Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bad Year For Barny

2013 has been a bad year for Barn Owls. My own observations in a small part of Lancashire this year point to it. In the early part of the year I found 2 dead Barn Owls, one a roadside casualty, the other unknown, but probably starvation during a particularly icy spell.

In addition it was noticeable how when the entire landscape was frozen solid Barn Owls and other predators like Kestrel, Buzzard, Little Owl, Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier had to spend disproportionate amounts of time trying to find food. In the summer and the latter part of the year my sightings of Barn Owls are way down, the birds absent from known locations where I would normally expect to see them. 

Barn Owl

Barn Owl - road casualty

From The Guardian Saturday 14th December. "The Barn Owl Trust has openly declared that 2013 will be viewed as the worst year ever recorded for one of Britain's favourite farmland birds, and after four successive years of unusual weather, with long winters, cold springs and wet summers, the future is bleak for the British Barn Owl. 

“They fear that there are now fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs of Barn Owls, the population declining by more than three-quarters. In a typical year, conservationists estimate, Britain should be home to as many as 4,000 pairs of the birds. Fears about the decline in the Barn Owl population have been growing for many years. The birds were a common sight on farmland in Britain a century ago, but numbers had declined by 70% by the early 1980s, according to some reports. Over this summer, the trust warned that the owl was facing a "catastrophe" and now, following an end-of-year assessment, the true scale of the birds' plight has been revealed. 

"They have gone from scarce to rare," said David Ramsden, head of conservation at the The Barn Owl Trust "The scale of the decline is not normal." This year, occupancy of nest sites has been between 5% and 15% of previous levels, and for large parts of the country the figure has been even lower. Ramsden said four years of extraordinary weather had been devastating for the owl, whose distinctive white, heart-shaped face has made it an endearing feature of the countryside. 

Hunting Barn Owl

The cold winters of 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 had a devastating effect on the species, and the wet June of 2012 killed many nesting owls. March this year was the second-coldest on record, and led to a high mortality rate in adult Barn Owls. "It's been a catastrophic year," Ramsden added. "Barn Owls now need all the help they can get." 

Voted Britain's favourite farmland bird in 2007, the Barn Owl has occupied a central place in the nation's folklore. In parts of northern England it is good luck to see an owl. However, in other parts it is associated with death. 

Barn Owl

Ramsden said that much now depended on the winter ahead: "It will take at least two years for the Barn Owl population to start to recover – providing that we don't have any more extreme weather events." 

The owl's plight appears not to be confined to Britain. Earlier this year, Dr Akos Klein of the Hungarian Barn Owl Foundation said that his country had seen a similar dramatic decline. "Out of 30 regular nest sites, we found one active nest and one solitary bird," he said. "This is pretty much the case all over Hungary. Our March this year was like January." 

In this country, a third of all Barn Owls young end up dead at the side of roads or on railway lines. There are now also concerns that the proposed high speed train line between London and the Midlands could have a serious impact on the bird population. According to an environmental audit carried out in 2010 for HS2 (High Speed 2 - the plan to build a high speed railway through the heart of England), the company behind the project, the new railway line would "result in the loss of all breeding populations of Barn Owls within 1.5km of the proposed scheme". 

Barn Owl

An even more significant – but so far unquantified – threat is the widespread use of pesticides. The Barn Owl Trust said that the bodies of 91% of the birds that had been found dead had contained rat poison, which has heightened fears that the use of rodenticides is having a serious impact on the birds' mortality rates.” 

I have little more than word of mouth but a friend of mine who knows about vermin control tells me that some farmers routinely use rodenticides in haphazard and improperly controlled ways that present dangers to wildlife other than the intended victims. 

Nothing can change this depressing outlook until the new breeding season of 2014. Let’s hope that surviving Barn Owls have a productive year and produce many, many young, unhindered by our rotten weather and man’s interference.

Please remember that in the UK Barn Owls have Special Protection by the law and no one should go anywhere near them in the breeding season without proper authorisation.
Barn Owls

The weather is pretty bleak too at the moment preventing me from doing any meaningful birding. let’s hope that improves too.


Mary Howell Cromer said...

I sure hope that you have a mild Winter and that these amazing creatures can restore a healthy population. How very unfortunate. I met a friend back in the Summer and she was telling me that KY Fish and Wildlife has declared that our Barn Owl count is way down as well. Best of good luck for them. Have a great day! Warming up here and our birthday celebrations begin today with Bill having his big day. btw,I am learning to enjoy this little laptop ;)

The happy wanderer. said...

That's such sad reading. I guess ordinary people can't do much about the weather extremes, but is there no way local groups could talk to farmers and others who might use rodenticides thoughtlessly. I do hope your weather is milder this winter.

Seumus Eaves said...

Interestingly Phil, Craig was telling me yesterday that the Barn Owls at the Mere still have young. Whether this is a second brood etc or a replacement brood for previous weather induced failed attempts I don't know. Whatever it is, it is very late and indicative of a poor breeding season as you say.

Wally Jones said...

Our North American Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is likewise in dire straits. Already in trouble due to severe habitat loss, it suffers from all the problems you noted in your post as well.

We are in the second year of a five year bird census (in Florida) and I have yet to encounter a Barn Owl in our area. I believe there have only been three confirmations of breeding within the entire state.

I truly hope your local owls have a successful breeding season!

David Gascoigne said...

Barn Owls are enigmatic creatures and I can only wish for the best for them. It seems that they do not do well whenever they attempt to survive in a climate prone to severe winters.

eileeninmd said...

Phil, great post on the Barn Owl. I hope they make a come back. They are rarely seen around here, due to a loss of habitat and probably the awful rodent poison. Your photos are awesome.

KK said...

It is sad to hear about barn owls in your country. What is even sadder is that we ourselves do so many things that endanger all kinds of birds. Mobile phones, deforestation, noise pollution... it is a long list.

Many rat or insect eating birds here in India too are suffering because of the use of so many chemicals. Birds need organic farming more than we do.

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