Stealthy barn owl remains one of Ireland's rarest hunters

The Barn Owl--Scréachóg reilige in Irish and Tyto alba in its Latin nomenclature--is one of Ireland's rarest hunters, with a sense of hearing far surpassing that of humankind. By Niall Hatch.

A creature of legend and folklore, the Barn Owl is one of Ireland’s most enigmatic birds. It occurs in most parts of the island, though at very low densities, and nowhere is it common. It is also an extremely difficult species to see on account of its nocturnal behaviour and therefore goes unnoticed by most people.

The Barn Owl is a truly gorgeous bird, with dark-speckled honey-coloured upperparts and ghostly white face, breast and belly. Its feathers are incredibly soft, particularly on the wings, allowing them to fly in total silence and thereby avoid alerting their prey to their presence. They have remarkably keen eyesight, and are able to see in much lower light levels than humans can. Unlike most birds, but like humans, their eyes are positioned facing forwards on the front of their heads, giving them excellent depth perception.


[Photo courtesy of Richard T. Mills]

It is their sense of hearing that is most important to them, however. Barn Owls feed predominantly on small rodents such as mice and rats, and they catch these by listening out for tell-tale rustling sounds in grass and field verges. They have a heart-shaped ‘disc’ of feathers around the face which they use to focus sounds towards their ears, and their hearing ability far surpasses ours. When hunting, they fly low over the ground, often at an incredibly slow speed and with a characteristic wavering motion, frequently pausing to hover.

As their name would suggest, Barn Owls are frequently found in the vicinity of agricultural buildings, and they can be of great benefit in controlling rodents around grain stores. They are also traditionally associated with church towers and cemeteries, and when not hunting they can be detected by their astonishing bloodcurdling screams; in fact, their Irish name translates as “graveyard screacher”.


Due to their secretive nature it has been very difficult to estimate the total Irish population of this remarkable bird, but it is thought to be around 400 pairs: a tiny number, given the size of our country. Changes in agricultural techniques and the loss of nesting sights have reduced their numbers, but it is hoped that the provision of artificial nestboxes may help to reverse the fortunes of this remarkable bird and safeguard its future.

BirdWatch Ireland is currently trying to assess the population status of the Barn Owl in Ireland and to put conservation measures in place to reverse their decline and secure their future. If you see or hear a Barn Owl or know where there is nest, please contact BirdWatch Ireland’s Midlands Office in Banagher, Co. Offaly at 05791-51676 or e-mail