Preserving local livelihood

Nature center reps use nesting boxes to enhance barn owl habitat at Milroy farm

Sentinel photo by KATHRYN DIVIRGILIUS Abby Hileman, environmental education intern at Shaver’s Creek, holds a barn owl for the crowd while Torri Withrow, raptor center intern at Shaver’s Creek, explains its importance on Tuesday, at Bella Vista Farm.

MILROY — Bella Vista Farm, a 208-acre agricultural paradise in Milroy, owned by the Goss family, is home to beef cattle, free range cattle, free range chickens, honey bees, wildflowers and a full-service spa.

The Goss farm is located between Amish farms and focuses on sustainability by using a permaculture farming system, which balances the land with its inhabitants.

About a decade ago, the Gosses noticed a new resident on their farm — a barn owl.

It had been roosting in the rafters of their sheds and has recently made a home in their old silo.

Amber Goss said their family saw three owls and an American kestrel on the farm this summer, so she called Shaver’s Creek, Penn State University’s nature center, to find out how she could make the birds’ habitat more inviting.

Three representatives from the center came to Bella Vista Farm Tuesday to present the Goss family with nesting boxes and to teach about raptors, or predatory birds.

“One of the reasons we’re here today is because we are concerned at the declining raptor species, specifically the barn owl and the American kestrel,” said Torri Withrow, raptor center intern at Shaver’s Creek.

Withrow said these birds find nests in natural places, like trees, or in man-made structures.

One way to help deter the decreasing population, Withrow said, is to place nesting boxes around farms and areas where these birds have been spotted.

The species have been

disappearing due to land development and need large open areas, like farms, with a sufficient food supply to thrive.

The increased use of pesticides and planting high-standing crops are other factors causing the raptor decline.

Abby Hileman, environmental education intern, held an American kestrel that lives in an enclosure at Shaver’s Creek for the audience to see.

Withrow pointed out the kestrel’s curved beak as it sang its scratchy-squeak song, and said the birds feast on small rodents and large insects. They can catch prey and eat it midair, making them beneficial to farms by controlling the pest population.

“I’ve heard they can go up to 30 miles per hour (when diving),” Withrow said.

Hileman put the kestrel back in its cage and demonstrated how the bird bobs its head, remains in the same spot in the air by flapping its wings quickly and how it tucks in its legs to dive.

Next, Hileman brought a barn owl out for display.

The crowd was taken with its snowy white face and fur-like feathers.

One of the barn owl’s defense mechanisms is to stick its tongue out and hiss, Withrow said.

Attendees were able to witness the hiss as a cat approached the owl, perched on Hileman’s forearm.

“Oh no,” said some of the onlookers.

Jon Kauffman, assistant raptor center director, said barn owls can live up to 20 years when in captivity.

Withrow said barn owls in the wild that have been banded for research have had an average life span of just two years.

“(Barn owls) are great natural pest eaters,” Kauffman said. “They can eat up to 3,000 mice in a nesting season, which is two months.”

In one nesting season, Withrow said, the owls can lay up to 11 eggs, but the average is five.

Kauffman said there has been a significant decline in the barn owl population and putting up nesting boxes, as the Goss family is doing, can help to conserve the species.

Multiple barn owls generally do not fight each other when living in one 100 to 200 acre area as long as adequate food is available, which consists of farm pests, like small rats and mice.

“Our farm is going to go to certified organic status next year, so this is a good way to not use pesticides,” said Goss.

Withrow explained the nesting boxes for both the kestrel and the barn owl should be monitored periodically for excess leaves and other nesting animals, like squirrels. Otherwise, the boxes do not need attention.

“Just use a thin layer of mulch (for nesting) and they’ll lay their eggs right on that,” Withrow said. “It’s low maintenance as long as you’re keeping an eye on it.”

Kauffman said the boxes can be placed anywhere, but warned against them facing the north due to cold winds.

“If you put up the boxes, they will come,” he said. “Most boxes are set up in rafters.”

Nesting boxes are relatively simple structures.

They are square or rectangular wood boxes with a hinged access door on top for maintenance and a hole on one of the sides for bird entry.

Withrow recommended not to paint the boxes a dark color because it would cause the inside to become hot.

Kauffman said this is the first barn owl he has seen in Mifflin County, but he has heard of sightings.

“We encourage doing programs like this one,” he said.

If you see a barn owl or other interesting bird, Kauffman encourages everyone to log on to, create an account and post your sighting.

If you have questions or would like to set up your own nesting box, contact Shaver’s Creek by email at or by phone at (814) 863-2000.