Area birders get a hoot out of barn owl sighting
December 3, 2011
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – When the Post Independent published a front-page photo by Kelley Cox of a barn owl spotted at a ranch north of Silt, local bird-watchers got into a flurry.
“It was wonderful,” said birder Tom McConnell of No Name. “I said to myself, ‘Vic is going to call Kelley in about 15 minutes.’ It’s really unusual.”
Indeed, veteran birder Vic Zerbi, a semi-retired Glenwood Springs judge who reached the heralded 700 on his birding checklist years ago, rang up Cox bright and early on Nov. 22, the day the photo appeared in the paper.
“He couldn’t believe I took the photo in Garfield County,” Cox said. She took the photo while on assignment the previous week. The owl flew over her head in a flash of white, and then settled in a nearby tree long enough for her to take the shot.
“Since I moved here in 1978, I’ve never seen a barn owl in Garfield County,” Zerbi said. “I’ve birded Garfield County pretty extensively, and I have never seen a barn owl here.”
He said McConnell and owl expert Kim Potter of Rifle, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife technician, spotted a barn owl near Rifle sometime in the past few years.
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“Other than that, I am not aware of any birdwatchers who have seen them since 1978, when I moved here,” Zerbi said.
“They are a real secretive bird, so seeing them out in the open is unusual,” McConnell said. “They may come out in the day to sun themselves, and that could be why Kelley saw this one.”
Barn owls are typically 12 to 15 inches high, with a wingspan of about 42 inches, and weigh about one pound, according to Potter, who works at the Rifle Ranger District. Male and female birds are usually about the same size, and they mate for life.
They have a unique flat, heart-shaped, white face that sets them apart from other owls.
“They are like a ghost bird,” Zerbi said. “They really do look white, but the body is more of a sandy white color with light bits of orange.”
Barn owls live in agricultural areas all over the world, Potter said. They feed on field mice and insects, making them a helpful predator in fields and barns, and roost in barns and church steeples.
In western Colorado, barn owls are plentiful in Mesa and Delta counties, where they will excavate a hole in a steep riverbank or along the side of a gully, Potter said. But that type of habitat is more rare in Garfield County.
She noted that the Grand Junction Audubon chapter has developed plans for barn owl boxes that can be installed high up in a barn or old silo, in hopes of creating more roosting and nesting habitat for the birds.
“If we can get some more boxes in barns, then birders will be able to sit on the side of the road near a barn at dusk and see them fly out, but not disturb them,” she said.
To learn more about building and installing a barn owl box, contact Potter at firstname.lastname@example.org