A few winters back a good friend approached me, nearly breathless with excitement. He had learned from a neighbor where he could see a “white owl” and wanted to share the information. The news came like an electric shock. Snowy owls have been documented in Utah twelve times in one hundred years, only twice in the last decade. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. But as my friend spoke I started to think about it. I grew skeptical and rightfully so. A short drive led us to a barn owl, a lovely bird but a disappointment. I have since revised my opinion.
Barn owls are listed as uncommon permanent residents of the state. They are most often seen in the agricultural areas in northern and central Utah, although one April evening I heard one shriek from a cottonwood tree in Beaver Dam Wash, deep in the heart of the hot desert. It is thought that they do not migrate although they are ill-prepared for bitter Great Basin winters. A member of the family Tytonidae, barn owls are better suited for tropical conditions. Their plumage does not insulate them nearly as well as that of their great-horned and great gray cousins. Barn owls struggle in the cold.
When snow covers the ground it makes things even worse. Despite their acute night vision and supremely keen hearing, their talons lack the strength to penetrate the snow once it becomes crusty. The rodents they feed on burrow just beneath the icy surface, protected, tantilizingly close but just out of reach. Their hunger makes barn owls desperate, careless. During winter dead barn owls are frequently seen along the highway sides. In taking advantage of the open road surfaces as hunting grounds they become so intent on their pursuit that they become oblivious to the dangers of oncoming traffic.
Barn owls will soon begin to hunt during daylight hours if they haven’t begun already. They are sometimes seen patrolling frozen marshes along with short-eared owls and northern harriers, looking for dinner. They cannot choose the company they keep or be fussy about the hours. Every barn owl seen hunting during the short winter days is a participant in a contest with death. It is not uncommon for state wildlife officers making spring checks of roosts and nest boxes to find hundreds of dead barn owls, starved and frozen. Truly, only the strong survive.