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Book Review: Barn Owl

Barn Owl

by David Chandler

Firefly Books, 2011

The first time you see a barn owl in flight, you catch your breath. For me it was at sunset in a very hot country, this small cloth of dirty white floating past a half-ruined stone well older than the Pyramids. There is absolutely no sound, but there is palpable intent: these birds are not butterflies, and if you see one in flight, you more than likely see one in the process of hunting some terrified creature for food. Tyto alba weighs only fifteen ounces, but when you see one ghosting over a field at sunset, you’re watching pure, whittled predation in motion.

Their white oval faces with their stage-mask black eyes are instantly distinctive – along with snowy owls, they are certainly the most recognizable of their kind. Like most owls, they are extremely effective hunters, extremely intelligent, and extremely adaptable. Barn owls are so-called ‘cavity’ nesters – minimally inventive nest-makers who prefer to find their homes in ready-made spaces like abandoned houses or barns, the hollows of trees, and the abandoned dens of other animals. When these nests are occupied by parents and chicks, there can be a wide variety of noises, as Chandler amiably points out while noting that these birds are often called “screech owls”:

The ‘Screech Owl’ snores too, especially the owlets and females. The snore is rough and wheezy and, like the worst human snorer, goes on and on though each individual snore last no more than about a second. It translates into ‘I’m here’ and ‘go and get some food’, when the female is ‘talking’ to the male, and ‘come back for some food’ and, later, ‘come on out’ when she is addressing her offspring. The nestlings use it to say ‘I’m here’ and ‘get me some food’. The hungrier the nestlings are, the worse the snoring, and when a food-bearing parent turns up, the nest is a cacophony of frantic snoring!

Barn owls in North America feed mainly on mice, rats, and especially voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus), although like most species of owl, these birds will eat anything unlucky enough to fall into their grasp. They are opportunistic hunters, but they face increasing threats to their population from human encroachment on their crepuscular habitats. A volume as beautiful (there are interior shots of nesting owl dens that are in themselves worth the price of admission) and informative as this one can only do barn owls good, increasing knowledge and awareness of this beautiful, haunting bird who has flown through the human imagination for ten thousand years.

This is a very nicely-turned product from Firefly Books, and one can only hope that it prompts all of its readers to go outside at sunset and see if they can spot the real thing.