- Associated Press - Sunday, June 19, 2016

BIRD-IN-HAND, Pa. (AP) - Barn owls are becoming alarmingly rare in Pennsylvania, even in Lancaster County, a place of many barns.

So it was an unusual and thrilling experience Thursday night for about 100 people who gathered in a pole barn in Bird-in-Hand to witness five down-covered owlets removed from their nest briefly and banded for monitoring purposes.

“Barn owls are considered a species of concern and they are declining,” said Dan Mummert before donning gloves and heading up a ladder to pluck the first of the owlets, about 6 weeks old and still flightless but loudly hissing in protest.

Mummert, a Lititz resident, is a wildlife diversity biologist with the southeast regional office of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and is one of six agency biologists around the state keeping tabs on barn owls. They encourage farmers and other landowners to put up nest boxes to help boost populations.

Only 39 barn owl nests were known across the entire state by the Pennsylvania Game Commission last year, the lowest inventory since the agency launched Barn Owl Conservation Initiative 10 years ago.



This year, about 70 active nests have been reported so far.

Setting an example

Kauffman’s Fruit Farm is home to not one, but two active nests. Two other nests are known in Lancaster County.

The Kauffman family, who revere the owls as free rodent control, and Mummert arranged to make the banding an educational experience for the public. The banding attracted a mixture of families, birdwatchers and Plain sect neighbors.

Ear-splitting hissing greeted Mummert as he scrambled up a ladder inside a shed wall to reach the manufactured wooden nesting box.

The parents of the owlets were who knows where. They fly through an outside hole in the wall to feed their young at night, stuffing each one with about three rodents a night. Usually, the rodents are meadow voles, Mummert said.

One by one, Mummert reached in the nest box and carefully removed a shrieking owlet, placing it into a cloth bag before lowering it down.

A highlight for many of the kids in the audience occurred as Mummert was removing one of the owlets from the nest box and the bird relieved itself with an impressive stream that shot through the air. The kids found it hysterical.

Back on the ground, Mummert allowed kids and adults from the audience to hold the owlets as he gently squeezed numbered bands around a featherless leg.

If the owlets die and their bands are recovered, Mummert and others can learn how far the owls have flown from their original home and how long they lived in the wild.

Low survival

Over 10 years, the Game Commission has banded 1,500 nestlings. Some 90 bands have been recovered. One owl had flown to the Bahamas but the average distance owls flew from where they were hatched was about 20 miles.

The sobering fact of the matter is 75 percent of owlets will not survive to their first birthday. Most mortality occurs during harsh winters when the inexperienced young owls can’t catch enough rodents and starve. They are not yet heavy enough to break through deep snow to snatch rodents that they hear from above because of their keen hearing.

Barn owls choose barns, silos or other structures located near at least 100 acres of grasslands. The fields harbor the rodents that owls need to survive. They eat about three or four each night. Barn owls are on the decline in Pennsylvania because of disappearing hayfields and pastures.

Mummert is looking for other landowners in the region who know they have barn owls around and are interested in putting up nest boxes.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1PzOJOB

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Information from: LNP, https://lancasteronline.com

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