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Dickerson Park Zoo/MO Conservation Department Work Together To Help Barn Owls

Credit Francis Skalicky
MDC Biologist Rhonda Rimer Prepares to Relocate a Rescued Barn Owl

Dickerson Park Zoo rescued five young barn owls earlier this summer, and, Thursday, the Missouri Department of Conservation took them to their new homes in rural parts of southwest Missouri.

MDC initially took the owlets from a location in Lawrence County after it received a call from a landowner and sent an agent to check on the birds.

Rhonda Rimer, MDC natural history biologist, said the owlets were in danger where they were, though she couldn’t provide details.  But she said, "I can tell you things that have happened in the past.  For instance, somebody's dog on the farm is after them.  These animals tend to be on the ground in barns or in the hay loft, so animals can get to them or they've fallen down into a place in the barn--a crevice, a small area--the adults can't get to them, so in that case then we'll get a call to see if we can do anything to help them."

Other times, barn owls will nest where they could be in danger from farm operations, so MDC is called.  The zoo, which has a raptor rehabilitation program, rescues birds for MDC when space allows.  Rimer said the zoo got the owlets that were released Thursday at the beginning of June.

"They've had them in the flight cage for a few weeks now, so they're eating, they're flying, they're fully self-sustaining, and they're ready to go to their new homes."

Barn owls have heart-shaped white faces ringed with brown feathers.  They’re medium-sized raptors with wing spans of around four feet.  Unlike other owl species, they can lay up to 14 eggs (the record) at a time, and it’s not unusual for barn owls to have seven young.  Eggs don’t all hatch at once, but, instead, hatch two to three days apart—a process called asynchronous hatching.  The difference in age between the oldest and youngest hatchlings can be as much as three weeks.  And barn owls can have up to five clutches a year.  The survival rate of barn owlets is low, and the birds live only around two years in Missouri and up to 10 years in warmer climates.

Barn owls are found on every continent but Antarctica, and Rimer says they seem to be doing well in Missouri despite the slow disappearance of old barns.  There are 154 known occurrences of barn owls in the state, which she says is considered “secure,” but they’re a species of concern.

They’re currently found in the prairie counties of western Missouri, in northern Missouri and in the bootheel region.

"Wherever you have practices that are friendly to rodents, owls tend to do well, particularly barn owls," said Rimer.

But in the deep-wooded Ozarks in Central Missouri, there’s not enough open land, which barn owls need to survive.

Unlike barred, screech and great-horned owls, barn owls don’t have a distinct call.

"They make kind of a screeching noise, that hissing noise and a high pitched noise," said Rimer.  "They don't make any of the typical owl sounds that you hear, like the barred owl 'who cooks for you' or the great horned owl that 'hoo-aw,' you know, sound."

Rimer is fascinated by the birds, and when a call comes in to MDC about them, she’s the one who takes it.  She’s also part of an effort to monitor them by working with Missouri landowners.  MDC has placed 51 owl boxes, which help protect the birds, in sites with the right habitat—an old barn or shed—plenty of trees since barn owls can nest in cavities and open land for catching mice and other small animals. Most of those sites are on private land.  Rimer said 80 percent of the boxes are used by owls, though not always by barn owls--sometimes they’re used by other owl species such as Great Horned, Screech or Barred.

The five owls released this week were taken to boxes in Greene, Barton and McDonald Counties.

One that was placed in Box #18 in an old barn loft stayed inside the shelter, but another escaped its box immediately and quickly flew out of the side of the metal shed it was in.

These sites, along with the other owl boxes across southwest Missouri, will continue to be monitored by MDC biologists with the help of landowners who often use the opportunity to teach their kids and grandkids about owls.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.