It’s no secret that Barn Owls inhabit Cesar Chavez Park. It’s also hardly a secret that some of them sometimes use some of the wooden boxes on steel poles that were specifically put up to attract them. Nevertheless, birding ethics counsel against publishing photos or videos of nesting birds when these images could lead to disturbance of the nest. For this reason, neither I nor any other photographer to my knowledge published any images of nesting Barn Owls in the park while there was nest activity. The box locations are totally accessible to the public. I’ve been told that in the past some people, not only kids, banged on the steel poles to see if they could get the birds to fly. Fortunately for them, the owls mostly dwell in the dark recesses of the box, and you need binoculars or a long zoom lens, and timing, and luck, to see them. So the knowledge of active Barn Owl nesting was shared mostly by word of mouth among a handful of bird enthusiasts.
But now, with November approaching and boxes vacant, it can be told. More or less. I’m not disclosing the exact location or the dates. And, in truth, there is a great deal about this breeding that I can’t share because I don’t know. I saw and photographed a Barn Owl mother, see photo. I saw no father and no courtship. I saw no parent feeding the chicks, although obviously they were fed, since they grew. The owls are nocturnal and presumably took care of all this business in the dark.
I saw at one point four chicks in a box. That was quite a crowd in that tiny barn-on-a-pole, and there were moments of downy bedlam with wings and beaks all piled and tangled up. The mother laid her eggs in stages, so that little downballs just out of the egg and barely able to lift their heads cohabited with older siblings well on their way to fledging.
I do know that not all the chicks survived. There is a high casualty rate in the wild, and it was little different in the park. I saw one chick dead on the ground, and heard reports from other park visitors about two others that fell out of the nest and did not make it back. I also heard, but did not personally see, that there was a second clutch. If so, chances are that we will see more Barn Owls in the park, and perhaps more Barn Owl babies.
The spots on the mother’s chest, interestingly, serve the bird’s health and her reproduction. The Cornell bird lab website says:
Barn Owl females are somewhat showier than males. She has a more reddish and more heavily spotted chest. The spots may indicate the quality of the female. Heavily spotted females get fewer parasitic flies and may be more resistant to parasites and diseases. The spots may also stimulate the male to help more at the nest. In an experiment where some females’ spots were removed, their mates fed their nestlings less often than for females whose spots were left alone.
Barn Owls can hunt at night not only because their eyes have superb sensitivity in low light. They can even hunt by ear in total darkness. Cornell says the owl’s “ability to locate prey by sound alone is the best of any animal that has ever been tested. It can catch mice in complete darkness in the lab, or hidden by vegetation or snow out in the real world.”