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Barn Owl
Tyto alba

The Barn Owl is the most widespread of all owl species, and is found on every continent except Antarctica. Like most owls, it is nocturnal and since it does not have a typical "owl-like" territorial call, it can often go undetected. In addition to natural cavities in trees and bluffs, the Barn Owl will nest in a number of human made structures including church steeples, haystacks, nest boxes, and of course barn lofts. It is found year round from southern Canada across the United States, and southward through Central and South America, and the Caribbean. It also inhabits Africa, Europe, southeast Asia, Australia, and some oceanic islands. The Barn Owl was introduced to Hawaii.

Description: The Barn Owl is a pale, medium-sized owl with a heart-shaped, white face. The back and wings are a light tawny, and below it is white to light cinnamon colored. The head is round, the eyes are dark, and the legs are long. The male and female are similar in appearance, but the female is larger, darker, and more spotted below.
Length: 16"
Wingspan: 42"
Weight: 1 lb

Voice: The "song" is a shrill, raspy hiss or screech.

Similar Species:

  • Short-eared Owls, a winter visitor to Tennessee, have a darker face, a grayish-brown back, are streaked below, and have dark wingtips.
  • Snowy Owls, a very rare winter visitor to Tennessee, are overall white, and have yellow eyes.

Habitat: In Tennessee, Barn Owls are found in open areas, along forest edge, and in towns, including hayfields, lightly grazed pastures, wet meadows, cemeteries, and parks. Barn Owls roost in tree cavities, barns, grain silos, and other human made structures.

Diet: In Tennessee, Barn Owls mostly eat voles (Microtus spp.), but also shrews and native rats.

Nesting and reproduction: Barn Owls are usually monogamous, although several reports of polygyny exist. Pairs typically remain together as long as both individuals live. The local food supply appears to influence the number of eggs layed per clutch, and Barn Owls may breed more than once per year.

Clutch Size: Range from 2 to 18 eggs, with 3 to 9 most common.

Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for about 30 days, and is fed by the male.

Fledging: Both adults feed the young, which are able to fly in about 60 days. They usually return to the nest site to roost for several weeks.

Nest: The female will usually make a shallow cup of shredded pellets in existing cavities, except when they dig burrows with their feet in the soft soil of a riverbank. In addition to hollow trees, and cliff cavities, they will also nest in buildings, and nest boxes. Nest sites are often reused for many years but commonly with a high turnover of individual breeders. Next Box Instructions here.

Status in Tennessee: This owl is a regular but rare permanent resident throughout the state, somewhat more rare in West Tennessee. The Barn Owl is the least common of the 4 regularly occurring owls across the state. While difficult to survey, this species appears to be declining in Tennessee and was listed as In Need of Management in 1976.

Dynamic map of Barn Owl eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • Most Barn Owls begin breeding at one year old. The oldest known wild Barn Owl was 15 years old.
  • Barn Owls are able to locate prey by sound better than any other animal tested. They can catch mice in complete darkness in the lab, or when hidden by vegetation or snow out in the wild.
  • The Barn Owl has a distinctive heart-shaped, white face. Curiously, it has earned the nickname "monkey-faced" owl in rural parts of Tennessee.

Obsolete English Names: monkey-faced owl, sweetheart owl

Best places to see in Tennessee: Barn Owls occur statewide in Tennessee, but are rarely seen.

For more information:

Tennessee's Woodworking for Wildlife page with nest box instructions

Barn Owl nest box specifications


Marti, C. D. 1992. Barn Owl (Tyto alba). The Birds of North America, No. 1 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.