If the things the humans were doing at the five-story office building under construction in North Lexington had gone well, there wouldn't have been an opening for the owls.
But there were unpaid bills, numerous lawsuits, delays and a bankruptcy at the troubled Lexhold International Center for Technological Innovation at the University of Kentucky's Coldstream Research campus.
Only one of what was supposed to be twin buildings near Interstates 75/64 and Newtown Pike ever materialized, and it was unfinished earlier this spring when an increasingly rare mating pair of barn owls happened by.
An architectural feature called an "eyebrow" that runs across the top of the glass wall on one side of the building had not been closed up.
The owls flew in, coughed up a cushioning layer of pellets (mostly mouse fur and bones) and laid four eggs.
Now work on the eyebrow has stopped.
And every night, about 9:30, one or both adult owls appears at the edge of the opening and sets out for Coldstream's many open fields for a night of hunting mice and voles to feed four growing chicks.
"Construction was at a pause so they just thought it was a nice, protected place where they could nest next to their favorite habitat," said Kate Heyden, an avian biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources who was in the parking lot waiting for an owl appearance one night last week.
Work on the exterior of the building was 98 percent complete about six weeks ago when construction worker David Jamison got on a lift and rose 80 feet in the air to finish the eyebrow. He was startled when a large bird flew out.
"It flew right over his head," said Bill Borregard, the construction manager. "I guess they're pretty docile, but it make his heart leap."
Borregard went up a little later, stuck a camera into the opening and snapped a photo. He contacted a raptor rehabilitation center in Louisville, which put him in touch with Heyden.
"As good citizens, we approached the Fish and Wildlife people and Kate said we needed to delay construction," said Bill Bishop, the court-appointed receiver who is overseeing construction and leasing of the building for a bank that now is its owner.
Heyden pointed out that there was no choice in the matter; barn owls are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
She also said she is delighted the construction workers and Bishop have been so cooperative.
There's even an agreement to put an artificial nest — an owl box — on top of the eyebrow after the chicks have flown from the current nest. That's expected to be around the end of June.
Barn owls often return to the same spot to nest again, Heyden said.
State wildlife officials have put up a number of such boxes in wildlife management areas and on private property around the state, she said. That's because barn owls need all the help they can get.
"Most of the U.S. is concerned about barn owls right now, and Kentucky is really concerned," Heyden said. "We only know of 10 other nests in the state besides this one."
There surely are nests that have gone undetected, she said. But barn owls like to nest in cavities, and the old trees with hollow spaces that they prefer, and the hay barns and other old buildings that make quite suitable substitutes are increasingly scarce.
"A big hollow tree surrounded by open pasture is really what a barn owl likes, and that's really hard to come by with the clean farming practices we have nowadays," she said.
Barn owls don't mind nesting in buildings near people, and that also gets them into trouble.
The North Lexington owls are so high up that they don't seem to be bothering anyone, and no one is bothering them.
The office building has about 500 tenants now, Bishop said. The latest to arrive are 300 people from the Federal Emergency Management Agency who are overseeing the response to recent flooding in the state. Many of them are working in unfinished office space, and probably aren't aware of the nature story unfolding outside.
As they stood in the parking lot below the eyebrow, waiting for it to get dark enough for an adult owl to appear, Bishop and Heyden talked about the possibility putting a Web cam in the new nesting box so that anyone with a computer could watch future chicks eat and grow.
"They're really pretty easy to live with," Heyden said. "They're quiet. They eat your mice. They only come out at night so most folks don't even notice them."