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Ghost Owls

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Among Missouri's owls, barn owls are champion listeners, able to detect the location of a mouse using only their ears. They are oddities among Missouri owls in other ways. Barn owls are the only light-colored owls that nest in Missouri; barn owls have golden backs and white bellies. Their plumage is sparsely speckled with small black dots. Their heart-shaped face is white and outlined with tan.

Barn owl eyes are small and dark, differing from the large, yellow eyes of most owls. A long bill and long legs, feathered to the toes, give barn owls an ungainly appearance. They have a strange habit of bobbing their heads and shuffling from side to side when discovered.

While other owls hoot, barn owls emit loud, spine-chilling hisses. Children exploring dim barn lofts or seeing this light-colored owl silently glide by could easily mistake these owls for ghosts. In fact, they are sometimes called the ghost owl.

Barn owls are medium-size owls, reaching 14 to 20 inches in length and weighing about one pound. However, they have unusually long wings, with wingspans of 43 to 47 inches. As is the case with most raptors (birds of prey), female owls are larger than males.

Enjoying a nearly global distribution, barn owls inhabit open landscapes, ranging from desert to marsh, on every continent except Antarctica. Barn owls are year-round residents in Missouri and have been found in open areas throughout Missouri, except in the Ozarks. They are most abundant in the Bootheel and in the Osage Plains of southwestern Missouri.

Reputed to be excellent mousers, barn owls consume twice as much prey for their weight as other owls. Small mammals, including mice, moles, shrews, cotton rats, Norway rats, gophers and rabbits, form the bulk of the barn owl menu. Voles, small rodents with short tails, are the primary food when available. Barn owls occasionally feed on birds, insects, reptiles and amphibians.

During breeding season, male barn owls hiss in flight to attract females and to warn away other males. Barn owls form monogamous, long-lasting pair bonds. They can nest any time of the year and can produce two to three broods per year when food is abundant. However, most pairs nest from March through July.

Natural barn owl nest sites include tree cavities, burrows and crevices in rock outcrops and cliffs. As large, hollow trees disappeared and settlers built barns with open lofts, barn owls quickly adopted barns and other buildings as nesting

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