Barn Owls: Tyto alba
The barn owl (Tyto alba) is the least common species of owl that breeds in Florida. In addition, it is unique from the other "typical owls" in that it is the only species in its family.
Its appearance is very different from other owls, as well. It has a large, white, heart-shaped face, edged in brown, with contrasting dark eyes and a pale bill. It has longer legs than most owls, typically gray. The top of the head and back is brown and gray, as are the upper part of the wings; the undersides of the wings are pale. The chest and belly is typically white in males and light brown in females, but it can vary somewhat. Both the chest and belly have small, dark spots in the females; males have little spotting.
As with many owl species, females are a little larger than males; this species averages one pound in weight. It has a smaller tail than other Florida owls, and although its wingspan is the same as the common barred owl (roughly 3.5 feet), it is smaller in body length (16 inches). Overall, it is a pale owl, somewhat ghostlike in appearance, especially if seen at night.
Although the barn owl occurs throughout the state, it is quite uncommon in the Panhandle and is most often observed in Central and South Florida. It inhabits hardwood and tropical hammocks, urban areas with abundant palms and large hardwoods, and manmade structures such as silos, barns, and deserted buildings.
Barn owls forage voraciously for rodents in open areas such as prairies, pastures, fields, and sparsely wooded areas.
Barn owls in Florida breed from March through July and nest in secluded places like caves, barns, tree cavities, and large birdhouses. They build no actual nest and lay from 3-11 (most commonly 5-7) white or buff-white eggs.
Many people attract barn owls by erecting nest boxes in an effort to control local rodent populations (see CNN story and Tom Hoffman's article).
For more information about barn owls in Florida, please visit the University of Florida IFAS Extension website: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw216
Image Credit: Brian Millsap