Demon Bird Of The Night

Warning! May contain bouts of sarcasm or the odd opinion. Now, I shall try to control my sense of humour to the best of my ability and try to limit it’s occurrence where I can. Or will I? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. After all, as Oscar Wilde said:

“A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”

But enough of such banter and onward to the main point. Our lands play host to the ultimate ghost of the night. Swooping low across our fields and open grasslands is a bird that has more than one reference in ancient folklore. His screeching, spine-tingling call and silent flight has led to him being regarded as some kind of mythical being. Of what do I speak? The Barn Owl.

Native to our lands, the barn owl has flown silently across our countrysides for hundreds of years. But the history of this dynamic bird has not always been a pleasant one. In English Literature barn owls have commonly been associated with sinister tales of ghosts and ghouls, the presence of the owl being a prerequisite to some kind of horror or great scare. Indeed, in folklore, this owl was often referred to as a ‘Bird of Doom’ or a ‘Demon Bird’, with people believing that the sighting of such an owl was an omen of death. If a person was ill, a screaming owl flying past their house was a sign of imminent death. Now, with such a reputation, it is hardly surprising that these glorious birds suffered great persecution. In centuries past, barn owls would be hung outside a house to protect it from the devil himself, evil creatures and the plague. But thankfully, as understanding and scientific knowledge increased and prevailed, we came to realise that this bird was nothing more than a magnificent species, native to our lands.

So what’s the status of our barn owl populations today? Well, amber. Yes, they are another of our amber list species, joining many others in their quest for that illusive green status. But I should stress our barn owls are not a threatened species. In fact we have around 4000 breeding pairs in the UK and around 12,500 -25,000 (according to the RSPB) that winter here. However, that does not mean that we should forget or disregard them. Look a little more closely and we can see that our barn owls are quite sensitive souls. Bad weather, pesticides and decreases in the number of nesting grounds are all threats to the species. In fact, in the autumn and winter of 2013, we were quite worried about our barn owls, because of the poor weather our country had been experiencing. Heavy rain is a huge hinderance to the barn owl, with their feathers becoming easily saturated and waterlogged. In addition, such poor weather reduces vole populations, which are their main prey species.

Destruction and conversion of old buildings, particularly barns, reduces nesting areas and leads to decreasing numbers in particular areas of the UK. Near where I live, in a field down by the woodland river, there is an old miner’s house. It is completely wild, ridden with droppings of various animals and is falling apart at the seams. But this old desecrated building has at least one redeeming feature other than its charm, for it is home to a barn owl. There is evidence everywhere, the nest, pellets, droppings and many discarded remains. But I couldn’t possibly reveal its location, its a secret! Not really, but I need to have some secrets.

They are a predominantly nocturnal species , though you may see them hunting, or awaiting the night hours at early dusk, if you are lucky. They hunt voles, mice, rats and the occasional frogs and worm – though rodents make up about 90% of their diet. So with that knowledge, would we consider them as overly threatening? No, not particularly. But I am afraid that some do. Barn owls, tawny owls, and all other owls we have in our country, experience some level of persecution. Admittedly not as frequently, or to the extent of raptors, but it does happen. Why? Well, given the chance, these birds would take small chicks, such as pheasants or partridge. So you see their predicament? There are reports of this species and of course many of our other owls being shot, especially if they are near pheasant rearing pens. But hold on there, don’t grab your duelling pistols or your swords just yet, I am not going to challenge or ‘attack’ anyone here, because I am well aware that many land managers and farmers encourage this species to their farms and shoots. In fact, I know a couple of farmers  who would love to have a barn owl gracing their fields. And they are not alone; many publications, such as the shooting times, have published guidelines and articles on how to conserve the barn owl.

That’s exactly what our owls want to hear. But, there are still incidences of persecutions and stories of owls being killed near shooting estates. A needless waste really. There have even been cases of owls being burnt alive. It’s the same ongoing issue of birds of prey walking hand in hand with their persecution doom, but the barn owl is lucky that he is not generally considered as a huge threat. And thankfully, their populations have been thriving in recent times. In 2014, barn owls made a comeback and had a very successful breeding season, which was much needed after a run of poor seasons in previous years.

With a little persistence and a little understanding on both sides (which already exists in many cases), the barn owl may be a bird that can put his persecution woes happily behind him.We managed to forget our historical suspicions about their demonic symbolism didn’t we? So let’s work together to achieve the eradication of the notion that they are a huge threat to our hunts.

Now, if you do disagree with anything I have said, just make sure you quote me correctly won’t you? After all, “A poet (or writer in this case) can survive anything but a misprint.”



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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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1 Response

  1. People used to nail them to their barn doors in order to ward off evil spirits!

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