The Barn Owl
 Morris's British Birds 1891
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White Owl
Image Title: Barn Owl
Description: Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

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Strix flammea, PENNANT. MONTAGU. Aluco flammeus, FLEMING. Aluco minor, ALDROVANDUS.
Strix—Some species of Owl. Flammea—Of the colour of flame—tawny —yellow.

This bird, a ' High Churchman,' is almost proverbially attached to the Church, within whose sacred precincts it finds a sanctuary, as others have done in former ages, and in whose ' ivy-mantled tower' it securely rears its brood. The very last specimen but one that I have seen was a young bird perched on the exact centre of the ' reredos' in Charing Church, Kent, where its ancestors for many .generations have been preserved by the careful protection of the worthy curate, my old entomological friend, the Rev. J. Dix, against the machinations of mischievous boys, and the ' organ of destructive-ness' of those who ought to know better.
The White Owl is dispersed more or less generally, according to naturalists, all over the earth: it is however the least numerous in the colder districts. Northward it occurs from Germany as far as Denmark and Sweden, but is as yet unrecorded as an inhabitant of Norway. In Africa, its range extends southward to the Cape of Good Hope, and from there to Quillinane on the one side, and to Angola on the other. In Asia, eastward, to Mesopotamia, India, and New Holland, as is said; and westward, if indeed the species be the same, to the United States. Madeira is one of its habitats, and it also occurs in the Azores: in Tartary it is stated to be very abundant. It occurs throughout England, and that as the most plentiful of its tribe; in Ireland it is likewise the most common of the Owls; in Scotland it is less numerous, particularly towards the north-west; and in the Orkney Islands still more unfrequent. In the Hebrides, it has been traced in Mull and Islay.
This bird is a perennial resident with us, and if unmolested frequents the same haunts for a succession of years; the young, no doubt, in time, taking the place of the old. In Yorkshire, in the neighbourhood of Barnsley it occurs, or has occurred; also near Huddersfield, Halifax, and Hebden-Bridge, but of course in these parts much less frequently than in those districts of the county where the quiet tranquillity of rural life is undisturbed by the bustle of business, and peace prevails over turmoil, happiness over the misery of money-making, the country over the town, GOD over the Enemy of man. It displays considerable affection for its young. Mr. Thomas Prater, of Bicester, relates in the ' Zoologist,' that an old ivy-clad tree having been blown down at Chesterton, Oxfordshire, a family of White Owls was dislodged by its fall: the parent bird placed the young ones under the tree, and was not deterred from her maternal duties by the frequent visits of the keeper on his rounds, but one morning as he was turning away from looking at them, flew at him with great fury, and buffeted him about the head.
As a proof, among the many others which have been, and might be given, of the influence of protection and kindness upon wild birds, I may here mention, my informant being Mr. Charles Muskett, of Norwich, that a pair of this species, which lived in a barn near his father's residence, were so fearless that they would remain there while the men were thrashing, and if a mouse was dislodged by a sheaf being removed, would pounce down upon it before them, without minding their presence. They not very unfrequently become of their own accord half-domesticated, from frequenting the vicinage of man without molestation, where their good services are appreciated, and their presence accordingly is encouraged. These birds indeed are very tameable, and will afterwards live in harmony with others of various species. Montagu kept one together with a Sparrow-Hawk and a Ringdove; at the end of six months he gave them all their liberty— the Owl alone returned—the others preferred their native freedom to the acquired habits of domestication. Another which escaped from the place of its captivity, came back in a few days voluntarily to it. The movements of this bird, when they can be closely observed, are very amusing: standing on one leg, it draws the other up into its thick plumage, and if approached, moves its head awry after the manner of a Chinese mandarin, or falls down flat on its side, like Punch in the puppet-show. To be properly tamed they must be taken young: education, as is the case with the ' bipes implume,' is much less difficult then than afterwards. They will come to a whistle, or answer to their name, and settle on the shoulder of whomsoever they may be acquainted with. They take notice of music, and appear to be fond of it.
Bishop Stanley says, 'a friend of ours had taken a brood of young Owls, and placed them in a recess on a barn-floor, from whence, to his surprise, they soon disappeared, and were again discovered in their original breeding-place. Determined to solve the mystery of this unaccountable removal, he placed them on the barn-floor, and concealing himself, watched their proceedings, when to his surprise he soon perceived the parent birds gliding down, and entwining their feet in the feet of their young ones, flew off with them to their nest. To confirm the fact without a doubt, the experiment was often repeated, in the presence of other witnesses.'
One of these birds after having been tamed for some time, was found to be in the habit for some months, of taking part of its food to a wild one, which overcame its shyness so far as to come near the house, and it would then return to the kitchen, and eat the remainder of its portion. Another of them is described by Meyer, as so tame 'that it would enter the door or window of the cottage, as soon as the family sat down to supper, and partake of the meal, either sitting upon the back of a chair, or venturing on the table; and it was sometimes seen for hours before the time watching anxiously for the entrance of the expected feast. This exhibition was seen regularly every night.' If captured when grown up, it sometimes refuses food, and its liberty in such, indeed in any case, should be given it. In cold weather a number of these birds have been found sitting close together for the purpose of keeping each other warm. The male and female consort together throughout the year. If aroused from their resting-place during the day, they fly about in a languid, desultory manner, and are chased and teased by chaffinches, tomtits, and other small birds, by whom indeed they are sometimes molested in their retreat, as well as by the urchins of the village.
The flight of this bird, which is generally low, is pre-eminently soft, noiseless, and volatile. It displays considerable agility on the wing, and may be seen in the tranquil summer evening when prowling about, turning backward and forward over a limited extent of beat, as if trained to hunt, as indeed it has been—by Nature. It also, its movements being no doubt directed by the presence or absence of food, makes more extended peregrinations in its 'night-errantry.' If its domicile be at some distance, it flies regularly at the proper time, which is that of twilight, or moonlight, or when 'the stars glimmer red,' to the same haunt. During the day it conceals itself in hollow trees, rocks, buildings, and evergreens, or some such covert, but has been known to hunt even in the afternoon. It is a bird of a cultivated taste, preferring villages and towns themselves, as well as their neighbourhoods, to the mountains or forests, and frequents buildings, church steeples, crevices and holes in walls, for shelter and a roosting place, as also, occasionally, trees and unfrequented spots. Montagu says that it sometimes flies by day, particularly in the winter, or when it has young. It certainly does so. When at rest it stands in an upright position.
Moles, rats, shrews, mice, and nestlings, are extensively preyed on by the bird before us: as many as fifteen of the latter have been found close to the nest of a single pair, the produce of the forage of one night, or rather part of the produce, for others doubtless must have been devoured before morning. He who destroys an Owl is an en-courager of vermin—nine mice have been found in the stomach of one—a veritable 'nine killer.' It is very interesting to watch this bird, as I have had much pleasure in doing, when hunting for such prey, stop short suddenly in its buoyant flight, stoop and drop in the most adroit manner to the earth, from which it for the most part speedily re-ascends with its booty in its claws; occasionally, however, it remains on the spot for a considerable time, 'and this,' says Sir William Jardine, 'is always done at the season of incubation for the support of the young.' It also occasionally eats small birds—thrushes, larks, buntings, sparrows, and others, as also beetles and other insects. It has been known to catch fish from shallow water. A tame one kept in a large garden, killed a lapwing, its companion.
Mr. Waterton argues that Owls cannot destroy pigeons, or the pigeons would be afraid of them as they are of hawks, but this is not quite conclusive, for as shown in previous articles, pigeons and other small birds become habituated to the presence of Hawks, and the latter, as it would seem, to theirs, so that both parties dwell together in amity as much as the Owls and pigeons, from acquired habit or natural instinct. In seven hundred and six pellets cast up by some of these birds, there were found the remains of twenty-two small birds, viz: nineteen sparrows, one greenfinch, two swifts, sixteen bats, and two thousand five hundred and twenty mice, voles, and shrews, and three rats.
'A person,' says Bishop Stanley, 'who kept pigeons, and often had a great number of young ones destroyed, laid it on a pair of Owls, which visited the premises, and accordingly, one moonlight night, he stationed himself, gun in hand, close to the dove-house, for the purpose of shooting the Owls. He had not taken his station long, before he saw one of them flying out with a prize in its claws; he pulled the trigger, and down came the poor bird, but instead of finding the carcase of a young pigeon he found an old rat, nearly dead.' These Owls feed on shrew-mice, though rejected by cats and other animals, on account, as is supposed, of their disliking either their taste or smell; but it would seem that they do not prefer them, for the Eev. Leonard Jenyns has observed that shrews are repeatedly found whole beneath the nest, as if cast out for the like reason, and I cannot help thinking that the very frequent occurrence of these mice dead on pathways in fields which every one must have observed, may be attributable to the same cause. Fish are also occasionally, as above mentioned, the prey of this species of Owl, as well as of others; possibly at times of all. It has been suggested that the glare of their eyes may be a means of attracting the fish within their reach, but I must place this fancy in the same category with another which I have alluded to under the head of the Snowy Owl. Not to mention that other birds, such as the Osprey and Fishing-Eagle, which take fish in the same manner, by pouncing on them, find them ready to their claw without the need of any attractive influence, and that Owls see as well at the time they fly, as the Osprey at the time that it does, and that fish, as every fly-fisher is aware, keep the same general positions by night that they do by day, it may be remarked, as those who have engaged in 'Barbel-blazing' in the river Wharfe well know, that though certain fish may sometimes be attracted more or less by light, as the salmon, yet that they are not necessarily so, for that the light oftentimes seems to keep them pertinaciously at the bottom of the stream. Besides, how is the instantaneous catching of the fish by the Owl to be effected ? They are caught from the middle of the pool—Is the Owl to keep hovering over them after the manner of the Kestrel, until they have time to ascend from the depth and answer to the wooing of his eyes, inviting them in the language of Mrs. Bond to her ducks, '0! will you, will you, wont you, wont you, come and be killed?' 'You may call spirits from the vasty deep,' says Shakespeare, 'but will they come when you do call them V and I am inclined to think that the fishes will be found in their deep, at least as deaf, or rather as blind to such an invitation.
The White Owl is said to collect and hoard up food in its place of resort, as a provision against a day of scarcity. It seizes its prey in its claw, and conveys it therein, for the most part, when it has young to feed; one however has been seen to transfer it from its claw to its bill while on the wing; but, as Bishop Stanley observes, 'it is evident that as long as the mouse is retained by the claw, the old bird cannot avail itself of its feet in its ascent under the tiles, or approach to their holes; consequently, before it attempts this, it perches on the nearest part of the roof, and there removing the mouse from its claw to its bill, continues its flight to the nest. Some idea may be formed of the number of mice destroyed by a pair of Barn Owls, when it is known that in the short space of twenty minutes two old birds carried food to their young twelve times, thus destroying at least forty mice every hour during the time they continued hunting, and as young Owls remain long in the nest, many hundreds of mice must be destroyed in the course of rearing them. Of seven hundred and six pellets of a pair of these birds, the component parts were the remains of fifteen hundred and nine shrews, twenty-two small birds, sixteen bats, three rats, two hundred and thirty-seven mice, and six hundred and ninety-three field mice.
The note of this species is a screech—a harsh prolongation of the syllables 'tee-whit,' and it seldom, if ever, hoots. It has too an ordinary hiss, uttered both when perched, and in flight; and it also makes a snoring sort of noise when on the wing. It has been asserted that it never hoots, but 'never's a bold word,' Sir William Jardine is not the man to misstate a fact. What if the White Owl should be to be added to the number of mocking birds ? The Rev. Andrew Matthews' reasoning on this subject is somewhat obscure: he is of opinion that the White Owl does not hoot, and in corroboration thereof, says that while a tame Brown Owl lived, the large trees round the house were nightly the resort of 'many wild birds of this species,' who left no doubt about their note, but after his death, though the screeching continued, the hooting ceased.
If attacked, these birds turn on their backs, and snap and hiss. The young while in their nest make the said odd kind of snoring noise, which seems to be intended as a call to their parents for food.
"So a fond pair of birds, all day, Blink in their nest, and doze the hours away."
The White Owl builds for the most part, in old and deserted, as well as in existing buildings and ruins, chimneys, eaves, or mouldering crevices, barns, dove-cotes, church steeples, pigeon lofts, and, but very rarely, in hollow trees, also in rocks, when or where none of the former are to be had. With the pigeons, if there are any in the place, they live in the most complete harmony, and often unjustly bear the blame of the depredations committed by jackdaws and other misdemeanants, both quadruped and biped.
The nest, if one be made at all, for oftentimes a mere hollow serves the purpose, is built of a few sticks or twigs, lined with a little grass or straw, or, though but seldom, with hair or wool, and this is all that it fabricates, and to but a small extent either of bulk or surface.
The eggs are white and of a round shape, generally two or three, but sometimes as many as four, five, or six in number, which may be accounted for by the ascertained fact that they will sometimes lay a first, second, and third clutch of two eggs each, so that one or both of the latter may be hatched before the first brood leaves the nest, and thus birds in even three stages of growth may be fed and fostered at one and the same time, the successive broods coming on 'imparl passu.' It will be seen that I have before alluded to something of the sort, and I shall have a most extraordinary circumstance of the kind to narrate, 'in loco,' of the Moorhen. An egg has been known of an oval shape, and much lengthened. The young have been found in the nest in the months of July and September. Mr. Waterton has known a young brood hatched in September and December, but the end of April, May, or June, is the more proper time. A pair observed by the Rev. John Atkinson, of Layer Marney Rectory, Kelvedon, Essex, for four successive years, ordinarily reared four young, but had not more than one brood in the year. The remarks I have before made about the dispersion of birds is borne out by his observation, that 'the old birds remained, but the young ones seemed to leave the immediate neighbourhood,' and again, in the list of the birds of Melbourne, Derbyshire, by J. J. Briggs, Esq., he says, writing of this same species, 'hundreds of individuals have been reared in this spot, but it is never occupied by more than one pair at the same time, for no sooner is' a brood fully fledged and able to maintain itself, than a pair of the strongest drive the rest of the family from the spot, and occupy it themselves.'
The appearance of this Owl, owing to its somewhat wedge-shaped face, is very singular, especially when asleep, as it is then even more elongated. The whole plumage is beautifully clean and pure, and most elegantly flecked with small markings. Old birds become yet more white if possible. Male; weight, about eleven ounces; length, about one foot one inch, or a little more; bill, yellowish pink, yellow in the fully adult bird, and almost white in old age; cere, flesh-coloured; iris, deep brown, or bluish black, but its general aspect is dark as 'berry bright.' it is only opened a little laterly during the day, but quite round at night; there is a slight tinge of reddish brown round the inner corner of the eye. Head, pale buff, thinly spotted with black and white; the ends of the feathers are tinted with pale grey, and the tips marked zigzag with dark purple and black and white spots; crown delicately barred with waves of pale grey and dull yellow, and it is darker or lighter in different individuals, the tips of the feathers with fine zigzag lines and black and white spots; neck, pure silky white, sometimes tinged with delicate yellow or buff, and small brown spots; the ruff the same, but often marked on the upper part with yellowish or darkish tips to the feathers; sometimes the upper part and the lower alternate these colours 'vice versa,' and sometimes it is yellowish all round; nape, pale buff, thinly spotted with black and white. Chin, throat, and breast, pure silky white: back, buff, thinly spotted with black and white, and a shade darker than the head: different specimens have more or less buff and grey.
The wings extend about half an inch beyond the tail, and expand to the width of three feet or over, the first quill feather is rather shorter than the second, which is the shortest in the wing; greater and lesser wing coverts, beautifully spotted with white, like a string of pearls; primaries, buff on the outer webs, paler on the inner, edged with white, or altogether white, and barred or spotted with alternate black and white, both freckled over: beneath they are yellowish white; towards the ends the dark bars shew faintly through; the second feather is the longest, the first nearly as long; secondaries, pale buff, barred or spotted irregularly in like manner with two white and two grey spots on each side of the shafts; tertiaries, buff and spotted: all the quills are pure white on three fourths of the breadth of their inner webs; greater and lesser under wing coverts, white, sometimes pale buff with small dark spots. Tail, pale buff, with four or five blackish grey bars; the tip white; the side feathers almost entirely yellowish white, as are the inner webs of all the feathers except the two middle ones; it is even, but jagged at the end as are the wings; tail coverts, buff and spotted; legs, feathered with short, white, or sometimes very light rufous hairlike feathers, shortest near the toes, which are flesh-coloured, but covered above with the feathers of the legs; claws, pale brown, or yellowish white, thin and much pointed; that of the middle toe slightly serrated on the inner side, and all more or less grooved beneath. They become whitish in age.
The female resembles the male, but the colours are duller, and the breast is often marked with the yellowish grey of the back, and spotted on the tips of the feathers at its lower part with greyish black. Length, one foot three inches and a half; the wings expand to the width of three feet two inches or over.
The young birds are at first covered with snow-white down; the yellow plumage is gradually assumed, being at first paler in colour than in the old birds, and the breast less tinged with it, but being considerably like the old ones; there is not much change as they advance in age. It is long before they are able to fly. When fully fledged the length is about twelve inches; the bill, pale flesh-colour; iris, black; there is an orange brown spot before it; the face is dull white, the ruff white, its tips rufous; breast, white; back, pale reddish yellow, mottled with grey and brown as in the adult; primaries, light yellowish tinged with grey, and only a little mottled. Tail, light yellowish grey and mottled, and but faintly barred; claws, pale purple brown.
Varieties of this bird have occasionally occurred. Meyer mentions one which was pied yellow and white; another, of which the ground colour was perfectly white, and the pencillings on the upper plumage very indistinctly defined in the palest possible colouring. Some are much more darkly coloured than others. Another had all the breast of a rich buff colour, the face, as I may well call it, white, the head and back several shades darker than the normal tint.

"Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping Owl doth to the moon complain
Of such, as wandering near her sacred bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign."

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