Fayette County

Coldstream's barn owls will have home on return

Juvenile barn owls, seen in June at a building under construction at Coldstream Research Campus, have taken their first flights.
Juvenile barn owls, seen in June at a building under construction at Coldstream Research Campus, have taken their first flights.

Workers were putting the finishing touches late last week on an office building in North Lexington where a family of barn owls lived this summer.

But fear not for the increasingly rare birds; a nesting box has been installed near the opening that they called home.

The birds have what scientists call a high "nest fidelity," which means they often return to the same nest.

"They'll come back and ... find their nest has been closed up and hopefully they'll find our box to be suitable since it's so close," said Kate Heyden, an avian biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

The birds were living near the top of a five-story building originally called the Lexhold International Center for Technological Innovation at the University of Kentucky's Coldstream Research Campus.

Unpaid bills, lawsuits and bankruptcy had delayed construction of the building. In mid-April, a mating pair of barn owls flew by and noticed an opening in an architectural feature called an "eyebrow" near the top of the building.

The owls flew in, coughed up a cushioning layer of pellets (mostly mouse fur and bones) and laid five eggs, four of which produced chicks.

When construction workers started to close the opening, they discovered the owls and called wildlife officials.

Because the birds are a federally protected species, construction was stopped until the young birds flew away. That happened between July 1 and 9, Heyden said.

"I watched one of the chicks take its first flight," she said. "It flew to the rooftop ... of the building, then took many small flights from there to build up its strength."

The owl family might be seen around the building for the next month or so, she said. The adults will stay in the area through the winter.

The box nest, made of painted plywood, is 21/2 feet wide, a foot high and a foot deep, Heyden said. It is bolted to a concrete wall above the eyebrow. Only the top of the box is visible from the parking lot below.

Fish and wildlife officials are still talking to UK about installing a Web cam in the nest, but no decision has been made.

Biologists think the numbers of barn owls are decreasing because the owls like to nests in old trees with hollow spaces or in hay barns or other old buildings that are becoming increasingly scarce.

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