I'M NOT ONE FOR BELIEVING IN GHOSTS OR THE SUPERNATURAL, or anything that goes bump in the night for that matter, but I will confess to my spine being chilled to the core late one evening whilst I was sitting on a riverbank, waiting for the resident otter to make an appearance. It was a still, calm night with a cool, refreshing air that you only get when sitting next to riffling water, when without warning, from the oak tree standing behind me, a hoarse, screeching cry broke the soothing sound of the river's flow and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand erect; as Geoffrey Chaucer may have put it, "a prophet of woe and mischance" was watching over me; I was in the company of a barn owl.
If you live near to farmland that contains a good mixture of rough pasture and slightly unruly ditches, you may already be familiar with the local barn owls. Don't worry if this is not the case though, as the owls leave clues behind them wherever they go, and you can quickly detect their presence if you are new to an area. When owls roost, like all birds of prey, they regurgitate the inedible remains of their last meal -- bones and fur -- in the form of an oval shaped, dark and furry pellet. Look for these at the bottom of old trees and disused buildings. If you find them, be prepared for some late night vigils out in the fields, although sightings during the early afternoon in late winter are not uncommon.
The Tytonidae can be distinguished from other owls of the order Strigiformes by the pectinated (comblike) lining on the inside of the middle claws. This adaptation has most likely evolved to broaden the scope of prey that the owls can exploit -- even fish in certain habitats.
Feeding a clutch of hungry youngsters that wait impatiently back in their tree-hole nest, an adult barn owl glides-by carrying a small mammal that will shortly fill a hungry mouth. It was one of many deliveries made during the early hours of dawn.
The rough grass margins of fields and meadows are a good place to wait for quartering barn owls to pass by, particularly during the early morning or late evening. If your cover is good enough, they will approach very closely indeed.
I never laid eyes on the owl that night although I had seen it many times before along this particular stretch of river, quartering a favoured habitat of rough grazing pasture and meadowland, gliding on long, rounded wings in search of its favoured prey, the field vole. Watching a barn owl in this way, flapping about with slow, rhythmic wing beats can give the impression of an animal taking it easy, even having fun; this could not be further from the truth. These owls have evolved an extremely high-energy method of finding food and are never far away from starvation. It is only due to their low wing bearing -- a small, light body relative to the surface area of the wings -- that they can exist in this way at all; if they were of a heavier build, they would struggle to survive.
The barn owls are members of the family Tytonidae (the true Barn owls), of which there are eleven species worldwide with a truly global distribution. They can be found in all corners of the earth except polar regions, with a residency stretching as far as North, Central and South America, Australia, Asia, Africa, and of course, Europe. Their plumage varies widely over this extreme range, giving rise to thirty-two distinct sub species, although they all share the familiar characteristics recognisable from the birds we see in Norfolk, in particular, the heart shaped face designed to funnel the slightest sound towards ultra sensitive ears and the lean, upright posture of the bird when it alights on a gatepost.
After a period of observation, it is sometimes quite easy to distinguish the female bird from the male; she is often darker in colour across her wings, back and head and a little larger than her mate, although it is unlikely that you will see the pair together any sooner than the end of summer. Their young owlets take a long time to reach maturity and gain independence, and it is the female that stays with them for the majority of this time while the male bird provides the whole family -- seven or more chicks -- including the female, with food. If field voles are not available, bank voles, shrews and rats will suffice; in extreme cases amphibians, beetles, moths and even bats may be caught and taken to the nest for consumption.