Bad weather taking toll on the barn owl

A White Christmas, although welcome by many, is threatening one of our most charismatic birds, the barn owl.

Already, the earliest winter snows and frosts for many years, have taken a toll.

Increasing numbers of dead or dying barn owls are being discovered each day in barns, outbuildings and nest boxes, where, prevented from hunting by snow, they have slowly starved.

Last week alone 23 dead or dying barn owls were found around the Lower Derwent Valley Nature reserve between York and Selby, the dying birds too far gone from starvation to be taken into care. Three dead birds were found at Sunk Island on the Humber, several at the RSPB's Blacktoft Sands reserve and others at the Tophill Low and Potteric Carr reserves.

More snow will bring a further increase because barn owls find it impossible to hunt in such conditions as their prey of mice and voles is hidden from them.

In any case barn owls, compared with other birds which winter in Britain, are poorly insulated and therefore much more dependent on a reliable food supply to provide them with extra energy.

The most vulnerable barn owls are birds born this year which are much less experienced at finding food in difficult conditions – many of these die even in average winters.

In previous severe winters such as 1947 and 1962-3 more than half the barn owl population was wiped out and it took several years for numbers to recover.

Barn owls have thrived over the past 15 years, helped by the provision of nest boxes provided by farmers and conservationists.

But there seems to be little we can do to help them through their present crisis which follows another difficult winter for them last year.

Landowners in parts of East Yorkshire have received one suggestion from Colin Shawyer of the Hawk and Owl Trust, a leading expert on barn owl ecology.

He says that a rabbit, shot and cut up into mouse-sized portions could prove a lifeline for some barn owls.

Pieces ofa rabbit, rationed out, could last up to ten days and should be put out on a beam orinside wall near a known barn owl roost andaway from cats or rats. This should be done an hour before dusk each day to give the owls the best chance to see and eat the meat.

Mark Thomas, investigations officer for the RSPB, urges farmers or other members of the public to report sick or injured barn owls to a wildlife centre as soon as possible so they can be taken into care.

"Prompt action could save the life of a starving bird and once they have been fed up they should be fit for release back into the wild again."

Paul Stancliffe, of the British Trust for Ornithology, said that to date they had received 54 reports of dead barn owlsand this total compared with 42 for the whole of the month in 2009. The total might be well in excess of 100 by the New Year.

Waxwings have now spread all across England as far south as Cornwall and the Scilly Isles and large flocks continue to roam across Yorkshire searching for the rapidly diminishing supplies of rowan berries. Soon more will be seen in gardens as they turn to cotoneaster berries.

Three water rails, forced into the open by the freezing weather, have been seen together under the feeders at the Willow Pool, Potteric Carr and another near the visitor centre feeders at Fairburn Ings.

A drake ring-necked duck was seen at the Nosterfield Nature Reserve, North Yorkshire while another North American vagrant, a ring-billed bull is still being seen at the Sands Lane gravel pits near Mirfield, West Yorkshire.

A great northern diver and juvenile glaucous gull have been seen in Scarborough Harbour along with more than 30 roosting purple sandpipers at high tide.

A Happy Christmas and prosperous New Year to everyone.