Highways to hell for barn owls

One of the wonders of nature at night is watching a barn owl swoop for prey. 

This vision with a circular, off-white face spears through the blackness and is gone before you’ve time to take it all in. It’s while driving in the dark that we see them and therein lies a hazard. Studies show that being killed by vehicles is an important factor in the barn owl population decline, more so than had previously been thought.

A great deal of premature barn owl mortality had been put down to poisoning due to the birds eating mice and rats which had ingested poisons. But, due to their hunting behaviour, low flight and poor peripheral vision, barn owls are also especially vulnerable to road traffic. They are often hit as they swoop for mice and other prey on grassy banks.

Certain stretches of major roads are particularly problematic, which highlights the need for mitigation to be included in road plans, says John Lusby, raptor conservation officer, BirdWatch Ireland.

Some parts of the country still have fairly large barn owl populations, including the rural districts around Tralee, Co Kerry. But, the importance of this area for barn owls was not well known at the time of the design and planning of the Tralee bypass which opened last year. Over a short period after the opening, three barn owls and a long-eared owl were found dead on the 13.5km route. There are many nest sites close by, and many more sites in the surrounding area, which means more owls are likely to be crossing the road, according to Michael O’Clery who leads barn owl monitoring in Kerry.

Kerry County Council and the National Roads Authority are funding BirdWatch Ireland to monitor the situation and, arising from that, recommend suitable measures to reduce this risk.

Mr O’Clery says:’’We did an intensive survey within a 5km radius of the bypass which confirmed nine active sites across approximately 200 square kilometres, which is one of the highest density recorded in Ireland, confirming just how important the area is for barn owls. We will be monitoring all sites during this year and next to determine occupancy and possible impacts of the road.”

A weekly road casualty survey is also being conducted over a 12-month period to identify all bird and mammal vehicle collision victims so that potential “hot spots” can be identified.

In Britain, a survey found 72 per cent of barn owls flying over major roads are likely to be killed, while in Norfolk, sensors that react to headlights and emit a noise that deflects wildlife away from the road have been installed in a mitigation effort.

Details on dead barn owls should be reported to John Lusby at jlusby@birdwatchireland.ie


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