By DOUG GRAVES
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tom Fregosi was moving his tractor into his barn on Freeland Hollow Road in Adams County one evening last week, when he was attacked from overhead by a feathered creature he hadn’t seen in more than two decades.
“Years ago, while working near a creek bed on my property I was swooped upon by an owl with an enormous wingspan,” said Fregosi, 68. “I got too close to his nesting spot and he literally took my cap from my head, along with a few strands of hair. His claws left a mark on my forehead. I’ll never forget it.
“And around the first of June, one started nesting in my barn. I hadn’t seen them in ages and just figured they might have become extinct or migrated to another part of the country.”
Fregosi isn’t alone. Barn owl sightings are on the rise and the large birds, with four-foot wingspans, are making a comeback in Ohio. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), more people across the state are witnessing these territorial birds as they’re increasing in numbers.
ODNR statistics indicate barn owls enjoy open grassy areas for hunting, preferring a diet of meadow voles, shrews and mice. But many barn owls take shelter in old barns and rusting silos. And with many old, unused silos and rustic barns still standing, the animals have found a home once again.
“They’ve even been spotted in our water towers and in one of our church steeples here in town,” Fregosi said.
Tim Green of the Audubon Society of Ohio says the first official report of a barn owl pair in Ohio was recorded in 1861.
“By the 1930s the barn owl population had peaked in Ohio, with nestings reported in 84 of the state’s 88 counties,” he added. “Back then, the screech owl was the most common owl around.”
During the 1940s the barn owl population began to decline, and by the 1960s they vanished from most Ohio counties.
“There are several factors that contributed to their decline,” Green said.
“Grasslands and pastures were converted to cultivated fields of row crops, and fall plowing became popular. Add to that the widespread use of pesticides such as DDT and one can see how this would affect hatchings and destroy these habitats.”
Like most animals, the barn owl has a mortal enemy, the great horned owl. Raccoons also meant the destruction of eggs and nestlings.
“Today there are only 10 to 20 new nesting pairs of barn owls reported in Ohio each year, but this figure only includes barn owls nesting in nest boxes and buildings,“ Green said. “In 2012 there were 100 nests recorded.
“More and more, we’re hearing from the general public that they’ve spotted these beautiful birds, and that’s music to our ears.”
This species is easily identified by its white, heart-shaped face, large black eyes and golden-brown and gray back. The birds communicate with shrieks and hissing noises.
And in good news for the farmer – a pair of barn owls and their young can eat more than 1,000 rodents a year.
For more information about barn owls, visit www.wildohio.com or contact Vicki Ervin at the ODNR Division of Wildlife at 614-265-6325.