Skip to main content

The charity making life better by water

Barn owl

With their heart-shaped face and pure white feathers, barn owls are one of Britain's most treasured birds. Look out for a barn owl in ghostly silent flight along our riverbanks and canal towpaths at dusk.

Barn owl with distinctive white, heart-shaped face looks directly at the camera while perching in a tree hollow. Recognisable by it's heart-shaped face, the barn owl is one of the most widespread bird species.

Barn owl facts

Scientific name: Tyto alba

Family: Tytonidae

Diet: Rodents, small mammals, frogs, birds, and insects

Predators: Buzzards, goshawks, sometimes foxes

Size: 30-40cm, with an 85-95cm wingspan

Weight: 290-460g

Lifespan: Average four years, but can live up to 10

An owl by many names

One of our most-loved countryside birds today, barn owls have been known by many different names throughout history – from ghost owl to church owl or screech owl. Some rural populations gave them the name 'demon owl' upon hearing their piercing calls.

Barn owls, like all owls, are nocturnal birds and do most of their hunting at night. But you can sometimes see them flying over farmland and grassland along our canals and rivers, hunting for their next meal. With silent flight, excellent precision, and formidable hearing, barn owls are stealthy predators.

Barn owls and our canals

Barn owl survival depends on their ability to secure food – and our canals are prime feeding areas. Owls love voles, so we've reduced the number of cuts to grassland areas to provide a better habitat for the voles, which in turn aids the owl population.

How to identify a barn owl

Instantly recognisable by its white heart-shaped face, legs, and underbody. Its back, wings and head are golden brown with black and grey mottling. As with most birds of prey, females are larger than male barn owls.

What do barn owls eat?

Barn owls are ferocious and avid hunters. With incredible abilities to see and hear long distances while in silent flight, barn owls scour open grassland for prey. They're able to pick up the smallest of sounds.

While preferring small mammals such as voles, mice, shrews, and rats, barn owl diets can occasionally also include bats, small birds, amphibians, and invertebrates.

How do barn owls breed?

The barn owls typically reproduce depending on food supply. As such, there's no set breeding period. However, they usually lay around four to six eggs between March and August.

The chicks hatch just after a month later in the order they were laid – known as 'asynchronous' hatching. This means there can be as much as three weeks between the youngest and oldest chicks. This helps spread food demands over a longer period.

In times of little food, parent barn owls will only feed the biggest chick and let the smaller ones die. Because of this, 75% of chicks die within the first year of life.

Chicks are ready to fledge at around two months old.

A young, small barn owl with fluffy feathers and mottled brown wings perches on a branch. A barn owl chick with fluffy feathers and its characteristic heart-shaped face perches on a log.

Where do barn owls live?

As the name indicates, the barn owl nests in cavities within barns, buildings, bridges, and tree hollows – anywhere that provides shelter from wind and rain. Rather than building nests, they make their homes on top of the debris of previous years. In general, barn owls will nest at least three metres above the ground unless in an extremely isolated area.

You can find barn owls across Great Britain and Ireland. They choose to live in open countryside, farmland, along roadside verges, and by canals and rivers.

Tips to spot barn owls

Barn owls might be silent and stealthy in flight, but it's still possible to spot one. They can often be seen hunting along linear features, like hedgerows.

Even if you fail to see a barn owl, you might hear their unmistakable high-pitched screech when walking along the canal at dawn or dusk.

What's the best time of day to spot barn owls?

While barn owls are nocturnal birds of prey, you can often spot them hunting at dusk and dawn, along linear features like hedgerows. You might see one in the daytime during the winter months when food supplies are low.

What's the best time of year to spot barn owls?

Winter is the best time of year to spot a barn owl in flight. This is when they spend most of their time hunting to survive the cold weather when food supplies aren't as plentiful.

Threats to barn owls

Barn owl numbers declined previously but appear to have stabilised more recently and are fairly common today. They're a protected species, and it's illegal to intentionally disturb them.

Threats include changing agricultural practices, cutting down trees, destroying natural grasslands, and barn conversions. We work with organisations like the Wildlife Conservation Partnership to install nesting boxes and manage habitats.

Other species to look out for

Family nature guide 2019

Download your free nature guide

Identify footprints and read fascinating facts about the creatures who make their homes along our canals and rivers

Last Edited: 14 May 2024

photo of a location on the canals
newsletter logo

Stay connected

Sign up to our monthly newsletter and be the first to hear about campaigns, upcoming events and fundraising inspiration