Bird of the Month November: Barn Owl
I chose the barn owl for my bird of the month for November because, for me, the barn owl is a bird of dark nights and big moons.
My little boy is completely enraptured by the moon at the moment. Full moons, moons shrouded in clouds, daytime moons against blue skies. He likes starry skies and sunsets, too, but the moon is the hero of his sky-show. Once the clocks had gone back at the end of October, he wanted to go outside to check if it was dark yet so we could go moon-spotting. Barn Owls are iconic nocturnal birds of prey. When you catch a glimpse of a barn owl in flight, they are surprisingly large and shockingly white (something you know if you’ve ever caught one in the beam of your car headlights – a huge, white ghost disappearing back over the hedgerow). Their feathers seem to reflect the light of the moon. Darkness, night, moon, barn owl.
One of our favourite bedtime books is The Night Box by Louise Greig and Ashling Lindsay. It is such a charming book – lyrical and lovely. There’s a passage I really like. It goes like this:
“Everything has something in the dark. The branch has an owl, and the wall has a tree, and Max has a bear and a soft, warm bed. Night is kind. Night stays in Max’s room, silent and strong all night long, to hold in its arms a bear and a boy.”
It reminds me of Pig and his beloved Stinky Bear. It makes me feel all warm and cosy while, at the same time, acutely aware of the nocturnal world that is just getting going outside. A world of bats and hedgehogs and badgers and moths and mice. Of predators and prey. A place where a white-feathered owl hunts silently under the moon.
Barn owls pay a price for their silent-winged flight. Their feathers are specially adapted and are not waterproof. This means that barn owls really hate the rain. They also don’t carry much body fat which makes them susceptible to the cold. A prolonged period of bad weather can be deadly for a barn owl.
When we lived at Teapot Street, I used to walk Buddy round the set-aside of a large field at last-light in the autumn and winter. We would often see the barn owl leaving her roost and flying along the edge of a small wood on the way to her hunting ground. It was always a magical site. The silent owl prompted noisy wing-clapping from startled pigeons inside the woodland. In the winter, barn owls often choose to hunt from fence posts to conserve energy. The hunt by listening for the rustling of little mammals – preferably field voles – in the long grass. Little mammals move less on cold nights which means that the owl has to choose her perch wisely. She needs an intricate knowledge of her home range.
One of my new Christmas/solstice cards for this year is a barn owl hunting at dusk and a midwinter moon. A little tribute to my boy and his moon, and the barn owls who reflect the moon’s light. You can find it here.
There’s a lovely episode about spotting a barn owl on Melissa Harrison’s The Stubborn Light of Things podcast that she made during lockdown. It is a spring-time barn owl spot but it makes for nice listening even in the autumn.