We had the most incredible encounter with nature recently, and I have been so excited to share this. You might remember a while ago we donated to my Dad’s local branch of the RSPB who were crowdfunding for bird boxes. Barn Owls are very special to me and so I decided we would donate enough for a barn owl box. We were really lucky to be able to go and help finish making the box, and put it up with the Macclesfield RSPB local group.
Over the last few months Dad has called me to mention sightings at the Cheshire Wildlife Trust site, first of a tawny owl, then a barn owl. Just before we moved house he called me to let me know there were definitely chicks in there. It’s really lucky to have an owl move in so quickly after setting up a box, sometimes you wait years. We were thrilled.
Then we received a very special invite, to go along and watch when the birds were ringed. I’d simply hoped we might glimpse them from afar one day, I couldn’t quite fathom that I would actually get to see the beautiful creatures who had moved into the home we helped provide for them close up.
Ringing is a way of monitoring the health and survival of a species and involves putting a unique numbered metal ring on the bird’s leg. This identifies the bird as an individual and provides information on where it goes to once it has flown the nest, how long it lives, along with other data relating to the breeding success of the particular species.
The Barn Owls were ringed by specially trained volunteers from the South Manchester Ringing Group, who are licenced by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the organisation who manage and monitor bird ringing in the UK.
We had to be oh so quiet as the rather sleepy owls were handled and ringed. Then data such as sex, (female Barn Owls have fine dark spots on their plumage,) body weight, which provides information on the bird’s health, and specific wing feather length, which helps age the birds to within a couple of days, was then recorded. All this information is sent to the BTO by the licenced ringers.
We didn’t even know if we would get to meet any of Barn Owls, as according to the RSPB, a staggering 75% of Barn Owls die in their first year. They are especially vulnerable in the early days if food is scarce.
We waited nervously in a clearing while the experts went to check the box.
When the birds are carefully lifted out of the bird box they are placed gently in cloth bags to help them feel safe and secure. We waited, incredibly anxious and hopeful. Then my daughter L said she could see the team coming back carrying bags through the undergrowth. We all began to feel incredibly excited.
Barn Owl chicks are very calm and docile, I expected them to be flapping and clawing, but they were like newborn babies in many ways. An adult bird will be quite different and so it needs a trained expert with special equipment to approach a nest without injury.
We had no idea how many to expect, but there were three of them and they were utterly spellbinding. I had tears in my eyes they were so beautiful and I felt so lucky to see them so close.
I’ve photographed Barn Owls before, rescued owls in a farm park, but there was something very different about seeing owl babies in the wild.
Barn owls are a protected species, according to the RSPB they suffered declines through the 20th century and are thought to have been adversely affected by pesticides such as DDT in the 1950s and ’60s. According to the ringers we met, barn owls seem to be on the increase in this area of Cheshire, and hopefully providing them with more nest boxes has helped.
Thanks to all the organisations involved for their time, patience and for kindly allowing us to come along. The Macclesfield Big Bird Box Build project is run by Macclesfield RSPB Wildlife Explorers and The Macclesfield RSPB Local Group. The box is situated on a Cheshire Wildlife Trust site and South Manchester Ringing Group carried out the ringing. Disturbing barn owls recklessly is against the law and carries a heavy fine, only licensed organisations can take birds out the nest like this.
I also made a video of this encounter, watching the young birds’ feathers waving on the breeze still gives me goosebumps. You will need sound to make sense of it: