Ontario Barn Owls: A Disappearing Act

As of 2021, Ontario has lost nearly 98% of its grasslands. This huge loss of habitat carries consequences. Including a vanishing act by the barn owl’s of Ontario. 

By Jacob Greenwood

According to the Ontario species at risk webpage, today there are fewer than five breeding pairs of barn owls left in Ontario’s wild. The owls, whose heart-shaped faces, used to be seen quite commonly throughout southern Ontario have all but vanished. A direct result of the myriad of problems they face living here. 

Delta the Barn Owl Photographed by Jacob Greenwood

James Cowan, Director of the Canadian Raptor Conservancy (CRC), calls the disappearance of the barn owls a “death by a thousand cuts.” 

“Y’know, it’s all kinds of little issues that add up,” he said, “pesticides would be on the board there too, leads and mercuries, but it does really come down to habitat loss.” 

Cowan points out that Ontario is very aware of the causes of barn owl population decline. For instance, the barn owl has been declared endangered in Ontario since 2007. According to both the newly updated “Barn Owl Recovery Strategy” of 2021 and Cowan, the loss of grasslands and the disappearance of the barn owl are directly linked. So what can be done to help the barn owl population recover? 

A recovery team, in part founded by the CRC, founded in 1997 had the idea to build nest boxes for barn owls. However the boxes yielded little success, Cowan explains “well, there has to be barn owls around for them to be living in the boxes. No barn owls, no nests.” 

In terms of bringing barn owls to these nests researchers are left with a lot of questions. The recovery team has since been disbanded, and little to no research is being done on re-establishing the barn owl population of Ontario. Cowen shared his understanding of the current research deficit, “part of the problem is the lack of the number of birds,” he explained, “and number two probably the lack of a scientist that wants to, or has, gotten involved.” 

Organizations like the Canadian Raptor Conservancy have barn owls in captivity, but these owls don’t even begin to provide a jumping-off point for reintroduction. They are misfits adrift in a habitat-less land, keeping a population alive in captivity. As Cowen explained, the release of these owls would be pointless without habitat to begin reproducing into. 

Cowen makes it explicitly clear that without an interest in saving these wonderful birds, they may be gone from Ontario for good. 

Delta the Barn Owl Photographed by Jacob Greenwood