A barn owl nest recently confirmed in La Crosse is a first for the state in more than 20 years. With their characteristic heart-shaped face, barn owls are easily distinguished — if you can see one. They’re almost entirely nocturnal and very secretive. (Image by Kevinsphotos from Pixabay)

With all the depressing news about declines in global bird populations, it’s always encouraging to hear a bit of positive information, especially if it’s happening in our area. This year’s early Christmas glad tidings come by way of the Wisconsin DNR and courtesy of an alert resident of La Crosse.

A recent DNR news release reports that the first documented barn owl nest in Wisconsin in more than 20 years was detected after the La Crosse resident found a young barn owl that fell out of a dead tree. The owlet was picked up by the Coulee Region Humane Society and was such an important find, the executive director of the International Owl Center (conveniently located about 25 minutes away in Houston, Minn.) came to investigate. Karla Bloem put a camera in the tree cavity and discovered three barn owlets and their parents. They were reunited with their now-healthy family member in early October and the family was around the nest site for at least another month. The last recorded Wisconsin barn owl nest was seen in 1999, but sightings have increased lately so biologists and birders have been hopeful that they were nesting again in the state. Let’s learn more about these well-known but rarely seen nocturnal creatures.

We probably won’t see or hear barn owls here in the Northland, but readers (and visitors to) areas further south may be fortunate enough to come across these spooky birds. Their white, heart-shaped face is diagnostic, although most of the time they’re identified by their hair-raising scream; they don’t hoot like other owls. Their white face and underside and vocalizations have led to any number of reports of hauntings of abandoned buildings, but unless you’re a small mammal you’re not in much danger from them. They’re almost entirely nocturnal and use their unmatched hearing skills — they’re better at locating prey by sound than any other animal that we know of — to catch prey even in total darkness. Like other owls, they cough up the indigestible parts of the prey they eat as pellets — and they use these pellets to make their nests, so they aren’t easily grossed out. It’s also a great method of recycling! They prefer open habitats and nest in tree cavities, caves and barns and abandoned buildings. Or not so abandoned, as they’ve even nested in Yankee Stadium; there’s no accounting for barn owls’ baseball team preferences, but we still like them.

Barn owls have a distinctive, floaty flight over fields and open areas. They flap their wings slowly and loop around in search of prey. They mate for life and are generally monogamous, although some males reportedly have more than one mate. Males attract their mates with hovering flight displays, and keep them around by bringing them more food than they can eat (I’m personally in favor of this as a dating strategy). Females have flashier plumage and the ladies with more spots are more attractive to males and get more help with parenting. They aren’t excessively territorial and will share hunting sites although they will defend their nesting areas. They eat nocturnal mammals and occasionally birds that live in the same habitat, like blackbirds and meadowlarks. Their screaming call is sometimes mixed up with the hissy cry of young great-horned owls, which is a shorter, softer sound more likely to be heard in a forested area.

Barn owls are found all over the world and come in a number of different “races” or color phases. They don’t migrate and so generally aren’t found at higher latitudes. Their numbers have declined in some areas due to habitat loss, but as far as conservationists can tell — apparently they’re hard to count due to their secretive nature — they’re doing OK in North America and may even be increasing in number. Readers who live or own property in the southern half of the state can encourage them to breed by putting up barn-owl nesting boxes (instructions are easily found online), leaving up dead trees, and having structures with lofts, timbers or hay piles.

These mysterious predators may be making a comeback in Wisconsin, so keep an eye and ear out, because that pale, screaming phantom you see isn’t a ghost. Probably.

Sarah Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles. She can be reached at morrisoutside@gmail.com.

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