With their distinctive heart-shaped faces and buff and white plumage, barn owls are one of the most easily recognizable species of owls.
Barn owls are amongst the most widespread species of birds across the world, as they can be found in pretty much every region, excluding polar desert regions. But how long do they live? Well, let's find out how long barn owls live?
On average, barn owls in the wild have a lifespan of around 4 years. However, most barn owls die young, bringing the average age of death down to about 20 months. In the first year of life, barn owls have a high mortality rate of up to 75%. Starvation is one of the leading causes of death, particularly during winters with significant snow cover.
Unlike most medium-sized carnivorous animals and birds, barn owls produce a high number of eggs (anywhere from two to nine eggs) that have a pretty rapid growth rate.
This is known in ecology as r-selection, which essentially means a high number of offspring are produced, with a relatively low chance of survival to adulthood.
On average, barn owls live for around 4 years in the wild, providing they survive the first year of life
In the wild, the average lifespan for a barn owl is around four years. In north temperate regions, barn owls have an extremely high mortality rate (65 - 75%) during their first year of life.
In Scotland, there have been recordings of barn owls living for 18 years, although the oldest recorded barn owl was 34 years old.
Barn owls have an average hatching success of around 4 eggs, but the average of fledging success sits at just 2.5, and of those 2.5, only approximately 70% of fledglings survive their first year of life.
In the US, the longest captive barn owl recorded was 20 years old. It was a male barn owl who lived in Sardis Raptor Center in Ferndale, Washington.
In the UK, Barny the Barn Owl reached the age of 30 back on the 17th of May 2016, making him possibly one of the oldest captive barn owls in the world. Barny resides at the Barn Owl Centre of Gloucestershire.
It's thought that only 70% of fledgling barn owls usually survive past their first year
Barn owl chick development is pretty fast for the first 25 days after hatching, with maximum weight typically reached at around 40 days of age.
Egg-laying: Barn owl clutches can be anywhere from two to nine eggs.
Incubation: On average, barn owls incubate their eggs for around 30 days. Females solely incubate the eggs, with males providing food during this time.
Hatching: Egg hatching usually takes place during the evening and will finish by early morning. Barn Owl chicks are born altrical (naked with closed eyes).
Nestling: During the first day after hatching, barn owls can only crawl. It takes around 14 days for them to be able to walk, and by 16 days, they can usually eat whole mice.
Leaving the nest: On average, it takes about 55 days after hatching for the first flight of barn owl chicks.
Juvenile stage: After taking their first flight, it'll take around another 30 days for juvenile barn owls to become fully independent of their parents. However, they'll usually stay nearby to their natal site.
Adulthood: After another 2 - 8 weeks after becoming independent from their parents, barn owls will start to disperse.
A juvenile barn owl taking its first flight
The majority of barn owls die of starvation which typically happens mostly to inexperienced juveniles once they are left to hunt for themselves, or during severe winters when the abundance of mammals is affected.
The survival rate of nestlings depends mainly on the abundance of food around the nesting habitat. Factors like the weather conditions, behavior of the parents, and quality of habitat all contribute to the supply of food available to the nestlings.
Adult barn owls are most likely to die during the latter parts of winter and during early spring. During this time, rodents and small mammals, which make up to 90% of their diets, in some regions, are at their lowest numbers.
In North America and Europe, voles are the most common small mammal preyed upon, followed secondly by shrews.
Compared to other species of owl, barn owls have a pretty high metabolic rate, which is why they require to consume food more frequently than similar-sized owl species.
Other than starvation, man-made hazards also contribute to barn owl mortality rates. Cars, trucks, and trains are all hazards that unfortunately hit barn owls and kill them.
There is some debate as to whether barn owls can be poisoned from some of the prey they eat - usually rats and mice infestations that have been poisoned with rodenticides.
Although this argument has no definitive research or study carried out, there are suggestions that even slight adjustments in barn owl behavior due to small contaminations can have a significant effect on their lifespan.
Barn Owl in flight during the early morning winter frost
Barn owls have very few natural predators, but in some regions, nestlings are predated by stoats and snakes. Although not likely, barn owls have been preyed on by birds of prey, including Golden Eagles, Buzzards, Red Kites, Goshawks, Peregrine Falcons, Lanner Falcons, Tawny Owls, Eagle Owls, and Great Horned Owls.
The evidence on Great Horned Owls preying upon Barn Owls is relatively inconclusive, but there are still many reports of this happening, particularly in captive-raised populations who are then released into the wild.
The oldest recorded barn owl in the wild was 34 years of age.
This long lifespan shows that barn owls are capable of living long lives, but providing all of the factors that usually contribute to their mortality are kept to a minimum - for example, habitat quality and abundance of prey.
The source for this information is Keran, D. (1981). The incidence of man-caused and natural mortalities to raptors. Raptor Research 15:108–112.
Barn Owl eating a mouse
Because barn owls have a high metabolic rate, they require quite a lot of food. On average, barn owls usually eat between 3 and 4 prey items each night.
Barn owls, when at the nestling or juvenile stage, require much more regular feeding than adults. This isn't to say that adult barn owls can go long without food, as ideally, they need food every day, but it's thought that some barn owls can go a few days without food.
During the breeding season and whilst raising nestlings, barn owl parents typically need to find not only 3 to 4 prey items for themselves but ideally for each owlet too.
Harsh winters are one the most significant threats to barn owl populations. The main reason for this is the threat it poses to the abundance of small mammals - mainly voles and shrews, in their habitat. Because of this, many barn owls fail to survive the more severe winters.
Both adult and less-experienced immature barn owls are both at risk during this time, as food is a lot more scarce and hard to come by.
To help survive cold winters, barn owls roost in sheltered places. During the winter, heat production can be as high as 30% greater than when compared to the summer months, and because of this, more significant amounts of food are required to sustain this.
High winter mortality rates have a certain link to the high cost of regulatory thermogenesis and limited use of hypothermia during fasting periods.
Winter is the most challenging time for barn owls
In seven mid-Western states (Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin), barn owls are listed as an endangered species. In seven other states, they are listed as a species of special concern (Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, and South Dakota).
In the UK, barn owls are protected by the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, which also protects nesting populations, including their eggs.
Globally, barn owls are listed as not globally threatened and are a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
Barn owl populations across North America and Europe are declining in many areas, with much of this thought to be attributed to changes in modern-day agricultural practices.
Pesticides and habitat loss are two other significant factors thought to be affecting barn owl numbers, as well as harsher winter conditions.
Although numbers are declining in some regions, the percentage decline is currently not significant enough for any cause for concern. Nest boxes can help both sustain and increase barn owl populations.
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