I want you to envision a 17th century, agrarian version of yourself. Superstitions are rampant and it’s generally accepted that ghosts live among us. You’re entering an old abandoned barn on some spooky fall night, when suddenly a white, spectral figure with dead, black eyes slips noiselessly past you, right before you hear this.
What would you conclude? Clearly, this is a ghost, a phantom, a wraith. The restless soul of a murder victim, or maybe a shapeshifting witch in nocturnal form. Or maybe it was just a Barn Owl.
It’s like Barn Owls were tailor-made to scare people. They hang out in spooky abandoned buildings and church steeples. Specialized outer flight feathers give them eerily noiseless flight. With their ghostly white face, underwings, and belly, they might as well be wearing a sheet, and their goosebump-inducing screams seem straight out of the world of the dead. As a result, Barn Owls are thought to be behind a lot of old ghost stories. In reality, I would guess that any sensible farmer would have been familiar enough with Barn Owls to know better, for these are the most prolific of the rodent-hunters, and are better than any barn cat at keeping the varmints in check.
But Barn Owls’ taste for rodents can get them in trouble around humans–rodenticides have emerged as a potential cause of regional declines. Mice and rats stagger around for a while after being poisoned, and predators often eat these half-dead rodents which can lead to illness or even death. Eating just three poisoned mice can kill a Barn Owl, so skip the poison at your house in favor of other control methods, like old-fashioned snap traps – they still haven’t made a better mousetrap.
With a cosmopolitan distribution, Barn Owls can be found from the high Andes to the Indian Subcontinent, and from England to Australia. Around here, Barn Owls hunt the moors, marshes, and grasslands of Nantucket and the Vineyard year-round, but they are vanishingly scarce or absent over the rest of the state. Harsh, snowy winters tend to kill off a lot of these owls, relegating them to the relatively milder islands. Though they have the best hearing of all the owls, and can easily hear rodents through deep snow, they can’t handle the cold as well as other North American owls.
Occasional sightings on the Cape hint at a small, under-the-radar Barn Owl population, like the individual that ended up in a net set up to catch Northern Saw-whet Owls at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary about 10 years ago, shocking my colleagues on the scene. This spring I was thrilled to hear one call three times as it flew north along the powerless behind my house in Harwich.
And within the last week, a Barn Owl was seen in Chatham, close to a spot where a road-killed individual was discovered in March. Could there be more? Folks should keep an eye, and an ear, out for these shrieking creatures of the night. But be careful – young Great Horned Owls make a similar raspy call for their first year of life – don’t be fooled.
Who knows, maybe a Barn Owl will visit you this Halloween. To increase that likelihood, you should consider putting out a bowl of live mice next to the peanut butter cups. Or not. But either way, hold the rat poison – owls like their mice organic, and the effects rodenticides can have on them is nothing short of scary.
This piece first aired in October, 2018.