Learning how to attract owls to your homestead has many rewards including acting as a natural way to get rid of mice. The joy of spotting the magical birds on evening owl prowls is also a reward in itself. Not as common as songbirds, when you spot an owl it is extra exciting.
Closing my poultry shed one evening, I heard an eerie, horse-like call from a cluster of oak trees in the corner of my yard. Half a minute later I heard a response in the forty-foot-tall clumping bamboo. I was surrounded, by pint-sized predators.
A few weeks later the screech owls had moved into one of the four nest boxes I had made. Soon after, two owlets flew the coop.
“By designing a garden that includes nesting and roosting habitat for owls, you will be availing yourself of the best possible organic pest control for your home and garden,” said Robert S. Mulvihill, the National Aviary’s ornithologist, and a well-known expert for information about birds who has been working with owls for 40 years.
Owl Nest Box
Screech owls make excellent neighbors as they work not only for free but throughout the night unseen. To invite owls to your homestead build a nest box. Learning how to attract owls now is especially important as the owls will start nesting in early spring.
According to the Treasure Coast Wildlife Center, located in Palm City, Florida, screech owl distribution and abundance is determined by available nesting sites. The more boxes, the more owls. However, they are territorial so each box should be about 100 feet apart. Rough cut wood that weathers well, such as cedar, cypress or redwood is preferred, as the box should remain unpainted. The wildlife center recommends hanging the box on a tree, building, or pole about 15 feet high. The structure that the box is attached to should be at least as wide as the box. Place it on the edge of your treeline, close to an open yard.
Place wood shavings or pine straw into the nest as screech owls do not bring nesting materials. Do not use cedar shavings or sawdust. If starlings or sparrows begin to place their own nesting materials inside, remove them, as screech owls will not use an occupied box. American Kestrels, a small native falcon, will use the same type of nest boxes and can also be welcomed as a natural way to get rid of mice and insects. To attract these birds of prey, place the box higher, on an isolated live or dead tree. Although there are many designs, I like the Treasure Coast Wildlife Center’s blueprint the best. Dan Martinelli, Executive Director of the wildlife center has shared their simple nesting box made from a single 1” x 10” x 8′ board.
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Where do Owls Nest?
“Owls nest everywhere,” said Mulvihill. “Several kinds of owls — including screech owls, northern saw-whet owls, elf owls and barred owls — nest in old woodpecker cavities and natural cavities in trees or in the West, saguaro cactuses. Barn owls even nest in old buildings.”
Mulvihill says that other owls like the great horned and long-eared prefer to nest in open stick nests in trees that they commandeer from crows or hawks. “Some nest on the ground —short-eared owl and snowy owl — and one species, the burrowing owl, nests in underground burrows made by other animals like prairie dogs and gophers,” he adds.
All of the cavity-nesting owls will sometimes use human-made nest boxes, too. “Barn owls, in particular, have been helped greatly by programs aimed at providing nest boxes for them in suitable grassland habitats both here in the United States and in Europe,” said Mulvihill.
What do Owls Eat?
You may be wondering do owls eat chickens? Or will they eat my livestock? While owls are strictly carnivorous and eat a wide range of animals appropriate to their size, the likelihood of them hunting your diurnal livestock is small. “Many owls, like screech owls, will eat a wide range of prey from small mammals and birds to large insects,” Mulvihill says. “Others, like barn owls, feed more strictly on small mammals. The large great horned owl eats rabbits, rats, skunks and smaller owls.”
Barred owls, named for their beautiful barred chest feathers prefer mature riverine forest habitat and are known to feed on fish, crayfish, amphibians, and snakes. Unless your birds are unprotected during the night, owls shouldn’t be blamed as a chicken predator.
How Long do Owls Live?
Smaller species of owls can live up to 10 years, while the largest can live over 30 years. “Without exception, owls are beneficial as natural predators in the habitats and ecosystems that they inhabit; for humans, they can help control prey like mice and rats that sometimes can be considered nuisances or pests around homes,” said Mulvihill.
Backyard, Barnyard, Buddies
Barn owls have declined in numbers and many folks are now trying to attract them back to their homesteads. Barn owls are found worldwide. They can take up residence in abandoned sheds, barns and silos. Learning how to attract owls is easy: designate a rustic area to the garden where pruning and maintenance are kept to a minimum to encourage these birds to move in. Reducing widespread exterior lighting such as floodlights will also help.
One of the best hunting habitats for barn owls is rough grassland with a high population of field voles. If you own land in the countryside, a great way to encourage barn owls is to increase their food supply by creating patches of compact grassland with layers of dead grass for the vermin to live. Adding a bird feeder near a brush pile will invite songbirds to recycle your yard waste into nesting material. Leaving seeds and nuts on the ground will entice rodents which in turn brings the owls.
To keep the barn owls once you have attracted them, you can entice them by providing nesting and roosting places. Nest boxes similar to the former design are welcomed by the owls as long as the size is 12.5″ x 16″ x 22″ or larger. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, barn owls are sensitive during the early phases of nesting in April and May and will abandon a nest if disturbed. Boxes can be placed in a variety of structures, including barns, silos, grain elevators, church steeples, or mounted on a free-standing pole.
Avoiding poisons, such as rodenticides will keep your birds safe. And since you’ll have these natural predators you will not need rodenticides.
Snowy owls are also often seen in wide-open spaces. If your northern homestead has a rolling terrain and is treeless, this owl might take up residency. Often seen sitting on the ground to hunt, they prefer land that offers them a view. In the winter they will also perch on fence posts, hay bales, buildings, and grain elevators.
Great horned owls are one of the largest species in the United States and can eat prey items as large as skunks. Leave large, bare branches or snags to encourage nest sites. These roosts will also serve as lookout posts for these perch and pounce predators.
Owls serve an important ecological niche and help us out by eating crop pests. What types of owls have visited your homestead? Let us know in the comments below.