Barn Owl named Audubon California’s 2010 Bird of the Year

One of the most common species of owls in California, if not the world, today was named the 2010 Audubon California Bird of the Year after it received nearly 70 percent of votes cast during an online poll this fall. With its distinctive white face, the Barn Owl is known to frequent agricultural lands, suburban and urban neighborhoods and lightly forested foothills. While the species is not at risk in the broader sense, some local populations have experienced sharp declines due to the removal of breeding habitat and other threats such as a large number hit by vehicles. (photo by the USFWS)

Audubon California created the designation last year to highlight the state’s remarkable birds and the conservation challenges many of them face.

“The Barn Owl is a fascinating bird, well deserving of this recognition, and we’re not surprised to see so many people rally behind it,” said Graham Chisholm, executive director of Audubon California. “It’s also a species that strikes a delicate balance with human activity, which makes it very much on the minds of conservationists.”

Nearly 20,000 votes were cast in Audubon California’s online poll, which began in early November. Voters had the choice of selecting one of six birds nominated by the Audubon California Board of Directors, or writing in their own candidate. Nearly 70 percent of voters wrote in the Barn Owl, making it the clear winner. Owls were popular this year, as the second place bird was the Great Gray Owl, at 7 percent. The Western Snowy Plover came in third place, with 5 percent of the vote.

Key to the write-in effort for the Barn Owl were communities of bird enthusiasts that have been watching the species live on popular webcams – among which are a popular webcam in San Marcos and the Audubon Starr Ranch webcam (where you can see a live Barn Owl right now) in Orange County.

The Barn Owl is an amazingly versatile bird. It can live in barns, holes in cliff sides, trees, or man-made boxes. The predilection to eat rodents makes them popular to farmers and ranchers. A single pair feeding young can catch up to 70 pounds of rodents, especially voles, during the breeding season.

It is also a well-studied bird, and researchers have learned some interesting things. For instance, the Barn Owl has amazingly keen hearing that can detect the sound of prey under snow, leaves, or grass. Its ears are slightly offset, which is thought to aid the bird in localizing its prey at night. Studies have shown that the Barn Owl is able to catch prey in zero light, depending entirely on its sense of hearing.

Local Barn Owl populations tend to suffer when people remove dead trees and other breeding habitat. The use of poisons to control small mammals hurts Barn Owls in two ways: it removes food sources and passes poison on to the birds. Collisions with cars have also been demonstrated to be a problem.

Audubon California and Audubon chapters help the Barn Owl by encouraging landowners to provide nesting boxes for the birds when natural habitat has been removed or is otherwise unavailable. We also work with farmers to find ways to reduce the use of poisons, particularly if nest boxes are encouraging owls to breed and control rodents.

Another way that Audubon California is helping the Barn Owl is by educating the public about this dynamic species through our Audubon Starr Ranch webcam. Many thousands of visitors from dozens of countries have come to the site and watched the owls breed and raise their young.

While the Barn Owl wins the designation of 2010 Bird of the Year, Chisholm emphasized that Audubon California’s work on behalf of other California birds, nominated or not, will continue apace.

“Each of the six nominated birds was a major focus of conservation in 2010, although not all in the same way” said Chisholm. “It’s our hope that the attention that this draws to the Barn Owl will help build support for bird conservation across the state.”

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