Barn owls rebound from near extinction in Iowa

Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Barn owls, which have been on the endangered species list in Iowa since 1977, are experiencing a comeback. For the fourth consecutive year, barn owls have increased their nesting in the state. This year, the DNR found 38 nests in 26 counties. (Photo submitted)

If the current four year trend continues barn owls may come off Iowa's endangered species list within the next five years.

Barn owls were first placed on the state's endangered species list in 1977. In 1980, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources only located one barn owl nest in the state, but this year, the DNR found 38 nests in 26 counties.

"The DNR started with a project in the early 1980s, we did a captive release," DNR wildlife bird biologist Bruce Ehresman said. "We have done 500 captive releases between 1983-1987. We found that the morality rate was so high we could not justify doing it again. Last year we had a record high of 17 nests documented and this year we had 38 nests documented. It was just a dramatic increase in the number of barn owls. If this continues five more years we might be able to change the barn owl designation from endangered to threatened."

While the majority of barn owls live in the southern third tier of the state, there have been sightings of barn owls in Clay County this year.

"For this year there has been just a few sightings of barn owls locally," Iowa DNR Conservation Officer Joe Yarkosky said. "The reason we have seen an increase in barn owls comes down to habitat and weather. A series of mild winters have helped with the increase of barn owls across Iowa."

Cold winters are difficult for the birds to survive because snowfall limits where the birds can hunt for food. The birds also have about 8 percent body fat and cannot survive more than six days without food.

"Some people have old barns and buildings where the barn owl can nest," said Lee Schoenewe, chairman of Clay County Conservation Board and local bird expert. "The barn owl will use an artificial nest if provided. There are very successful designs for barn owl boxes for people who want to help. The barn owls will not be able to get what they need in a corn or bean field. The habitat the barn owl needs are grasslands."

Another factor limiting the barn owl population is predation. Animals like great horned owls and raccoons prey on barn owls making nesting choices crucial to survival.

"This past summer there was a person up west of Fostoria in Clay County," Schoenewe said. "He had a barn owl that was hanging around his acreage for a couple of weeks. Then one morning he came out to work and their was a pile of barn owl feathers. He has great horned owls living on his acreage as well. It was obvious the great horned owl had killed and eaten the barn owl. We never found them nesting, but we have had reports so we know they were in the area."

Ehresman said he hopes the trends continue and the barn owl completes its comeback in Iowa.

"People do love barn owls," Ehresman said. "It is just such a popular topic. People just seem to have some kind of connection to these animals."

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