Barn owls are flying high again

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Barn owls, the birds most fretted over by the nation's conservationists, are at last responding to years of tender care and attention. Last year, a record number of chicks fledged, and the species, once in seemingly unstoppable decline, is now doing better than it has for decades.

The British Trust for Ornithology and the Barn Owl Conservation Network say 2005 was a "bumper" year, especially in Essex, west Oxfordshire, Cheshire and Somerset. Here, some pairs raised three separate broods, and from elsewhere came reports of the earliest hatchings for 20 years. Cornwall has had a "significant increase" to about 360 pairs, and on Skomer Island in Wales the bird returned for the first time since 1897.

There is hope that the dark days of decline may now be over. Persecuted in the 19th century, barn owls found the next one even less congenial, having to cope with loss of meadows, chemicalised farming, a run of harsh winters, Dutch elm disease destroying nest sites, the demolition or conversion of barns, and that great killer of these low-flying hunters, heavy traffic on major roads. The upshot was a population that collapsed from 12,000 pairs in 1932 to fewer than 4,000 by the 1980s.

But recent years have been kinder. First, a run of dryish, benign winters meant an abundance of voles, the owls' favourite food. Second, campaigners and farmers set aside and maintained more of the birds' preferred habitat of rough grassland. And third is the remarkable conservation effort to save the species. The result, says Dave Leech, head of the BTO's nest record scheme, is that 2005 "was a very good season. We strongly suspect that numbers are higher than for several decades. As long as the climate doesn't change adversely, the prospects are rosy".

No other species has had anything like this pampering. The BTO's monitoring programme is one among an extraordinary number of bodies and schemes devoted to the bird, ranging from the Hawk and Owl Trust, and its Barn Owl Conservation Network, to dozens of local groups.

The most palpable results of this are the 20,000-plus barn owl nesting boxes in British farms and woods - the equivalent of four for every pair. Putting up these boxes represents a huge amount of volunteer hours. Barn owl nesting boxes are not little cubby-holes nailed to a tree, but the size of a dog's kennel.

Next month, around 100 conservationists and volunteers will meet to swap ideas at Britain's biennial Barn Owl Symposium. They will have something to celebrate, but experts caution that a few cold and wet winters could yet check the bird's progress. Jason Ball, the UK co-ordinator for the Barn Owl Conservation Network, said: "We can't be complacent, especially when you consider most nest sites rely on human support."

All about owls: Sharp ears and a shrieking cry

* Barn owls stand 330mm-350mm tall, and have a wingspan of about 900mm. In flight, especially in twilight, the bird can appear white. Aerodynamic feathers mean they are silent fliers, which enables them to use their superb hearing

* They can rotate their heads 270 degrees in each direction, so if they begin from one side's extreme it appears as if they can turn their heads all the way round more than once

* Their acute hearing enables them to pinpoint prey hiding in grass. A disc-shaped face funnels sound towards the hidden, asymmetrically sited ears, with the left pointing slightly down, as the right aims up

* Barn owls mate for life. Some four to six eggs are laid in April or early May. Incubation takes a month, and the young may occupy the nest for three months

* Owls eat their prey whole. Small, black pellets of their prey's fur and bones are regurgitated from the mouth. This happens about twice a day.

* The barn owl's call is a spooky shriek and they are also known as screech owls. It is the tawny owl that has the famed "toowit-towoo" hoot

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