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Barn Owl named Audubon California’s 2010 Bird of the Year

December 14th, 2010 · by Garrison Frost

One of the most common species of owls in California, if not the world, today was named the 2010 Audubon California Bird of the Year after it received nearly 70 percent of votes cast during an online poll this fall. With its distinctive white face, the Barn Owl is known to frequent agricultural lands, suburban and urban neighborhoods and lightly forested foothills. While the species is not at risk in the broader sense, some local populations have experienced sharp declines due to the removal of breeding habitat and other threats such as a large number hit by vehicles. (photo by the USFWS)

Audubon California created the designation last year to highlight the state’s remarkable birds and the conservation challenges many of them face.

“The Barn Owl is a fascinating bird, well deserving of this recognition, and we’re not surprised to see so many people rally behind it,” said Graham Chisholm, executive director of Audubon California. “It’s also a species that strikes a delicate balance with human activity, which makes it very much on the minds of conservationists.”

Nearly 20,000 votes were cast in Audubon California’s online poll, which began in early November. Voters had the choice of selecting one of six birds nominated by the Audubon California Board of Directors, or writing in their own candidate. Nearly 70 percent of voters wrote in the Barn Owl, making it the clear winner. Owls were popular this year, as the second place bird was the Great Gray Owl, at 7 percent. The Western Snowy Plover came in third place, with 5 percent of the vote.

Key to the write-in effort for the Barn Owl were communities of bird enthusiasts that have been watching the species live on popular webcams – among which are a popular webcam in San Marcos and the Audubon Starr Ranch webcam (where you can see a live Barn Owl right now) in Orange County.

The Barn Owl is an amazingly versatile bird. It can live in barns, holes in cliff sides, trees, or man-made boxes. The predilection to eat rodents makes them popular to farmers and ranchers. A single pair feeding young can catch up to 70 pounds of rodents, especially voles, during the breeding season.

It is also a well-studied bird, and researchers have learned some interesting things. For instance, the Barn Owl has amazingly keen hearing that can detect the sound of prey under snow, leaves, or grass. Its ears are slightly offset, which is thought to aid the bird in localizing its prey at night. Studies have shown that the Barn Owl is able to catch prey in zero light, depending entirely on its sense of hearing.

Local Barn Owl populations tend to suffer when people remove dead trees and other breeding habitat. The use of poisons to control small mammals hurts Barn Owls in two ways: it removes food sources and passes poison on to the birds. Collisions with cars have also been demonstrated to be a problem.

Audubon California and Audubon chapters help the Barn Owl by encouraging landowners to provide nesting boxes for the birds when natural habitat has been removed or is otherwise unavailable. We also work with farmers to find ways to reduce the use of poisons, particularly if nest boxes are encouraging owls to breed and control rodents.

Another way that Audubon California is helping the Barn Owl is by educating the public about this dynamic species through our Audubon Starr Ranch webcam. Many thousands of visitors from dozens of countries have come to the site and watched the owls breed and raise their young.

While the Barn Owl wins the designation of 2010 Bird of the Year, Chisholm emphasized that Audubon California’s work on behalf of other California birds, nominated or not, will continue apace.

“Each of the six nominated birds was a major focus of conservation in 2010, although not all in the same way” said Chisholm. “It’s our hope that the attention that this draws to the Barn Owl will help build support for bird conservation across the state.”

Categories: Audubon California · Bird conservation · Bird Habitat · Birding · Conservation research · Nature education and activities · urban conservation

19 Comments so far ↓

  • Diane in MI

    I don’t want to start a flame war, but I think you’re being unduly harsh, Paula Mitchell. The Royals have spent thousands of dollars on camera and computer equipment, not to mention countless hours maintaining equipment and managing e-mails and websites. They’ve donated most of the money to conservation organizations. I think it’s awesome that their grandson was able to pay for college due to his computer talents. You sound like a bitter person, and for that I’m sorry. Molly & McGee made my dad’s last months more bearable as he was dying of ALS, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful to the Royals, Molly, McGee, Max, Pattison, Austin, Wesley, Ashley, & Carrie.

  • Paula Mitchell

    For those who were turned off by the marketing of items ad nauseum on the Molly and Mcgee site, I would like to point out several other barn owl cams that do not exploit the owls for their own financial benefit. Starr Ranch, Nicasio (salt and Pepper), Owliver and Owlivia, Tel Aviv owls, and probably a few others.

  • Treva Roberts

    Speaking for all MODs congrats Molly & McGee for Bird of the year 2010 award. Not exploited but adored thanks to Carlos Royal and family.
    The Royals backyard is home to many species of birds and wildlife where they live and raise their young. A simple thank you is not sufficent for all the joy and knowledge shared throughout the world by Carlos from the San Marcos Owl Box. Over 20 million viewers throughout the world witnessed the miracles of nature for an 8 month duration from the first egg of the first clutch to the fledge of the final owlet of the second clutch. A community of nature lovers developed worldwide and continues to this day through modern technology. Classrooms all over this great nation joined in to learn the way of the owl. The interest that this site generated has promoted the establishment of owl boxes all over the world. For this I would like to nominate Carlos & Donna Royal and their grandson Austin for California Volunteer Conservationists of the year 2010.

  • Treva Roberts

    Speaking for all MODs congrats Molly & McGee for Bird of the year 2010 award. Not exploited but adored thanks to Carlos Royal and family.
    The Royals backyard is home to many species of birds and wildlife where they live and raise their young. A simple thank you is not sufficent for all the joy and knowledge shared throughout the world by Carlos from the San Marcos Owl Box. Over 20 million viewers throughout the world witnessed the miracles of nature for an 8 month duration from the first egg of the first clutch to the fledge of the final owlet of the second clutch. A community of nature lovers developed worldwide and continues to this day through modern technology. Classrooms all over this great nation joined in to learn the way of the owl. The interest that this site generated has promoted the establishment of owl boxes all over the world. For this I would like to nominate Carlos & Donna Royal and their grandson Austin for California Volunteer Conservations of the year 2010.

  • HollyS

    Congrats to all of the nominated birds, I hope they receive the support needed to prolong their kinds.
    This is not about one bird. It is about them all. Birds Matter. (Even the unexploited ones not from UStream.) We need to support organizations that will save them.

  • TT in MD

    What a great contest – all the birds were worthy. What I appreciated from reading the chats from barn owl streams is how many people learned how important it was to have habitat for the owl, and how harmful pesticide use can be.

  • Colleen

    I am very happy that the barn owl won the award. I have watched many webcams of barn owls with amazement. It truely should be the bird of the year with it’s amazing ability to hunt and keep the rodent population down, and it is truely amazing how they look after their families. Well deserved award to the Barn Owl.

  • Kit

    I am so happy the Barn Owl has been named Bird of the Year. I also wrote in and voted for the Barn Owl. The Barn Owl is a great help to the ecology and a fun bird to study as well. Thank You to all the web cam operators that have brought this special bird into the public eye. The focus on this particular bird has brought recognition to all birds and hopefully nature in general. Thank You, Audubon Society of California!

  • PegRod

    John James Audubon would be thrilled with the attention that Molly the Common Barn Owl brought to the world of understanding birds on a “personal” level. When I Googled his quotes, this one came up, showing that he spent time studying each bird individually, but specifies the Owl, and tried to share his vision and understanding of the details of nature with others through hard work and determination to draw what he felt and saw. “My drawings of Owls and other birds of similar plumage were much improved. I have continued the style ever since.” (John James Audubon) Thank you Audubon California for letting Molly fans participate with a vote for Barn Owl!

  • Jean

    Wonderful article about the famous Barn Owl. What a beautiful creature it is. Such a devoted parent to the young.

  • Anonymous

    I am one of those Molly & McGee fans who wrote in “Barn Owl”. Thanks for allowing the write-in votes. The Royals deserve recognition for sharing their owl box and teaching so many viewers to love and appreciate nature – and each other. Sherry Kelly, Author of :
    A Cat Named Zooby (a charming true story for ages 8 to 108)

  • Jacqueline Deely

    A beautiful bird I know little about and have yet to photograph, so thank you for the informative article. I will be on the lookout!

  • Signed Limited Edition DVD « Molly's Box

    [...] Owl named Audubon California’s 2010 Bird of the Year  http://www.audublog.org/?p=4828 Thanks to Molly [...]

  • cece

    I too wrote in the vote for the Barn Owl. They have captured interest, love and respect with many because of the cam at Starr Ranch. Thanks to all for the beautiful photos of these owls. Each day I check to see what’s new with Mr & Mrs O., and again await the laying of eggs. Which leads to the owlets and more fun watching nature unfold before our eyes. Pete, what a gift you have shared with us and the world.

  • Judith 432

    Congratulations Molly & McGee, Owliver & Owlivia, Salt & Pepper, and the Starr Ranch Owls. You have represented your species admirably. I’d like to hang little medals around your necks but I’d probably lose a finger! Thanks to you, attention has been drawn to these beautiful birds and your species has won California’s bird of the Year.

  • Bonny Harpster

    So glad an owl won. I myself, voted for the Great Gray…who we use to hear in the woods we lived in.
    I will never forget it’s haunting call.

  • jackie theisen

    What an honor for The royal’s who brought Molly, McGee & the beautiful owlet’s to so many & changed our live’s. I will alway’s treasure the wonder of it all. And to have been able to be a part of Audubon’s chance to vote And for allowing a write in for a Bird not on the list, what a gesture to make . This christmas season has given us Awe, wonder and Joy.

  • PaulaP

    I am so pleased that the Barn Owl has gained recognition due to the many owl cams that now stream their life cycle. Many people are now passionate about this beautiful bird. I am especially thankful for the Starr Ranch cam and the wealth of information that can be learned there. Because of the popularity of the cams, more people are interested in erecting boxes to attract the owls. When the Starr owlets began to branch, the environment there allowed for safe branching because of the natural setting. One concern in erecting man-made boxes is not providing structure for the natural activities of the owlets as they mature. It was quite clear from the San Marcos cam that the owlets benefitted from the structure provided by the cam owner. My fear is that people will not have the information to provide such structure in the unnatural environment of the box with the potential for some loss of owlets. I would like to see the boxes placed in or near trees that would allow for the necessary developmental activities and for protection from heat that the owlets would have in the natural environment. It would be a dream-come-true to see the wildlife/conservation groups work to provide information to private people and to the companies that see the barn owl only as a means to rodent control so that the man made environments do provide for the safety of the barn owls.

  • Trish

    Great article, as well as a really cool bird of the year!!
    I’m proud to have been in the write-in crowd!