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Barn Owls

June 4, 2010

Several years ago, while preparing for a birding trip abroad, I spent hours pouring through Schulenberg’s marvelous book, “Birds of Peru.” I was dismayed to find that I was about to spend two weeks birding in a country in which there were not just hundreds of species of which I had never heard, but also several dozen orders and a few avian families with which I had no previous experience. When our guide met us in Cusco, he asked each of what we hoped to see on our trip. I responded “rock pigeon.” He looked surprised and asked me to explain myself. I told him it was about the only bird in Schulenberg’s book I could identify by sight. This was a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. As a still learning birder, Peru was for me both the best of times and occasionally, the worst of times.

I found some solace in Schulenberg’s owls. There were two genera I recognized from home, and four species. I was surprised to learn that barn owls were found in Peru. I had not realized that they occur in a separate family from all other owls and that they are, principally, warm weather birds. The Great Basin and the 40th parallel constitute a loose northern boundary for the species in the United States.

Barn owls were first reported in Utah in 1899. Carl Marti, an ornithology professor, realized in 1976 that while hunting habitat and food sources for barn owls were abundant, the birds rarely nested successfully. In a partnership with Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources and local farmers and ranchers, nest boxes were installed, principally in silos and barns in northern and central Utah. Over the next decade the effort continued and northern Utah’s barn owl population increased.

Years after the fact, many of these nest boxes are still used. I know of six within a few minutes of my home. Most are difficult to access, wedged precariously in the upper reaches of abandoned silos, but one can confirm the presence of young without taking a peak. The presence of owl pellets on the silo floor, curious noises from the nest box high overhead, and above all, the remarkable smell, especially on warm days, all affirm what one cannot see. But on those occasions when one is privileged to steal a peek, it is special.

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