Most barn owls are solitary in their habits, but some of the smallest species will gather in groups to hunt and roost when prey is plentiful. Usually they hunt from perches, but some of the smallest species hunt on the wing. Barn owls are almost exclusively nocturnal. They return to their roosts at dawn, often calling as they do so. They sleep by day, usually balancing on one leg with the wings closed and hunched forward to hide the pale belly.
Large species defend large home ranges. Small species are less territorial and defend only a small area around the nest site. When confronted with an intruder, barn owls perform distinctive defensive displays. A disturbed owl will make bowing movements, tilting forward with the tail raised, wings spread to the sides, and head lowered and swinging from side to side. At the same time it hisses and snaps its bill. If the intruder doesn't back off, the owl may strike with one foot or even spray feces.
Barn owls seem to be declining in numbers in the United States, Britain, and Canada. The likely reason for these declines is the loss of farmland, which makes very good habitat for barn owls. Barns and silos provide nest sites, and the owls can hunt for rodents in nearby fields. In the last few decades, however, many farms have been converted to housing developments or industrial parks. To help owl populations, conservationists are putting up nest boxes for owls in some areas. The boxes look like jumbo birdhouses. One reason to help owls is that they provide free pest control. One study by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection reports a barn owl family will eat more than 1,000 rats and mice in one nesting season.
Many typical owls make hooting calls, but no barn owls hoot. Their calls sound like screams, screeches, twitters, and whistles. A courting pair will engage in a trilling duet.
Most barn owls nest in sheltered locations such as tree holes and abandoned buildings. Grass owls are the exception—they tunnel into tall grass. The female incubates the eggs and broods the hatchlings while the male brings food to her and her young. Barn owls in temperate climates typically raise one brood per year. Species in warmer climates may raise two to three broods per year. Clutch size varies from one or two in sooty owls to seven or eight in barn owls and grass owls. Females lay more eggs when prey is abundant. After leaving the nest, the owlets may depend on their parents for food for several more weeks to months.
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