By Martin Kemper,
Washington County Master Naturalist
It was a surprise – to the owls and Kane Lamczyk. “Kane was just doing a routine check of the silo so we could begin feeding the silage to our dairy cows. But, when he climbed near the top and looked inside, there they were – 5 baby Barn Owls huddled against the silo wall,” recalled Mike Chwasczinski who operates
a dairy farm southeast of Nashville.
The owls were resting atop the quiet comfort of 40 feet of silage and under the protective canopy of the silo roof. To the owl family it seemed like the perfect safe haven. “An adult was in there too and she or he (you can’t tell the sexes apart) and the young owls did their best to try to intimidate our advance with threatening calls and behavior,” continued Mike. The owl’s strategy worked, and brothers Mike and Paul decided to leave well enough alone…… for the moment.
While the find was a surprise, it also presented something of a challenge. It was time to use the silage to feed the farm’s dairy cows. The baby owls would almost certainly perish if the silo went into operation. Yet their small size suggested it would be weeks before they could fly. What to do?
The presence of the owls was anything but routine. Barn owls in Illinois are so rare, they are officially listed as a state endangered species. Their rarity seems related to the near disappearance of both their original Illinois habitat – prairie grasslands – and subsequently, the “prairie replacement” – the once abundant pastures and haylands that were found on nearly every small farm.
Three species of more common local owls – the Great Horned Owl, the Eastern Screech Owl, and the (similarly named) Barred Owl, all find can find food in woodland haunts. But Barn Owls are grassland specialists……. except for their nesting habits. In nature, they nest high in the hollows of large trees, or as their name implies, in the tops of farm structures like barns and silos. The latter became their primary nest sites as Illinois’ original old growth forest was cut and farms proliferated. Now, with the prairie gone, and small farms with hay and pasture and traditional barns and silos on the wane, Barn Owls find themselves without food and shelter so to speak.
The special nature of the owls in his silo was not lost on Mike Chwasczinski. With the internet, it’s now possible to research topics once confined to arcane biology books. Mike soon became an expert on Barn Owl natural history. And while difficult, the decision was made to find alternative dairy feed and endure the suspense of seeing if the young owls would grow to maturity and fledge, while the silage sat in “limbo.” The cows were waiting too.
During that wait, Mike learned a lot about Barn Owls – that they nest almost any time of the year if their primary food source of mice and voles is abundant, that both parents care for the young, and that Barn Owls typically mate for life. He also learned that the plumage of young Barn Owls is a snow white down and that just like adults, young owlets regurgitate the hair and bones of their mouse food as little compact packets called owl “pellets.” Studying the contents of pellets is the standard way scientists learn what Barn Owls (and other owls) eat and even what small mammals are found in a particular area.
The Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board (IESPB) has also been learning about Barn Owls with an eye to reviving the species to non-endangered status. It recently approved an official Barn Owl Recovery Plan that aims to improve the status of Barn Owls to at least 80 breeding pairs in at least 30 counties. If that happens, the owl could be “de-listed” as having a secure population.
While the plan is ambitious, its primary strategy is simple. It is based on two developments: 1) there are now some larger pockets of grassland in Illinois due to the USDA land retirement program called “CRP” as well as a few smaller programs of grassland creation and protection; and 2) artificial nest structures have been developed which Barn Owls will use when erected directly in grassland habitats.
For More, Please Read The August 12 Edition Of The Nashville News.