Barn Owls and Horses: Nature’s Mousetrap

A barn owl family will consume nearly 2,000 mice or other rodents in just a couple of months. The good news for you is all it requires is the installation of a simple nest box—and the right habitat for their prey.
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Barn Owls and Horses: Nature’s Mousetrap
A barn owl family will consume nearly 2,000 mice or other rodents in just a couple of months. | iStock.com

The mouse situation in your horse barn is getting out of control. You know mice can carry diseases, some serious to humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mice and rats can directly or indirectly transmit 20 diseases worldwide. Several of these, such as leptospirosis and salmonellosis, affect horses, as well. And what about the moles and gophers in your pasture making a mess of things with their telltale little piles of dirt and “ankle-breaking” holes?

Rodents are probably one of the toughest issues to deal with on horse properties. They’re small, stealthy, and primarily active after dark when we can’t see them. So how do you reduce the populations of these persistent little things without lethal trapping or using chemicals that are deadly to other animals in the ecosystem, including dogs and cats?

Enter nature’s mousetrap: the barn owl! Barn owls are perfectly suited to horse properties as they hunt in open meadows and grasslands. These creatures of the night have excellent low-light vision, they fly silently, they have sharp beaks and powerful talons, and their hearing is extraordinary; all that makes them death on wings if you’re a gopher or field mouse. A barn owl family will consume nearly 2,000 mice or other rodents in just a couple of months. The good news for you is all it requires is the installation of a simple nest box—and the right habitat for their prey.

Barn owls need rough grassland because that’s where voles, shrews, field mice, and other small rodents live. An overgrazed pasture, lawn, or even monoculture cropland won’t provide the habitat rodents like. Rodents and, therefore, barn owls favor well-established tall grasslands, perhaps with brush piles or hedgerows nearby.

Barn owls are secondary cavity dwellers. That means they live in holes somebody else created, such as a hole in an old tree made by a woodpecker or the dark rafters inside a quiet barn. We humans we can take advantage of this because it means barn owls adapt well to nest boxes, which you can buy or make.

Barn Owls
Barn owls are secondary cavity dwellers, meaning the live in holes created by someone else, including woodpecker holes or barn rafters. | Photo: Alayne Blickle

Place a barn owl nest box in a quiet location, 10-20 feet high. Shade the opening from direct sun and prevailing wind. Nest boxes can be hung inside an unused barn, on the outside of farm buildings, or in a tree. If you mount the box on a pole, consider a baffle to prevent cats, raccoons, or other predators from reaching it. Many barn owls will reuse the same nest box year after year. It is best to hang them by January or February as barn owls begin nesting in late February (if it’s too late your area, consider planning ahead for next year).

You’ll be hard-pressed to find an easier method of rodent control; once you install the barn owl box, nature does the rest. Plus, barn owls are not likely to be aggressive to people nor will they attack pets or livestock.

Barn owls are common on every continent in the world except Antarctica. So, no matter where you live, your horse property can benefit from having a barn owl working for you. Not only will it make a dent in your rodent population but their tawny colors are beautiful to see at dusk and their bone-chilling, screechy cry is thrilling to hear at night.

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Written by:

Alayne Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and ranch riding competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, internationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well-known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approach, Blickle is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise, and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Blickle and her husband raise and train their mustangs and quarter horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho.

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