talons strike with precision, securing the unsuspecting rodent in its grasp. The barn owl then returns to its roost or nest, where it feeds on its catch and regurgitates the indigestible parts, forming pellets that can be found near its habitat.

barn owl in flight
Barn Owl in flight. Credit: Ricardo Ayres

Where Do Barn Owls Live?

Unlike many birds that build elaborate nests in trees, the barn owl prefers to raise its young in existing cavities. It often takes over abandoned buildings, barns, and hollow trees, creating a simple nest on the floor or a ledge using leaves, twigs, and feathers.

Barn Owls are monogamous birds, forming a strong pair bond that typically lasts for life. The female lays a clutch of 4 to 7 eggs, which she incubates for about a month. The chicks hatch altricial, meaning they are helpless and require parental care for survival. 

Both parents diligently work together to feed and care for their children until they are fully grown and ready to begin their independent lives.

Where and When to Spot Barn Owls

You’re most likely to catch sight of a barn owl at night when driving out in the open country—which is actually a bit of a problem: Barn owls are particularly vulnerable to death by car collisions in agricultural areas. If you find yourself driving on a highway with fields stretching to either side, drive carefully! 

But if you’re lucky enough to live away from the hustle and bustle of city life, keep your eyes peeled for barn owls swooping in open fields, but also near streams. If you see a flash of ghostly white, you may have just gotten a glimpse of the American barn owl! 

Overall, any area with open barns or trees at the edge of an open space is a good bet. In fact, studies have shown that the urbanization of farmland is directly correlated with a lower population of barn owls. 

barn owl hunting
Hunting. Credit: Ondrej Prosicky

Barn Owl Nests and Babies

Much like some humans, barn owls pair for life. Unlike some humans, they don’t buy a house to grow old in over many decades, but they do have a tendency to use the same nesting site throughout a single year—they can lay up to three broods in a season. You, too, can try to attract a breeding pair by setting up a nesting box in your yard. 

Remember those pellets I mentioned? The ones that barn owls cough up a couple of times a day because they swallow their prey whole? The female barn owl will use those pellets of undigested animal matter to construct the nest, shredding them with her feet to form a cup.

Barn owls also have a relatively high reproductive rate, producing 2 to 18 eggs in one nesting attempt and doing so up to three times throughout the entire nesting season. The nesting season spans February to June and peaks between March and May.

Baby barn owls or owlets are covered in a very thin covering of down and lack feathers. Like many baby birds, they are scraggly. But by five weeks of age, they start to grow flight feathers, and you can see their unique heart-shaped face.

The owlets tend to be smaller in more heavily populated areas. Researchers have found that intense agricultural activity or other man-made disturbances make the nestlings more stressed, which may lead to the lower body mass observed. 

Another component of that correlation may also be food: There are more small, nocturnal mammals available in rural areas than in those where the land is heavily used.

barn owl and a barn owl chick
Barn owl, chick, and prey (mouse). Credit: Albert Beukhof

How Long Do Barn Owls Live?

Barn owls have a relatively short lifespan, living less than two years in the wild. But there are records of barn owls living up to the age of 15 in captivity.

Protecting the Barn Owl From Threats

Despite their beneficial role in the ecosystem, barn owls face various threats, including habitat loss, pesticide use, and competition for nesting sites. 

  1. Habitat destruction due to urbanization and agricultural practices often leads to the loss of suitable nesting cavities.
  2. Additionally, the use of pesticides can harm these birds by poisoning their prey, leading to food scarcity and population decline.

Conservation efforts focused on creating artificial nest boxes, promoting sustainable agricultural practices, and raising public awareness about the importance of barn owls, which are crucial for their continued survival. By providing alternative nesting sites and reducing harmful human activities, we can ensure that these majestic creatures continue to thrive in our midst.

By exploring the unique adaptations, hunting techniques, and nesting behavior of the barn owl, we gain a deeper appreciation for the intricate web of life and the vital role each creature plays in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. 

So, the next time you hear the eerie call of a barn owl echoing through the night, remember that you are witnessing a remarkable example of nature’s silent hunter, silently contributing to the delicate balance of the world around us.

Click here to listen to the sounds of other birds!

Have you heard the call of a barn owl? Add your comments below. Be sure to let us know where you live or where you’ve heard this bird sound before!

About The Author

Lucy Mutz

Lucy Mutz is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has a Bachelor's degree from Vassar College, and in her free time, she enjoys painting, cooking, and asking strangers if she can pet their dogs. Read More from Lucy Mutz

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