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Flight Lines: Night stalker among the natural beauties

A rare barn owl--likely a female--roosts alone in an ash tree along the edge of Petersburg, N.D., last weekend, waiting for nightfall to feed. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

It began with a fellow named Joe who wondered, along with some of his neighbors in Petersburg, N. D., whether the owls they were seeing every night in town were something special. A decent photograph of the birds he took recently was e-mailed to the N.D. Game and Fish Department. Turns out, the birds were special. They were barn owls (Tyto alba).

North Dakota is not exactly a hotbed of barn owl sightings, there being less than 20 in total. When found, the birds are typically alone and remain for very brief periods of time. Nesting is nearly unheard of with only a tiny handful of records, the latest coming in 1985 at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge near Jamestown. Count Petersburg, Nelson County, 2010, as the newest nesting record.

A claim by one source I found states barn owls have the largest range of any bird in the world. That's debatable but certainly the birds cover much of the world, being represented on every continent except Antarctica. Due to this global familiarity, the birds are pretty well known and studied.

When it comes to owls, there is very little middle ground. The birds seem to evoke all manner of emotions in humans, from awe to outright fear. Perhaps it's due to the birds' habit of being active at night when most of the world is sleeping. Maybe it's the birds' human-like faces which can coldly stare back at onlookers, seemingly for hours. Another emotion-starter is their vocalizations. Words can hardly capture the repertoire of strange noises these animals are capable of emitting. Barn owls are right at the top when it comes to unearthly utterances. Descriptions of its unbirdlike sounds run long: Screaming, clicking, hissing, snapping, squeaking, shrieking, and the like. Little wonder they fully capture our imagination.

Barn owls stand out for another reason. Of the 19 regularly occurring species of owls in the country (there are about 130 worldwide); it's the only representative of a very small family called Tytonidae. All the rest belong to Strygidae, or true owls.

A strict meat diet - mainly small mammals - taken at night, makes barn owls particularly keen in the hearing department. While the bird has excellent night vision, it's its ears which win the praise of researchers. Its ability to zero in on prey by sound alone is highest of any bird ever tested. In the lab, barn owls can locate mice in complete darkness.

A rich tapestry of coloration drapes the back of barn owls, making them perhaps the most beautiful of all our owls. On a backdrop of rich honey-brown, flecks of white, gray, and shades of tan, pattern the feathers. This starkly offsets the birds' striking white faces and bellies, set off by pairs of coal-black eyes. Its facial disc is classic, being nearly universally described as "heart-shaped." The sexes are nearly identical although females usually show more spotting on their upper bellies. It's been said the most reliable means to determine sexes, though, is by behavior.

There is extreme plumage variety among the various subspecies found throughout the world; as well as size differences. As many as 46 subspecies (or races) of barn owl have been described; not unexpected for a bird with worldwide distribution. Races range from beige-and-white birds to black-and-brown ones. The largest subspecies is the North American bird which is over twice the weight of the smallest, found on the Galapagos Islands.

Nearly all the occurrences of barn owls in North Dakota have been rural ones. The birds prefer open country habitats like grasslands, marshes and deserts so it comes as no surprise. Unlike most owls, don't expect to find this bird in forested areas, it won't be there.

Instead, rural landowners might want to check out those abandoned outbuildings where barn owls commonly nest. Even active barns might attract barn owls to nest (duh). Be forewarned, however. Great horned owls, which are very common, will regularly nest in barns or other structures. Moreover, these birds are equally capable of eerie sounds.

I've been searching for barn owls in our area for quite a few years and come up with exactly zero birds. With the recent successful nest in Petersburg, however, I may have to redouble my efforts.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.