Indiana’s nest box program boosts Barn Owl resilience
“These are special species that deserve to be saved”
Spotting the distinctive face of the nocturnal barn owl might be a little challenging on a regular basis. But some lucky farmers have become their next-door neighbors by providing them with a secure place to roost at night through an Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) nest box program. The program, in which safe nesting sites are installed on landowners’ properties for the purpose of hosting Barn Owls, has been under way since the 1980s with excellent results.
Private partnerships to protect wildlife
Much of the habitat of the Barn Owl in Indiana also happens to be on private land, so it’s extremely beneficial for the owls when a landowner is willing to host an owl family on their property. Amy Kearns, Assistant Ornithologist at the IDNR and lifelong birder, reports that generally, the response has been intense curiosity and reverence for the raptors, who have been traditionally known as “farmer’s friends,” due to their enthusiastic consumption of pesky rodents like voles, shrews, and mice; and for their general ease around humans and habit of sneaking into barns to find shelter and raise chicks. If a landowner notices an owl family on their property, they will often call IDNR for more information, which then takes the opportunity to offer them a nest box. Or sometimes they’ll come across a chick that is injured and needs rehabilitation. “If a landowner cares enough to take that chick to rehab, that landowner is more likely to accept a nest box,” says Kearns. All nest boxes are installed free of charge and helps the IDNR protect wildlife to the benefit of owls and humans.
The perfect nest box
Impressively, the basic plywood design of the nest box has barely changed—and there’s not much reason to gild the lily. “We have some boxes from the 1980s that are still up and hosting owls,” says Kearns, stating that a sturdy wooden structure that is protected from the rain is simple but effective for the long haul. “I hope that any box that we put up today is going to be in that barn as long as the barn remains standing.”
IDNR supplies the boxes, which are installed through a hole in the barn’s side so that the owls’ two biggest predators, the Raccoon and the Great Horned Owl, can’t attack them. Some industrious and interested people want to make the boxes themselves, and there are simple step-by-step blueprints located on IDNR’s website so that anyone can participate in the sheltering and protection of these raptors. “Even for someone who isn’t much of a carpenter, it’s really easy to understand,” says Kearns.
The nest boxes are designed in such a way that they are attractive to Barn Owls and help keep chicks safe, with a lip to keep them from falling out of the enclosure and an opening that is 6 by 6 inches to prevent predators from invading their space. One of the reasons boxes are so helpful is because Barn Owls like to build nests in the cavities of trees—dead or living—but this is prime real estate for many other creatures as well. “Dead trees are in hot demand,” says Kearns, but while they may be appealing to owls and woodpeckers, people will often have them removed, reducing the number of available nesting sites. Barn Owls also don’t have waterproof feathers, so to keep them warm and comfortable, they need an enclosure that keeps the rain, snow, and sleet out to maximize survival. This is part of the reason Barn Owls were drawn to barns in the first place, and also why they feel relatively comfortable existing right alongside human habitats. “Barn Owls are really cool because they have been around humans and human farms for a really long time and they are often attracted to our buildings,” says Kearns. Indeed, though the Barn Owl got its name from roosting in barns, Kearns says nest boxes have been installed in other buildings that have attracted owls too, like a church steeple. “Barn Owls aren’t too particular, as long as it’s safe [and high off the ground],” she says.
Hosting a family of owls can bring with it a certain messiness that might discourage landowners from wanting the birds to live on their property. “You’re not going to want to park your prized vintage automobile under an owl roost,” says Kearns. “It would be whitewashed.” But the nest box program actually helps with this small hiccup too; by providing a structured place for the owls to roost, you get a little bit more control over where the owls nest, so you can keep it away from your classic cars or any other inconveniences while still helping these beautiful birds thrive.
Checking and cleaning the boxes
There are around 350 nest boxes in the IDNR’s program, and they are each cleaned, checked, and repaired on a five-year schedule, preferably in the winter, when there is a smaller likelihood that there will be an active nest, which typically happens in the spring. This is incredibly important because, while Barn Owls as a species tend to be relatively habituated to humans, peering into their actual nest must be done with extreme sensitivity or else the owls may abandon the site, which Kearns has sadly seen happen.
Lots of clues about the breeding activity of the previous season can be found in the pellet mass, which is the concentrated matter of undigested fur, bones, and other material regurgitated by owls and chicks, and which creates a layer of insulation on the enclosure’s floor. The female owl will make a scrape, or a divot in the mass, and use the shredded pellets as a cozy liner for her nest of five to six eggs. If a brood has been hosted recently, the pellet mass is dark and black, whereas if it’s been a while since owls have occupied the nest box, it will look dusty and light gray. Another reason for the five-year schedule? Each box is big and can hold a lot of chicks, which means the cleaning process takes quite a bit of time. Kearns has seen some boxes with as many as eight chicks. “Each chick is coughing up a couple of pellets every day.” This is one reason the IDNR’s blueprints are bigger than some of the other nest box blueprints out there, at 32 by 16 by 16 inches. “We are maximizing what we can do with one sheet of plywood,” says Kearns.
The program’s results
Over the course of the program, the amount of Barn Owl nests have more than doubled, from 20 to 43 nests found during the 2017 survey. The 2022 survey is ongoing. Already, 180 sites have been checked, and over 40 nests have been documented. “This is a fun project because the owls are responding—the population is increasing,” says Kearns. During site visits, Kearns and her team have a permit that allows the agency to put bands on wild birds. To achieve this, if nests with chicks are found, the chicks are placed in buckets during the site cleaning, banded with a unique number, and then returned. The numbers are reported to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Lab for tracking. “People band birds for all different reasons, but for us it was more opportunistic since we already had the birds in hand,” says Kearns. This data is used to inform reports that are shared with other state agencies. “No state is in a vacuum,” says Kearns. “There is Barn Owl work being done in Illinois and Kentucky and Ohio, which also have these nest box programs. The more that we all do the more we can help the Barn Owl population.”
One worry for the Barn Owl’s survival is loss of habitat, such as open grassland where they can catch prey, but also nesting sites, which includes a decline in the presence of barns in general. “Farms are getting larger and there are fewer barns than there used to be,” says Kearns. “Thankfully, we have private landowners that are willing to participate. We can change everything for the birds by partnering with private landowners to give Barn Owls a safe place to nest.”
What you can do
For anyone who wants to help Barn Owls and who has access to a site, they can build or install their own nest box. IDNR has a wealth of information online and there is a similar program in Illinois. Another way to help is to donate to the Indiana Nongame Wildlife Fund , which funds the nest box program and protects other forms of wildlife as well. Kearns emphasizes that the program does not get any state tax dollars, and it relies on donations that are eligible for a federal match. “These are special species that deserve to be saved,” she says.
TWiB contributor Emily Torem has been writing about how our urban habitat can become more hospitable to natural flora and fauna for many years.
Join us for a second Favorite Fluddles chat , including a new film trailer
We had so much fun during our Feb. 2 Favorite Fluddles chat, we are doing it again on Thursday, Feb. 16, at 12pm! Join Turnstone Strategies/This Week in Birding Founder Bob Dolgan, Red Hill Birding Founder Josh Engel, and special guests for a second chat marking World Wetlands Day and the release of the trailer to the new documentary, “Fluddles.” Bob and Josh will be joined by Daniel Suarez of Audubon Great Lakes, Dr. Gary Sullivan of The Wetlands Initiative, and Madie McFarland of Ducks Unlimited. We’ll be talking about some of our favorite wetland destinations as well as efforts to protect and expand wetlands. We’ll conclude the event with the release of the “Fluddles” trailer and share opportunities to visit fluddles this spring.
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