Barn owls make a comeback in Iowa

38 nests of the endangered birds found this year

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Barn owls are on the comeback trail in Iowa — to the point they might come off the state’s endangered species list.

The owls have been on the endangered list since 1977. But for the fourth consecutive year, they’ve increased their nesting in the state, according to Bruce Ehresman, bird biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

In 1980, the DNR could locate only one barn owl nest. This year, the DNR found 38 nests in 26 counties.

Cold winters take a toll on the birds, which have low body fat — about 8 percent — and can’t survive more than six days without food. And with the disappearance of Iowa’s grasslands, it’s hard for the owls to find enough rodents to eat.

In an effort the restore the barn owl population, the DNR began a captive breeding and release program, releasing 500 barn owls across the state.

But radio transmitters showed that only 12 of the owls were still alive after a year’s time, Ehresman said. He believes a cold winter and predators, such as the great horned owl and raccoons, contributed to the low survival rate.

“Whatever it was, they just weren’t surviving,” Ehresman said. “We got out of the barn owl-raising business and started nest poles.”

The past five years have seen an uptick in owl nests, with warmer winters and grassland conservation programs likely helping the owls survive.

But it’s the nest poles, Ehresman believes, that have made the biggest difference.

Last November, the DNR began building nest poles and placing them in grasslands near stands of trees. The nest poles, about 7 feet to 8 feet off the ground, have a wooden box on top where owls can build nests and lay eggs. About 40 poles have been placed in 12 counties.

It’s paying off, Ehresman said.

In 2015, the Iowa DNR found 15 barn owl nests. In 2016, it found 17, a record for Iowa.

This year, the DNR found 71 barn owls had fledged in 26 of the 38 nests counted.

The majority of the nests are in Iowa’s southern counties because it’s warmer there and the area has more grassland.

Ringgold County, in southwest Iowa, has 135,000 acres of grassland and four nests, the most of any county. But four Northern Iowa counties also had barn owl nests, Ehresman said.

“It’s a species that’s native (to Iowa) and important to have,” he said. “If this current trend continues, we should in five years be able to upgrade (barn owls) to threatened from endangered.”

Ehresman said the Iowa DNR wants to put more nest poles in public parks but not where the public has easy access to them.

Iowans seem to get a hoot out of sighting the mostly white owls with flat faces, posting photos of the barn owls they’ve spotted on social media. The DNR, Ehresman said, is finding out about sightings through Facebook posts.

Farmers also are leaving the owl nests alone when they find them in grain bins or barns.

“Someone called us and was emptying a silo, and they noticed the barn owls in there after they took most of the grain out,” Ehresman said. “They let the youngsters fly out and then continued.

“People love barn owls,” he said. “That’s for sure.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8516; makayla.tendall@thegazette.com

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