Preservationists build new nests in Perryville to persuade owls to move in

jwarren@herald-leader.comJuly 5, 2014 

PERRYVILLE — Preservationists recently built some new, safer quarters for the barn owl population at the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site here. The only problem is persuading the shy birds to move in.

"They tend to do what they want to do, not what we tell them to do," said Kate Hayden, an avian biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, who is helping with the effort.

When people talk about relocating wildlife today it's usually because the wildlife has gotten in the way of building something new. In this case, however, the Perryville owls are in the way of bringing back the old.

Park officials plan to tear down several 1950s-era barns, silos and farm sheds on the park property to make the land look more like it did in October 1862, when the Battle of Perryville was fought.

What they didn't realize was that barn owls were homesteading in some of the old structures.

"One of our local bird watchers called one day and said there were barn owls living in one of the silos we'd scheduled for removal," park preservation director Joni House said. "That put me in a quandary.

"We want the battlefield to look the way it did, but we also don't want to remove habitat if it's going to hurt any of the creatures that live here."

So, in April, workers erected three shiny new owl breeding boxes atop 30-foot-tall utility poles, placed near various old barns and silos the owls were thought to be inhabiting. Fish and Wildlife provided the boxes and technical advice, while East Kentucky Power Co. donated the poles and equipment to erect them.

Now, the trick is enticing the birds to move into the new owl condos, House said.

"We're trying to coax them, and I think it's starting to work," she said. "The other day I found some of their little owl pellets at the bottom of one of the boxes, so I think maybe they're checking it out as a potential new home."

Barn owls are small birds with big eyes and distinctive, heart-shaped white faces. They don't hoot. They screech.

As the name implies, they like living in old barns. If you're wondering, it's thought that they lived in hollow trees or rock crevices before humans started building barns.

No survey has ever been done, so it's unclear how many barn owls live on the Perryville Battlefield. But the number must be small.

According to Hayden, Fish and Wildlife has confirmed only about 48 nesting pairs of barn owls in the entire state, plus maybe a dozen single birds living without mates.

Hayden said there might be a few more, but they're hard to identify. Barn owls don't exactly announce their presence. They quietly hunt rodents and small mammals by night, and lay low during the day.

They are found on every continent but remain rare in Kentucky.

Hayden said that's probably because housing that barn owls prefer is getting scarce. Barns are vanishing from Kentucky, and old hollow trees that make good nesting places often get cut down.

Because of all that, Fish and Wildlife has been urging people to leave barn owl sites undisturbed whenever possible. The department also has been putting up nesting boxes in places — such as the Perryville Battlefield State Historical Site — where barn owls are thought to live.

The hope is that Perryville's owls will gradually move into the boxes and live there to raise young, stabilizing and gradually increasing the population.

That also would clear the way for the park's plan to eliminate those old barns and silos.

But persuading the owls to change addresses is easier said that done. You can't just hang out a vacancy sign. Subtle persuasion, and lots of patience, apparently work best.

House said park workers have been deliberately disturbing some of the structures the owls have been nesting in, hoping they'll get the hint and move into the nesting boxes.

"We've taken a few boards off one shed, just kind of messing with the site to encourage the owls to move," House said. "Hopefully, they'll think the nesting boxes are a good place to raise a family."

House notes that the Perryville Battlefield is a wildlife sanctuary as well as a piece of history. Deer abound on the land, along with rare or seldom seen birds like Henslow's sparrows, bobolinks, quail, and loggerhead shrikes, as well as the barn owls.

"I'm a nature lover, and I don't want to preserve one thing at the cost of another," House said. "There's no reason why a lot of the park property can't be maintained with wildlife on it, because the habitat was here in 1860."

The park now covers about 750 acres, but it soon will have about 250 additional acres. The land, which included areas where parts of the 1862 battle were fought, was acquired by Civil War Trust, which will turn it over to the park in about a year, House said.

The additional property also contains old structures that eventually will be removed, including a barn that might cover remains of soldiers killed in the battle.

"But if it's being occupied by barn owls, we'll leave the barn intact until we can get the birds to move into the boxes," House said.

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255 Twitter: @heraldleader

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