Daylight hunting by Barn Owls – is England a special case?

Published on 05 July 2013 in Letters

In global terms, the Barn Owl Tyto alba is one of the most widely distributed of birds. So I was surprised to hear from Tom Noah, a member of the German rarities committee, that the bird he would most like to see during a visit to the UK last October was Barn Owl. He said that he had never seen one hunting in daytime and I then realised that, despite extensive travels in Europe and other parts of the world where Barn Owls occur, neither had I. I often see them at night in Spanish towns and Hungarian villages, while they regularly roost in trees and cliffs near staff quarters at African lodges that I visit. But I have never witnessed them hunting in the daytime like the birds I see regularly in Norfolk and my home county of Nottinghamshire. I put the same question to several widely travelled colleagues and this also seems to be the case among my circle of birding friends. Why should the UK be so different?

One possible answer was revealed in late 2012 when Dave Hursthouse and others watched a Barn Owl being attacked and killed as it quartered fields near Hayton, Nottinghamshire, in daylight. Perhaps the lack of avian predators such as Common Buzzards Buteo buteo and Northern Goshawks Accipiter gentilis in England during the twentieth century has allowed Barn Owls to take advantage of daytime hunting in periods of food shortage or when more food is required to feed youngsters? Certainly it has been very easy to find daytime-hunting Barn Owls in eastern counties like Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire where raptors were persecuted – and it will be interesting to see if Barn Owls change their habits as the number of Common Buzzards continues to rise. It would be interesting to know whether any overseas birders see Barn Owls hunting regularly in daylight in regions where there are high numbers of buzzards and eagles, or whether high densities of large raptors in an area makes for nocturnal Barn Owls.

Phil Palmer, 72 Grove Road, Retford, Nottinghamshire DN22 7NJ; e-mail phil@birdholidays.fsnet.co.uk

Barn Owl, pic by Richard Chandler

Barn Owl, pic by Richard Chandler