Outside in the garden it is pitch black with only the perforations of stars for light. There is a blanket of silence except for the hollow conversations of two tawny owls calling back and forwards to each other from an ash tree.  One offers a “twitt” and the other replies “awhooo”, and they chatter in the style of wooden bass recorders playing single notes to each other.  The eerie beauty of the sounds belies their purpose.  The parents are trying to drive out their young, making it intolerable for the truculent teenagers to sleep in, and forcing them to find their own places to nest so that mother owl can start all over again.  Every day at this time of year and at about eight o’clock in the evening the noise begins. 

As we drove home this evening in the early dusk of late afternoon, a huge white ghost loomed out of the mist rising from the fields.  It swooped low over the car and continued it trajectory, hugging the hedges until it disappeared into a single old oak tree.  We had stopped to watch this beautiful barn owl in flight and had smiled at each other for we had spent Saturday afternoon learning all about the barn owl, hoping to encourage a pair to come and lodge in our garden too.  Our local wildlife conservation trust organises workshops for those who are interested and hopes to improve barn owl numbers beyond the 100-125 pairs currently in the county.  Numbers have fallen dramatically over the last sixty years and although the fall has been arrested, numbers need to increase again. 

We have only seen barn owls twice before, always in the late afternoon and always in autumn.  They appeared snow white against the aubergine purple of the newly ploughed fields.  In years gone by they were often mistaken for ghosts and their presence around rural churchyards spelt doom.  Country lore believed that a barn owl appearing in a window foretold the death of someone in the house.  Listen to the call of the adult barn owl and you will understand why.

They are efficient hunters, able to hover Harrier-like until they dive to kill.  Their flight is deathly silent due not only to the cone shape of the front of their wings, but also to the complete absence of waterproofing on their feathers which thus provide almost no resistance to the air.  But the lack of waterproofing is their downfall too.  Barn owls are killed more often than not either in road accidents or by drowning themselves in water butts left by farmers for livestock in fields.  Not known for their intelligence, despite their appearance, the owl probably mistakes its own reflection for another owl which it must drive away, and, Narcissus-like, it destroys its image and itself.  The owl’s feathers soak up the water and the bird is unable to extricate itself.  Long periods of wet weather also spell disaster since they cannot fly to find their food and are often reduced to eating the smallest baby birds once the short-tailed voles they have stockpiled have run out. 

Barn owls prefer open grassland, rather than the tawny owl who likes deciduous tree cover.  The barn owl will nest in a tree or a barn, but only if it has easy access to open fields, for it takes about ten thousands voles a year to raise an owl and the voles live in long, tussocky grass.  Timothy, cocksfoot, fescues and bents, and Yorkshire fog are the wonderful names of grasses that will house the voles.  One single pair of voles in January one year will have produced 36,000 voles by the following December, presuming all survive, and one can expect to find about 3,000 voles per hectare.  Each barn owl will feed off an area of about one and a half kilometres radius from its nest. 

Farmers are being encouraged through stewardship schemes to leave ever wider margins round the cultivated area of fields and to replace the thousands of miles of hedges that were lost during the heydays of over production in the early 1990s.  They are rewarded for their efforts by small payments per hecture, but the recent increase in cereal prices is threatening the future up-take of such schemes.  With grain prices now running at £200 a tonne, it makes no financial sense to leave large areas of land uncultivated, even with the extra payments from stewardship schemes.  Nesting boxes are manufactured by a business created to give work to disabled people and sold at a small profit to fund further conservation work.  Recycled materials are used; local sawmills have donated offcuts as have pallet manufacturers.  A local tree surgeon offers preferential rates to mount the boxes in trees.  So as not to damage the mature tree, plastic bolts or a truss of timber is used so that it is secure enough to be inspected regularly. 

At this time of year the barn owls are starting to pioneer for new nesting sites, able to breed from only four months old and needing to make the most of their relatively short lifespan of eight or nine years.  As part of a project to increase the number of barn owls, nesting boxes are being put up in this area.  Unlike most birds, the barn owl does not bother to make the nest comfortable and the very round eggs often roll around on the flat floor of nesting boxes until sufficient owl pellets of debris have built up to anchor the eggs.  Nor does the owl insist on sole occupation of the nesting box.  Owls will often be found to be sharing a box with a jackdaw or with stock doves.  Kestrels and tawny owls are less likely bed fellows since both will prey on the barn owl.  Teenage barn owls are bad news too, since their presence seems to prevent mother owl from breeding again.  Often the teenagers will be left in one nest while the mother flies off and finds another nest in which to lay more eggs.  The parents will return to provide food for the fledgling birds but the mother will make her home elsewhere. 

My birthday wish list is very short.  A new bicycle and an owl box. 

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