Barn Owls: A Depressing Day on Tuesday, 27th September 2022

Last week local photographer Chris Snook volunteered to help me out with checking and cleaning out some of my Barn Owl boxes. We had a decent session: the four boxes around Upper Waterhay showed that the new box is being used as a roost site, the chancel box was being used by Jackdaws back in June, but hasn’t been used since. The other two boxes have fledged 5 young between them. Unfortunately for it, the smallest youngster in a box of 4 became food for its siblings.

After Waterhay we went to the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve at Blakehill Farm. The box nearest the farm buildings was, unusually, empty and had not been used as a roost. When putting the ladder up to check the other box, in the Allotment Field, a Barn Owl flew out and away. What was astonishing about that was that, when I opened the box, it was filled from top to bottom with Jackdaw nesting material. I suppose that wasn’t that surprising, given that we ringed 3 Jackdaw young in that nest back at the end of May, what was surprising was that the owl had chosen to roost in there, given how full of twigs it was: it really was crammed full to the top.

So to today. We started at Drill Farm: box 1 had an active wasp’s nest, with plenty of wasp activity around it so, as it was empty when we did our first checks, I decided I didn’t need to find out what else might be in there. Box 2 was hosting a fledged Barn Owl. It flew off as we put the ladder up to check. The box had been empty when we first checked it, and there was sign of recent roosting (fresh pellets) but a possible explanation of why it didn’t have any owls nesting this year was the hornet’s nest in the top right corner of the box and the multiple dead hornets on the floor of the box.

The box at Echo Lodge was empty and the box at Home Farm showed that three of the four youngsters had successfully fledged. Unfortunately, we found bits of the fourth in the nest:

Photo courtesy of Chris Snook

No doubt, as at Waterhay, it had helped feed its siblings. They had, thoughtfully, left behind the leg with the ring attached. Moving on to the Somerford Farm area, we found that the birds in box 1 had fledged successfully, with one bird flying off as I was setting up the ladder. Chris finally managed to get some shots of a Barn Owl in flight. Unfortunately, the bird flying out from dark into sunshine, resulted in them being somewhat overexposed and not suitable for publication. The upside for me is that he will have to keep helping me out so he can finally get the record shots.

Box 2 was full of Jackdaw material. Although we didn’t ring any there this year, last year it was a successful nest for Jackdaws. As I started to remove their nesting material from this year, I came across the most beautiful, perfectly domed hornet’s net. Not only perfectly formed but very active and several hornets decided to investigate this intruder. Again, discretion, rather than valour, was the order of the day, and I beat a hasty retreat rather than hang around to get a photo.

Then we came to the horror story that overshadowed the entire session. Arriving at Plain Farm, where we had ringed three young back in June, we were greeted by an excellent flock of Chaffinches feeding around the calves that were in the field adjacent to their holding pens. There must have been at least 30 of them, and it is certainly the biggest flock that I have seen for at least a decade. Chris and I carried the ladder down to inspect the box, accompanied for much of the walk by the calves. As we got about 10m from the box, I noticed a white patch on the ground, about 15m away from it. Then there was another about 5m from the box. The recovered rings showed that they were two of the young from that box. Each had been stripped of its flesh, with the wings left attached to the spine, both heads were missing. Examining the carcasses, both had their flight feathers fully grown, and the birds were certainly capable of flight. Given the positions away from the box, I suggest that their predator was avian: either female Sparrowhawk or, possibly, Goshawk. Unfortunately, when I opened the box the remains of the third bird in that brood was found in pieces inside. A thoroughly depressing end to the morning. A slight upturn on the way out: another local farmer was on site and approached for a chat. His farm is about a mile away, close to Red Lodge, and he asked if we would be able to put a box up at his site. I shall look forward to doing so, and Chris has offered to help me.

This year we ringed 20 Barn Owl chicks in 7 occupied boxes. With one box, Avis Meadows, having 2 chicks and 2 eggs predated between the first and second visits (May and end of June), we have recorded 15 Barn Owls fledged and 7 predated for 2022. Also in the boxes, we have ringed, and have had fledge, 3 Jackdaws in 1 box and 3 Stock Doves in 2 boxes. Of the 7 other boxes checked this year, 3 had roosting Barn Owls, 1 had roosting Stock Dove and 3 were empty. Not quite as good as last year but still not bad (and I do have 2 boxes left to check).

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