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Orchardist Friend
Helping the barn owl

Gus is a girl – a female barn owl. She was the smallest of eight owlets that came into Debra Burnett’s care last year when she was about 49 days old. Gus was the smallest: she was from the last egg her mother laid. And that means she was the last to hatch because the eggs hatch in order – something of a blessing for their parents because one growing owlet sometimes eats as many as 12 mice per day. Owlets also are difficult to sex, thus the name Gus.

Debra Burnett shared these facts when she brought Gus, a rescued owl who lives in a specially constructed habitat in her house, to Zen Gardens nursery south of Carlton to show people and to talk about The Barn Owl Project. Burnett is involved in “a labor of love” that she would like to run as a non-profit business. But for the moment saving barn owls is a hobby in search of helpers.

Barn owl populations have suffered with the It demise of large, wooden barns where farmers once kept their animals and stored their feed, Burnett explained. The owls used to nest in those barns. They now tend to nest in the great stacks of hay that are stored in fields and in open metal sheds. Burnett said that when the haystacks are taken apart and the bales trucked away, eggs and orphaned owlets often are left behind.

Another factor in barn owl survival is that some farmers and orchardists use poisons for rodent control. Burnett is on a mission to educate the public about nature’s more efficient rodent controller. Better than poisons she says is investing in – or building –  two owl nesting boxes. “Those owls can take care of 20 acres of orchard,” she said, because they eat mice, gophers and voles – sometimes half their own body weight a day. One papa owl with a mate and owlets to feed was observed bringing a mouse to the nest every 90 seconds, Burnett said.

Burnett, who lives in Manson, has been working with wildlife rehabilitation for about 20 years, most recently with birds of prey. She trained at the World Bird Sanctuary outside St. Louis, Mo., where she helped propagate more than 600 barn owls.

She told her audience in Carlton that in 2011 there were 428 barn owl owlets and eggs found in hay stacks in the Columbia Basin that were taken to a hack site near Richland, Wash. If half of those barn owls survived, more than six tons of rodents have been snatched from the fields, orchards, parks and homes in the region, according to information she distributed.

A hack site -- and she is looking for places and people willing to run them in the Methow Valley -- is a small building such as a garden shed or farm outbuilding where eggs and owlets are kept and hand fed until they are old enough to be placed in outdoor nest boxes. Owlets move to a box as soon as they can swallow a whole mouse, which is at about three to four weeks of age. They continue to need someone to feed them until they are flying and hunting on their own, which is at about 63 days from the day they hatched. “As soon as they [start flying and] get their first mouse, they never come back to the nest site for food,” she said. A hack site was set up near Carlton last year and barn owls have been spotted in the area this year.

At 65 days a barn owl is full grown. The females are larger than the males and slightly darker in color. “The males are whiter,” Burnett said. They mate for life and within two years “They are hunting for thousands of mice to feed their family.”

Barn owls see in black and white and hunt at night, “usually one hour after sunset,” Burnett said. Great-horned owls, which live in the Methow and are a potential barn owl predator, hunt at dawn and dusk, she added.

Barn owls don’t have a breeding season but hatch the highest number of babies in March and April, according to Burnett. They easily can be colonized and will live in groups. “It’s just a matter of getting them here [in the Methow Valley] and getting them established.”

Local biologist Kent Woodruff, a bird expert, said he thinks barn owls occupy a different niche than the owls that already live in the Methow and that they might get established if introduced. He added that their hunting and nesting places would probably be closest to those of the long-eared owl.

Burnett, who has a full-time job and is continuing her education in environmental studies online, told Grist that what she needs “is a team of people” to help her write a grant proposal and apply for non-profit status, drivers to pick up stranded owls and donors to help buy mice to feed them.

She has a team of farmers willing to construct hack sites. And students at the Chelan and Manson high schools are building and selling nest boxes for $45 each to house  “nature’s better mouse trap,” as Burnett calls her favorite bird. “It’s a labor of love for me and I’m not going to give up,” she vows..

  (click images to enlarge)
  photo of owl on gloved hand wings spread
  close photo of barn owl face
  photo of front of barn owl sitting on bare hand
  photo of barn owl with dead mouse in beak


To learn more
about the barn owl
project contact
Debra Burnett at


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