WILDLIFE IN ATHENRY
by Tony Kilcommons
Barn owls are probably responsible for more ghost stories than Bram Stoker. A strange white form flitting over the old graveyard, the bone chilling scream from the old castle ruin which shatters the silence of the night
The barn owl is a perfect nocturnal predator with excellent vision, and extraordinarily acute hearing, which enables it to locate prey rustling in the undergrowth. These senses, combined with soundless flight and deadly talons make it a very efficient hunter. It usually hunts by quartering the ground at a height of two to five metres and regularly patrols its feeding areas. Often it carries its prey to a nearby post where it is swallowed whole. Although mostly active at dusk and night, it can sometimes be seen in daylight, when food is scarce during winter or when hungry youngsters are present in the nest. Adults normally pair for life, and remain within their territory of one or two square miles throughout the year. The barn owl is a medium sized owl without ear tufts, entirely white underneath, golden brown with grey or black speck-lings above. Small black eyes are set in a large white facial disc. It appears ghostlike at night with moth-like buoyant flight. It has a wing span of approx. 35 ins, and the average weight of males about 11 ozs females are a little heavier.
The barn owl has a variety of calls. The “song” is a loud drawn out hissing scream often uttered in flight. Before emerging from its daytime roost, the male frequently gives a series of subdued screeches and, if a female is present, screeching duets are regular. A habit regularly practised by another two-legged species who also hunt by night, except that the screeches, and duets, are more likely to be shared before going to roost, rather than when leaving it. Sites for nesting include buildings or old trees, vocationally cliffs and caves.
Agricultural buildings are most important, both used and disused, as are castles, mills, churches and ruins. It is estimated that there are between 600 and 900 pairs in Ireland. In Ireland field mice and brown rats are the most important prey. Bank voles are taken where available (south-west Ireland but spreading), birds, frogs and bats also. A single barn owl will consume six small prey items every 24 hours. Its decline is directly linked to changes in agricultural practices. Intensive farming provides fewer areas of rough grass and fewer field margins for hunting owls, while the removal of farm buildings, stone barns and dead trees deprives the owl of nesting sites. Many are killed every year through shooting and consuming prey contaminated with rodenticides. Farmers are asked to help by interfering as little as possible with existing nest mites, and encouraging owls to take up residence in new farm buildings by providing nest boxes (tea-chest size with a 6in by 6in hole). I was lucky enough to see a barn owl myself one night last winter while standing in the Square in Athenry at 2.15am and, while our interest in nature continues, I’m sure the future of the screeching duets of both species is assured.