Heard Any Screechers?
As organiser of the Irish Barn Owl Conservation Project, Alex Copland needs your assistance.
The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is the best known of our three species of resident owl. Tied strongly with local legend throughout history, its ghostly white figure evokes an image of stealth and beauty. Barn Owls are the most widely distributed terrestrial bird species, occurring on all continents. However, despite this impressive range numbers have declined over much of this expanse in recent times. In Europe, Barn Owls are listed on SPEC 3, identifying them as a species of European Conservation Concern. Here in Ireland they are categorised as a Red List species, due to a decline of over 50% in their population over the past 25 years. Reasons for a decline, as with so many other farmland birds, can most likely be associated with agricultural intensification. Changes in farming practices such as the loss of small - scale tillage have led to a reduction in both the extent and quality of prey rich foraging habitat. An increase in the road network system has also been a factor in their decline, as has the loss of traditional nest sites, hollow trees have been felled and old style barns demolished or renovated.
In the UK a lot of information is available on the ecological requirements of Barn Owls. This included a national survey in 1995 -1997, which estimated the population at approximately 4,000 pairs. The population in Britain can be subject to cyclical fluctuations, which are closely synchronised with cycles in vole abundance, its main food source. This however is not the case in Ireland where the field vole is absent, and the bank vole only present in the south west of the country, so there is potentially quite a contrast between the population structure and dynamics of British and Irish populations.
Here at home our knowledge of the Irish Barn owl population is limited. With the exception of pellet analysis, there has been little work done. A Barn Owl awareness campaign was carried out in Ireland in the mid 90s, when a request for information resulted in the location of approximately 150 breeding pairs. This is generally regarded as an underestimate of the true population size. Although the evidence suggesting a population decline in Ireland is compelling it is largely anecdotal. A nationwide Census needs to be carried out to achieve a more accurate estimate of the population against which changes can be measured in future. It is for this reason that we intend to launch the Irish Barn Owl Conservation Project, one of the main aims of which will be to establish a better understanding of the Owls distribution and abundance, as well as carry out research into habitat and nest site selection.
In Ireland where mature trees with hollow cavities are not a prominent feature of the landscape, man made structures e.g. barns, farmyard buildings, churches etc. provide the majority of nest sites. The loss of these structures through disuse, decay, demolition and conversion has resulted in the loss of nesting opportunities. However, despite the shortage of suitable nest sites Barn Owls respond well to the provision of artificial nest boxes in areas of suitable habitat.
Another aspect of the project will focus on establishing a nest box scheme, with the eventual aim of integrating this into an agri-environment measure.
A nation wide survey of a single species, particularly one that can achieve reliable results in a systematic manner, is a large undertaking. The elusive nature of the Barn Owl considered, coupled with its is thin distribution over a wide geographical area, further compounds the problem. We are currently working on devising an appropriate census methodology. However, initially it would be of great benefit to build further on the data collected during the 90s, to gain more of an insight into the Owls range in this country. For instance Barn Owls are mainly concentrated in the south and east of the country, but do they still breed in all counties?
This is where you can help! We are appealing for records of sites in your area (not individual Owl sightings) where breeding is known or likely to occur. Indications of this are a build up of pellets (>10) at a site, and/or the presence of moulted feathers. It must be stressed that Barn Owls can be a very sensitive species, and disturbance must be minimised at all times, particularly early on in the breeding season (April - June) as this could lead to desertion of the nest site. If you know of the location of a Barn Owl nest site please contact Alex Copland, Birdwatch Ireland midlands office at 0509 51676 with the relevant details.
Text by Alex Copland
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