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Owl I want for Christmas is ‘whooooo’

There it was.

A barn owl nest box hanging in a low branch of a spreading sycamore tree. I was bidding to trim the tree at the time and I mentioned to my prospective client that it was too low — owls would not nest there because they had no privacy. She wanted to know how I knew, and I explained that I had been a falconer all my life, and that I had climbed and studied all sorts of raptor nests.

She told me her late husband had hung it as high as he could on a ladder, so she could watch the babies while doing the dishes. I offered that if she awarded me the tree job, I would move the nest box higher up gratis and she immediately accepted.

Three days later on a sunny Saturday morning, I got a phone call. My client was excited, and bubbling over that she was hosting her bridge club and someone noticed a pair of owls staring down at the house.

I was hooked.

All nine of her friends wanted an owl box as well, and it dawned on me it could be a business. That was over 30,000 barn owl nesting boxes and 25 years ago.

During those 25 years I’ve studied and researched barn owls and my fascination with them has never ended.

Barn owls have the best hearing of any bird; it’s believed they can hear your heart beating if you’re close enough. They have a primitive echolocation capability and can navigate by a clicking sound. There is a record of a totally blind barn owl in Texas that was “making a living” alongside a roadway. By hopping from fence post to fence post, it could detect and catch rodents in the grass.

Their entire face is a sound-gathering sonic dish, which channels and amplifies sound to a pair of offset ear drums, allowing them to triangulate on sound. This aids in hunting and navigation. Perched or flying, they can hear a rodent excavating dirt to the ground’s surface, after which they loiter over the hole. When the rodent emerges … dinner time.

Barn owls have an elevated metabolism, thus their need for calories is extremely high. This makes the barn owl very desirable for home owners and large property owners wishing to rid their property of rodents. One study showed that barn owls consume as many as 2,000 rodents per year, per pair, when feeding their young. These are mostly rats and mice, but moles, voles, gophers and snakes will do. In San Diego, I saw a barn owl fly out of the dark, grab a grunion fish and fly off with it. Variety is the spice of life, I guess.

Attracting barn owls to one’s back yard is most effective once you understand what the owls want and need. They can be attracted to take up residency in a bewildering array of artificial man-made cavities. Yes, boxes designed for them are best, but I’ve seen them in everything from an old dairy type milk can to an almost-full bucket of sand in a metal garden shed.

It’s important for an owl box installer be aware of which direction the birds prefer and which directions they reject. Most of the boxes installed here in the Lowcountry are hung by chains in trees. Insects are attracted to these boxes as well, and keeping them out is a significant “trick of the trade.” It took a number years and many attempts to come up with a nontoxic formula which I paint on the ceiling that prevents bees from colonizing the boxes and keeps avian lice away.

These birds begin to nest in the lower United States latitudes by about February. As with all life, barn owls need three things on their shopping list: Water, food and cover. They get all the hydration they need from the food they eat, so those first two bases are covered. Add one or two nest boxes (two is better but not a rule), his and hers, and it’s just a matter of time before they move in.

What a delight it is when they come to stay. Their courtship is quite aerial with the male circling up higher and higher, then diving straight down … only to pull out of the dive, miss the female by an inch, and shoot directly into the nest box — all the while sounding his best “come hither” calls.

Why are nesting boxes needed? Because urban and suburban areas lack many hollow trees, which are their most common nesting sites. What do we do with a hazardous hollow tree in residential areas? We cut them down, and as they topple so do the potential barn owl homes.

My most popular barn owl box includes a wireless camera. I stumbled onto the idea long before internet technology was around when I put a camera in my father-in-law’s barn owl box and wired it to his TV. My father-in-law Tony is a wonderful man, but holds no special affinity for birds other than fried chicken.

Soon a pair of barn owls moved in.

In short fashion Ol’ Tony was calling all his relatives back in the motherland of Ohio, gushing about how much fun it was to have the birds courting on his television screen. I saw enthusiasm in a man who is not particularly enthusiastic. Back then, it required a trip to a “spy supply shop” and $3,200 worth of surveillance equipment and to make a camera enabled box, but now this gear is readily available and affordable. If you’ll allow me to boast a bit, Cornell University of Ornithology attributes the original concept of “consumer” owl monitoring to yours truly. (A feather in my cap?)

Today, thousands of my nesting boxes with night-vision video cameras have been purchased and installed in back yards, natural history museums, and connected to TVs in science class rooms.

Here’s an odd fact: Because of the way owls consume their prey, their “pellet” droppings are a discarded in the shape of balls of fur, with bones and other undigested material more of less undisturbed. You’ll find on Amazon dozens of “pelletiers” who sell owl pellets to science classes for three dollars apiece! They are used primarily for dissection, which teaches students about the food chain and nature’s symbiotic ecosystems.

About ten years ago, one of my clients’ grandsons was pondering a science project for a college class, and when he saw the owls on the TV he commented, “We could patch that video feed into the Internet!” In short order, he did so.

Their streaming owl-cam experienced 21 million “hits” in 9 months, and 42 million in two seasons. They named the pair of owls after a comedy radio troupe, “Molly and McGee,” with Molly as the star. Don’t believe me? Google “Molly the Owl.”

Now, if 42 million people from all over the world took the time to watch sweet Molly, it only stands to reason that having your own Molly in your own backyard will be fun. Give it some thought!

Tom Stephan is the author of the book Beneficial Barn Owls, and frequent public speaker on the topic of falcons, owls, hawks, and other raptors. He was the author of the recent feature in the Charleston Mercury Fall Magazine entitled “Coyote Ugly,” an exposé on the dangers of the Lowcountry’s growing coyote population. For information on Barn Owl Boxes, he may be contacted at (843) 714-9543 or via email:

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