The Barn Owl: A bird for Halloween

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Tuesday, October 29th, 2013
John Woolsey, the Barn Owl Officer from Ulster Wildlife is asking anyone who sees a Barn Owl in their area to report their sightings. John is currently working on a Heritage Lottery funded 3 year project called ‘Be there for Barn Owls’ and he would love to hear from people across County Armagh who have knowledge of barn owl nest sites or have spotted one of these illusive birds. Through ‘Be there for Barn Owls’ John hopes to enthuse and engage local communities in barn owl conservation through recording sightings and building and installing barn owl nest boxes in suitable locations. Right up until the early 1980’s, County Armagh had a good population of breeding barn owls with many nest sites recorded especially in the north of the county. There are few written records of barn owls in south Armagh but recently a few more sightings from that area have been reported to John Woolsey the Barn Owl officer for Ulster Wildlife. Therese Hamill, Ring of Gullion Officer stated, “We encourage everyone to get involved this project and we hope to work closely with John to increase the number of Barn Owl sightings in the Ring of Gullion area.” Over the centuries the barn owl has suffered some bad publicity – the Romans believed it brought bad fortune, medieval farmers nailed them to barn doors to ward off evil spirits and the barn owl was the favourite ‘bird of doom’ for English poet William Wordsworth. The barn owl has many local names such as white owl, ghost owl, screech owl and hobgoblin. In his book ‘The Natural History of Selborne’, first published in 1789, the English naturalist Gilbert White wrote, “White owls often scream horribly as they fly along; from this screaming probably arose the common people’s imaginary species of screech owl, which they superstitiously think attends the windows of dying persons.” White’s observations from rural England are echoed by the suspicion with which the old folk of Ireland regarded the barn owl – in Gaelic it is called ‘an Scréachóg Reilige’ and its eerie screeching call is believed by many to be a possible explanation for the sound of the keening banshee. Anyone fortunate enough to have spotted a barn owl hunting silently over a meadow or to have heard its call on a moon lit night will understand the ghostly superstitions that are part of the cultural identity of this magnificent native bird. Thankfully the barn owl is no longer the subject of direct human persecution but indirectly through a variety of factors such as loss of nesting sites in barns or old buildings, loss of rough unimproved grassland habitat and hedgerows, being hit by road vehicles and loss of prey species through increased use of pesticides the Northern Ireland population of barn owls is perhaps as low as 50 breeding pairs. Please report any sightings to or contact John on 07598 371361. For more information on activities in the Ring of Gullion visit:, search for Ring of Gullion on Facebook and Twitter or visit
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