Keep Your Eyes Open!
Common Barn Owls Aren't!
By Del Gasche

Eric and Becky admire a painting of a Common Barn Owl in one of Becky's many bird books.

Becky Cullen of Bowling Green and Eric Durbin of Holland need your help.

These two members of the Toledo Naturalists' Association have been assigned a difficult ... perhaps impossible ... task.

They're to locate any common barn owls living in northwestern Ohio.

"Well," you ask slyly, "how difficult can it be to locate a bird named Common something-or-other?"

Actually, it can be more difficult than you might think.

Owls being owls, it's not likely you're going to find them at your bird feeder in the middle of the day.

And looking for owls in the middle of the night is not the easiest kind of bird watching.

The 14th century writer Geoffrey Chaucer described the common barn owl as " ... a prophet of woe and mischance."

Of course, it all depends upon your point of view ... woe and mischance for mice and voles becomes glee and good fortune for farmers and naturalists.

Unfortunately for farmers and naturalists, however, the common barn owl has become uncommon ... perhaps even nonexistent ... in northwestern Ohio.

Which is exactly why Becky and Eric need your help.

Becky works as a legal secretary for the Middleton, Roebke & Nelson law firm in Bowling Green and she's been a member of the Toledo Naturalists' Association for several years.

Bird watchers keep a Life List of the different species of birds they've seen and Becky's now contains about 320 species.

Eric works as a real estate title examiner for the Port Lawrence Title & Trust Company, also in Bowling Green.

He's a 25-year member of the Toledo Naturalists' Association, its former president and a current board member.

His Life List contains more than 3,000 species.

"I've been bird watching all over the world," he says.

"While bird watching, I've been run over by hippos in Africa and I've been robbed in Panama.

"It's not easy to get more than 3,000 species on your Life List!"

Deep, Deep Roots

The Toledo Naturalists' Association formally began in 1933, evolving from several older nature study organizations.

The Toledo Academy of Natural History had been founded

in 1860 and included a collection of more than 500 mounted birds and mammals, including two whooping cranes.

But a fire destroyed the collection in 1880.

The Society of Natural Sciences was organized in 1870 and reported on the disappearance of the panther, lynx, wolverine and other mammals from the Toledo area.

The Toledo Bird Club was organized in 1904 and organized bird watching expeditions using the electric interurban lines as transportation.

The Burroughs Nature Club was organized in 1915 and it sponsored monthly lectures at the Toledo Museum of Art.

In 1918, the famous naturalist John Burroughs visited.

In 1921, the Toledo Nature Society was organized with more than 100 members.

The Toledo Field Naturalists' Association was organized in 1930 under the leadership of Roger Conant, herpetologist at the Toledo Zoo.

The group collected nature specimens, kept systematic records, published its findings in national science journals and built a permanent specimen collection at the Toledo Zoo.

In 1958, Roger Conant wrote A Field Guide To Reptiles And Amphibians in the Peterson Field Guide Series.

In 1933, the Toledo Nature Study Society and the Toledo Field Naturalists' Association merged to form the Toledo Field Naturalists' Association.

Two years later, the name was shortened to the present Toledo Naturalists' Association.

Newspapermen Lou Campbell of the Toledo News-Bee and the Toledo Times and Lou Klewer of the Toledo Blade were very active members.

Through their writing efforts, the association and nature in general received a great deal of attention for several decades, well into the 1970s.

Today the Toledo Naturalists' Association has about 350 members.

Though most of them live in northwestern Ohio and southern Michigan, there are some scattered throughout the United States.

The association meets ten times a year and also hosts a series of field trips, nature hikes and camp-outs.

Barn Owls

Barn owls are birds that like open grassy areas for hunting.

Meadow voles account for 70 percent of a barn owl's diet, with the remainder made up of shrews and mice.

By the late 1800s, Ohio provided ideal barn owl habitat ... grassy pastures and hayfields interspersed with woodlots and orchards.

Nesting sites in hollow trees, wooden barns and silos were readily available near the fields and pastures.

Barn owls also nested on water towers and in church steeples and other tall structures.

The first official report of a barn owl pair nesting in Ohio was made in the Cincinnati area in 1861.

By the 1930s, the barn owl population had peaked in Ohio, with nestings reported in 84 of its 88 counties.

Among owl species, only the screech owl was more common.

During the '40s, the barn owl population began to decline.

And by the '60s, they'd vanished from most Ohio counties.

Several factors contributed to their decline.

Grasslands and pastures were converted to cultivated fields

of row crops, and fall plowing became popular.

The widespread use of pesticides such as DDT drastically decreased successful hatchings, even in areas with suitable habitat.

Added to these factors was

an unexplained increase in the population of great horned owls, the adult barn owl's mortal enemy.

The raccoon population also steadily increased, which also meant the increased destruction of eggs and nestlings.

Today there are only 10 to 20 nesting pairs of barn owls reported in Ohio each year.

This figure, however, includes only barn owls nesting in nest boxes and buildings.

There are probably a few more pairs in the state, but barn owls nesting in natural tree cavities are almost impossible to detect.

Last summer, Eric and several other Toledo Naturalists' Association members visited the Lake La Su An area in Williams County.

They decided it was perfect barn owl habitat ... woods, grassy fields, pasture land and owl-friendly wooden barns.

"Absolutely," Eric says enthusiastically.

"If I were a barn owl, I'd be living in that area.

"There should be barn owls around there ... at least we hope there are.

"But how could we find them?

"That was the problem."

Becky's Project

So the association put Becky in charge of the project and essentially said, "It's your assignment. See what you can find out."

"Well," Becky says, "you can't very well go door to door, farm to farm, asking about barn owls.

"So I decided to get the word out through the newspapers and ask people to contact us if they had barn owls in their area.

"We have an official TNS field trip scheduled for the Lake La Su An area this summer.

"But we'd like to have someone in northwestern Ohio or southern Michigan who has barn owls roosting or nesting on his property contact us.

"If that happens, we'll keep it confidential and make whatever arrangements are desired.

"I'd like to talk with the people and see if we can get permission for a small group to visit their area.

"We'll follow whatever procedure the property owner wants us to follow.

"All we'd like to do is see the barn owls and know they're in this region."

"We'd also like to make a few suggestions to anyone who may have barn owls living on his property," Eric says.

"Do whatever you can to protect them and make them feel at home.

"If they're nesting in an old building, please don't decide to tear it down.

"Just give them their privacy ... leave them alone as much as possible.

"They're wonderful, unique, useful birds.

"And remember, they're only 'prophets of woe and mischance' to rodents!"

Del's Note: The Toledo Naturalists' Association's Internet web page is located at

If you do have barn owls living on your property, Becky would appreciate hearing from you and all calls will be kept confidential.

She can be contacted by phone at work at (419) 352-7522 or at home at (419) 354-4377.

Her e-mail address is

Send us a note at and we'll pass the message on.