Western Barn Owl in Singapore

Here I will like to share some pictures and videos of my encounters with the Western Barn Owls in Singapore as well as other information regarding the species.

The Barn Owl is the most widely distributed species of owl, and one of the most widespread of all birds as it is present in very continent except Antartica. It has a pure white almost angelic or ghostlike face. Its pale, white, heart-shaped face looks striking with black eyes. The barn owl’s bill and mouth are covered by a hood of white feathers. Its head is rust coloured with its back and wings ranging from tan to brown accented by patterned gray wing tips. The belly is a pale tan or white. Females are slightly longer and heavier than males.

Western Barn Owl
(A Western Barn Owl at Marina Barrage, January 2011)

Like most owls, they have exceptional low-light vision. However it is noted that their eyes are relatively small compared to other owls. This is because an exceptional hearing ability is their most advantageous hunting feature. Barn Owls have asymmetrical ears; one is found higher on the head and points up, while the other is more level with their nostrils and point down. They are covered with feathered flaps that close for loud noises and open for soft sounds. The heart-shaped face also collects sound in the same way as human ears. Its hearing is reputed to be the most sensitive of any creature tested. It is so sharp that it can easily hunt for rodents, which are often concealed from view as they travel in runways beneath the grass.

Another attribute that assists the owl’s hunting is their wings. The feathers on the owls wings are not waterproof, so they are more closely related to down than the average bird feather. This unique feature allows them to fly in complete silence.

The Barn Owls monogamous and mates for life. They are not aggressive toward other barn owls and can nest nearby other pairs. They do not construct a nest; the eggs are laid in a dark space surrounded by pellets. These brownish-black pellets, which are the regurgitated fur and bone fragments of each meal, average about 2 inches in size and are produced twice a day. The female lays between 5-11 eggs (average 4-6), which are laid every other day, which upon hatching will be fed by the adult male for up to two months. Hatching occurs in the same order as the eggs were laid. In times of scarce food, the older and stronger hatchling have a better chance of survival.

In Singapore, the species of barn owl we have is called the Western Barn Owl (Tyto alba). Since Singapore is an urban environment, they are more easily found in places like abandoned buildings and other man-made structure. Though uncommon, from time to time, random owls have been reported by member of the public in unexpected places, including MRT and LRT stations1.

Western Barn Owl-Screen Shot 2014-06-07
(Screenshot taken off Facebook)

The most famous recent Barn Owl encounter was when a lone owl flew into the Prime Minister’s office, the Istana in November 20132. A resulting Facebook posting gathered more than 27,000 ‘Likes’ and around 1,800 ‘Shares. That is considerably higher than other more weighty issues of the day that was posted before and after the incident.

 

Western Barn Owl
(A pair of Western Barn Owl photographed in the night without flash)

In another man-made structure nearby, I had a recent encounter with these birds with my family. This is a known rooting place of the owls, therefore the location is not publicly shared. This is to protect this species from harm. A total of 3 birds turned out that day to greet my family. The picture shows what is probably a pair of adults looking down curiously at the human below, with the juvenile further away.

No flash were used, just a LED powered torchlight. They appeared without sound, although their calls were really screechy. No hoots as commonly presumed. Other sightings in the same location have count of up to 4 birds.

 

Western Barn Owl
(A daytime Western Barn Owl at Tuas South, November 2013)

Although the barn owls are found mainly in man-made structure in Singapore and more easily seen at night, I have encountered them before in grassland area at Tuas South in day time. While observing migrating raptors, a Barn Owl suddenly came by and flew into nearby trees. Its presence in the day is not common, but the grassland does serve as a hunting ground for rodents, which is their main diet. It flew away soon after to a nearby fenced-up grass patch.

 

Western Barn Owl
(A Western Barn Owl at Marina Barrage, seen sleeping in the daytime)

Perhaps the closest and longest encounter I had with this species is at Marina Barrage in January 2011. A lone owl was roosting just above where people gathered and children played. Most were unaware of its presence. In the day time, it was mainly sleeping, although in moments of wakefulness, it exhibited various owl behaviour that I managed to document through video.

 


Eyes closed, mouth looking as if munching and the face expression is one of contentment and bliss. Perhaps a dream or maybe too much anthropomorphism!

 


The owl is seen swaying from side to side. This is a common behaviour of the Barn Owl.

 


A few things to notice. Barn Owls preen a lot in the day time in between sleeping. It also is seen resting solely on one foot. Yet another common behaviour of the owl. Lastly, notice that the owl really can twist it’s head almost 180 degrees to reach it’s back.

 

Further reading:
Barn Owl Fact Sheet from Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Barn Owl info from BBC Wildlife Magazine

References:
1. The Straits Times
2. Celebrating Singapore’s Biodiversity blog

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