The story of the barn owl barrel

Posted on 12th May 2023 by Peter Dale
Barn owls Conservation
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2023: In the early part of the year, I was asked to look at a totally derelict Barn Owl nest cavity which was very much in need of maintenance, to enable the birds to use it this season, the maintenance was carried out and I am pleased to report the site was successful in raising a number of young to fledging It was this episode in time that galvanized me in writing the story of the Barn Owl Barrels

It all began in Galloway about 1988, when we had a Barn Owl which was not going to be returned to the wild due to an injury, it resided in the garden shed, more on that later At the time my daughter was sleeping in one of the upstairs bedrooms with an apex facing the garden shed, one morning when rising, she looked like she’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, ‘what’s wrong with you’, asked I, ‘Barn Owls’ said daughter rather tersely, a totally wild bird had been perched on the apex of the house all night, directly above her bedroom window screaming at the captive bird in the shed

On feeding the captive bird, the diet being predominately day-old chicks, the regurgitated pellets were yellow in colour, noticing a change in the colour to natural black, we suspected that the wild bird was feeding the captive bird natural prey, we then installed an empty barrel with a block of wood on top close to the grill in the window of the shed, and on feeding the captive bird we would reciprocate by leave a chick on the block of wood for the wild bird

We took a lead from the Forestry Commission as it was then, they had been erecting modified Perth & Angus Fruit Growers 80lt plastic barrels as nest boxes for Barn Owls in the Galloway Forest.

By installing one of the 80lt Barn Owl barrels in a Sitka behind the shed, on returning home one time, my wife was complaining of the smell emanating from the direction of the barrel I fed the birds this particular evening, but having turned the key in the shed door to feed the captive bird, this became the signal to the wild bird that food was soon to be available, I then turned the key behind me, but instead of retiring to the house as I would normally have done, I stood there, the cock birds head popped out of the barrel, spotted me and departed post haste, I then put my hand into the barrel, swept it round collecting cached mice and voles, withdrawing a hand full of small mammal carcasses, but as my hand cleared the barrel out popped a Female Barn Owl, she must have been dancing round my hand whilst it was in the barrel, this was the beginning of 10 years successful breeding of Barn Owls in our garden

The barrel/feeding station outside the shed grill was then ‘Walked’ over a period of time, across the henhouse base, the drive, the front garden until it was located directly outside the lounge window, but as my wife was not going to settle for a bright blue 45-gallon plastic drum in front of the lounge window this was changed out for a Birch pole topped with a slice of Ash, a more photogenic and scenically acceptable structure as far as the wife was concerned

There after the cock bird would appear in the Birch tree at the bottom of the garden each night to be fed, head bobbing as much as to say ‘feed me then’

We then considered the installation of a CCTV system in the new 45-gallon Barrel, the first of our Barrels for Barn Owls which had replaced the old 80lt FC barrel and Nest Box Cameras had not been invented in those days

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On contacting a local Security Supplier, he offered to bring a selection of cameras to try one afternoon. No! said I, I want to see this work in real time, i.e., when the birds are feeding

Arrangements were made for him to bring a selection of CCTV cameras one evening, one camera was ‘jury rigged’ with the cable through the lounge window and plugged directly into the back of the tele, I then gave him the ‘Hurry Up’ as the cock Barn Owl was already sitting in the Birch tree at the bottom of the garden, head bobbing as much as to say ‘come on then I need feeding’ at this point I dropped the day-old chick on the bird table, then the shrieks from the lounge as I turned way said it all, the cock bird was on the table, apparently my back and the bird both in shot at the same time

A camera was duly installed in the barrel through one of the filling points, the cable back to the house, threaded through a garden hose, to protect it against being nibbled on by small rodents, then via a VCR and on into the tele with the facility I may add to change channels as soon as movement was detected in the barrel, this going down like the proverbial lead balloon as the channel would often change in the middle of Coronation Street to my wife’s horror and annoyance

Barn Owl Nest box scheme

It was after this that My Daughter suggested that we start a Barn Owl Nest Box Scheme, my first question to her was: Where’s the money coming from?, as the cost of a proprietary box in those days was in the region of fifty to sixty quid, and they needed to be installed in pairs as there was not enough room in one box for the hen to nest and the cock to roost, as for the weight, you needed the likes of Geoff Capes to handle them, and daughter was only a slip of a lass then, so weight had to be taken into consideration The FC was having some success, but they found that condensation forming in the smaller barrel was causing the broods to die of Pneumonia

We decided to stick with 207lt (45 gallon in old money) plastic barrels, they were donated by a local farmer (Sir Michael Herries, Director and Chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland at the time)

We constructed the barrel/boxes on a production line basis, daughter could handle them one-handed, then there was the volume to consider, for two reasons, one: room for the hen to nest and two: the cock to roost

It took some 18 months to install all 32 barrels, predominantly in old farm buildings where there were signs of barn owls, our first full breeding season resulted in 28 breeding pair of Barn Owls, some of the pairs rearing two broods in that season, the scheme went on to producing on average 100 young per year, as my ringing record can confirm Some of the buildings were later converted into private residences, the barrel located in the roof voids, and they are still producing successful broods to this day. One residence has been named after the owls ‘The Owl Barn’

We had no way of knowing why but, the first chicks of a brood tended to be hens/females and the brood’s dispersal was normally in a south easterly direction, often we found first year hen/female chicks becoming the breeding hens in our barrels in that general direction, in some cases 9 kilometers away

... Hamza deploying a barrel on the peninsula

Pine Marten's - Public Enemy Number One!

Moving to the Peninsular we found that Public Enemy Number One as far as the Barn Owl was concerned was the Pine Marten, to reduce predation of the Barn Owl by the said ‘Little Red Devil’, we have overcame this by the installation of our Barrel design in conjunction with a modern metal clad barn or agricultural building, the Pine Martens don’t appear to be able to gain purchase on the metal, the first of these being installed by a resident of Kilchon, you may have herd of him: Hamza Yasin, this being very successful from the onset as Hamsa’s photo can confirm

There are now several barrels installed on the Peninsular, a number containing breeding pairs of Barn Owls, to this day we are not aware of any being preyed upon by Pine Martens, we are aware of thirty-seven Barn Owl sites on the peninsular, some in natural sites, others in nest boxes provided by residents

Do you know of any Barn Owls that need protection from Pine Martens? get in touch

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More about Barn Owls
Barn owls are nocturnal birds of prey. They hunt for small mammals, such as mice, rats, and voles, as well as birds, bats, and insects. They use their keen hearing and eyesight to locate prey in the dark. Barn owls are also known for their distinctive heart-shaped faces. Barn owls are cavity nesters. They typically nest in old barns, sheds, and other abandoned buildings. They will also nest in hollow trees, cliffs, and even on the ground. Barn owls lay 4-7 eggs per clutch. The eggs hatch after about 28 days, and the young owls fledge after about 50 days. Barn owls are an important part of the ecosystem. They help to control populations of small mammals, which can damage crops and spread disease.