In the world of nocturnal birding it’s not what you know, it’s whooo you know. Ron Dexter and a small group of landowners in rural Spokane County know owls and, more specifically, barn owls. They’re trying to bring the nocturnal animals back from near extinction in areas like Newman Lake and the Turnbull Wildlife Refuge area south of Cheney.
Valued by farmers for its insatiable appetite for rodents, the barn owl has nearly faded from existence in Spokane County as hot, metal barns replace old, wooden ones, open spaces become scarce and larger predators take a toll. The old tree snags the owls once nested in have been cut down for firewood. Spokane Valley, a region dominated by barns, truck farms and open fields 50 years ago, is too busy today for barn owls.
“In the Valley, we no longer have barn owls,” Dexter said. “There’s too many people. The only reports we’ve got (of established barn owls) is in the Rathdrum Prairie area. In Newman Lake we’ve put up boxes to try and bring them back.”
Barn owls have a curious look not easily mistaken for other owl types. They lack the pointed tufts of feathers, or “horns,” on the tops of their heads that many people associate with the species. A barn owl’s oblong face is dished, which allows it to pick up sound with radar-like triangulation. Barn owls can pinpoint their prey based on sounds, making the birds superior night hunters.
Together, 48 barn owls will consume 1.3 tons of pocket gophers in a year, which represents just 40 percent of their diet. Voles, deer mice, house mice and other small animals fill out the rest of the owl’s menu. Dexter tells of a farmer in LaGrande, Ore., who increased his hay crop 60 bales by increasing his barn owl population and thereby thinning the rodent population in his fields.
Barn owls are quiet hunters. The owl’s wings are softer along the edges, allowing it to fly in almost silently for kills. At just over a foot long, the birds are on the smaller side of the owl scale. The noise the birds make is anything but a wispy “whoo.”
“They don’t hoot. They have this blood curdling scream,” said Nancy Martinez, an owl recovery specialist. “I swear it’s enough to scare anything off. And they have this hiss that sounds like a tire deflating. I suppose that doesn’t add to their personality.”
From her Prosser, Wash., recovery center, Martinez has contributed more than 30 owls for reintroduction in Spokane County.
She receives barn owls from Prosser-area farmers who often find nests of chicks or eggs in hay stacks that are being torn apart to feed stock, or in older structures that are being razed.
Often the young owls are parentless because their monogamous mothers and fathers have been taken out by windmills or cars.
Cars pose a great threat to barn owls, because voles, on which the birds feed, seek refuge in the tall grass of roadside ditches whenever farmers cut their fields. When barn owls call, the rodents head for the road and their pursuers are frequently killed by oncoming traffic.
Martinez nurses injured animals back to health by feeding them small scraps of meat and even teaching them how to fly and hunt for mice if the birds were too young to know the basics when they were rescued.
“I’m in love with this bird,” Martinez said.
“This is the bird that has helped mankind so much. Their diet is mainly rodents – pocket gophers, mice and rats.”
The other big threat to barn owls is the great horned owl.
While barn owls are weighed in ounces, great horned owls are weighed in pounds – the males up to 2.5 pounds, the females up to 4.5.
Standing 2 feet tall, great horned owls will eat barn owls, along with a diet that occasionally includes skunks, cats, rabbits and even porcupines.
It’s the great horned owls that people living in the Spokane area frequently hear at night, Dexter said. Great horned owls do well around people.
From late December to early February, the great horned owls mate and their courtship can be heard from tree to tree late at night.
In spring the male owl still issues his familiar “hoot,” but the female, now with eggs or owlets, gives out a screech, which is owl for “bring home some food.”
The further a person travels beyond the city limits, the more diverse the owl population becomes.
Margo Wolf sees a number of owl species late at night, as she drives home to Newman Lake from her nursing job at Kootenai Medical Center.
The mile-long wetlands leading up to the lake are perfect habitat for owls and other predators. She sees great horned owls and even robin-sized pygmy owls on her route.
If she’s lucky, Wolf will spot a barn owl.
“All of the owls have something that distinguishes them,” Wolf said.
“Sometimes you think you hear a dog barking, a hoarse dog, but it’s an owl.”
Wolf is working with her neighbors to reintroduce barn owls to the area.
With Dexter’s help, they have put up breadbox-sized nesting bins for barn owls. They’re still not certain if the boxes have resulted in more barn owls.
The bird’s survival rate isn’t good, and of the owls that survive their first year, a small percentage reproduce.
The best way to spot owls is to head out early in the morning or late at night with your ears to the air and a good flashlight in hand.
Rescuers discourage people from disturbing barn owls because the local population is so thin, but great horned owls are a fairly easy find.
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