We have a resident owl. A barn owl, to be precise. This is not surprising, since we have a barn that we use mainly for storing garden equipment, so we rarely disturb the owl. And there are plenty of entrances and exits for it. Getting a shot of one is virtually impossible, so I’ve had to resort to Wikimedia above (Photo credit: Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, CC BY-SA 2.0).
I love owls, especially the evocative sound of their hooting when you’re sitting cosily by the fire on a winter’s evening. However, the “tu-whit, tu-woo” owl is actually the tawny owl. Ours is definitely a barn owl.
How do I know? First, I’ve seen it. At night, when it’s out hunting, the owl perches on the beam in our lean-to, which is attached to the house. One night, we went outside after dark, and it shot out of there and glided away on silent wings. We saw its ghostly white plumage, and we regularly find beautiful feathers in the barn after it has been preening. We have also found the pellets it regurgitates, containing the bones and fur of its prey.
Second, we have heard it. The barn owl doesn’t hoot; it screeches. Now, this really is a ghostly sound: a shriek of several seconds’ duration, rising to a crescendo. The owl uses our pigeonnier as a kind of beacon. We sleep on the top floor and the pigeonnier leads off our bedroom. I sometimes hear the owl land on the roof, where it waits for its prey to pass by underneath. Although they see very well in the dark, it’s been proven that barn owls locate their prey by sound.
This post from the Woodland Trust has sound clips of different species of owl to be found in the UK. This list is pretty much what we have here, but we also have the scops owl, which makes a regular bleeping noise.
The screech performs various functions. The male emits it while flying, mostly to warn off other males from its territory. They also make a hissing noise. Owlets and female barn owls (prior to nesting) screech to demand food.
The barn owl also leaves very messy evidence of its presence in our lean-to.
It used to perch on the beams on our bolet (covered balcony). However, we got fed up with cleaning the guano off the stone slabs, and it sticks like concrete. Initially, we put up wooden battens on the beams to try to prevent it landing on them. They were unsightly and warped over the years, so the owl was able to push them aside and resume its nocturnal eliminations.
In the end, we put up Perspex sheets above the beams, which you can barely see, except when they reflect the sunlight. This seems to have done the trick. The owl has withdrawn to the lean-to, which is a terrible mess, but we don’t mind that.
Before anyone complains about animal cruelty, I hasten to add that no animal was harmed during or after the installation of the Perspex. The owl quickly learned that it couldn’t land there anymore, we have not driven it away and the smaller birds can perch on top of the Perspex. There is no evidence so far that any birds have harmed themselves by flying into it. If this becomes an issue, we will remove it.
The barn owl (Tyto alba) is called une chouette effraie in French. It’s also popularly known by the nickname of La Dame Blanche and sometimes chouette des clochers for its habit of nesting in church spires.
During the Middle Ages, people associated barn owls with death and evil spirits, probably because of their eerie screeching and their ghostly appearance. They believed that if one took up residence in a barn or house, the owner would die. The poor creatures were therefore nailed to barn doors to ward off ill fate.
Thankfully, these benighted practices died out, and the barn owl brings good luck, so we are very pleased to have one of our own. Unfortunately, their numbers are decreasing in France, although it’s difficult to count them precisely because of their nocturnal behaviour. Their habitat is under threat from changes in agricultural practices and the demolition of old buildings.
The main cause of death today is collision with vehicles at night. Sadly, we once found a dead barn owl lying in our lane. It had not a scratch on it but a rather strange depression in its breast. We think it might have landed at the point where the high tension cable joins the pylon and electrocuted itself.
The government prohibited hunting barn owls in France in 1972. I find it hard to see who would want to hunt them, unless the old beliefs cling on in places. They can’t be appetising, surely. Anyway, this is the furthest thing from our minds. Although we have prevented ours from landing in the bolet, the lean-to is not out of bounds, and neither is the barn. I hope it has bred this year, and that we will continue to hear the unearthly screeching every night.
I’ve appeared in a couple of magazine articles this autumn:
- French Property News/Living France, October 2021 issue, in a feature about changing careers and setting up a business when moving to France. If you’d like to read or download that article, there’s a PDF below.
- French Entrée Magazine, Autumn 2021 issue, in a feature about Tarn-et-Garonne. Since that issue is still on sale, I can’t share it with you yet.
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