With their distinctive heart-shaped faces, barn owls are a much-loved countryside bird and their population in the Falkirk area is growing.
Walkers in local rural areas may see a lot more of the birds, as well as kestrels, after a successful attempt to entice more of these feathered friends to make their home here.
Falkirk Council rangers, who take care of the district’s countryside, started a ‘housing’ programme eight years ago before help from the newly-formed Falkirk Wildlife Conservation Group really got things off to a flier in 2012.
There are now 23 boxes dotted about in secret locations around Falkirk where barn owls and kestrels are now breeding. Eight of the boxes are inhabited by owls and two by kestrels.
The owls have 16 chicks while the kestrels’ boxes have nine chicks. The rangers and the conservation volunteers are constantly monitoring the progress of the project and three owls and one kestrel adult are now ringed.
Ranger Lesley Sweeney said: “Basically, we wanted to raise the population of barn owls in the area, but the kestrels have been a bit of a bonus and have been more successful in breeding, with nine chicks from just two broods.
“The boxes have to be in secret locations but we have the permission of the landowners to put the boxes on their land, while other boxes are in open countryside as well.
“The members of the conservation group have all received training, funding and equipment from Falkirk Council to carry out the work and have done an extremely good job. There are still some boxes to be filled, but the project has been a great success so far and we’ll keep working on it.”
Sales agent Caroline Smith (55), from Polmont, a “passionate” animal lover, got involved in the conservation group at its start and is delighted at the results.
She said: “As you get older you start to appreciate nature a bit more and the group is a great way to get involved.
“We are a small group of like-minded people who care for the conservation of the Falkirk area. Last year we scouted the area looking for suitable sites for the boxes and most of the landowners have been supportive.
“We’ve had rope training and use harnesses when we’re putting the boxes up. They are placed 20-30 metres up the tree and are quite heavy.
“We do carry out checks when we need to, although you have to be very careful as human interaction can disturb the birds.
“We take the chicks out, weigh and measure them and ring them. You have to be very sensitive.”
According to Amy Challis, co-ordinator for the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme, the breeding success for barn owls recorded by the group was very low in both 2012 and 2013, with only 1.65 chicks fledged per barn owl pair which laid eggs – much lower than the period from 2003-2011 when the average number of chicks fledged by egg-laying pairs was 2.58.
n RSPB spokesman said: “Barn owls are suffering in cold winters when their main prey, voles and mice, are protected by snow cover. In addition, their habit of nesting close to human habitation and their diet of mice, rats and voles, mean that they occasionally get poisoned indirectly by eating rodents that have consumed rat poison put out by humans.
“The nest box scheme has benefited from the assistance of local raptor worker and licensed bird ringer Phil May, and could be important help for a species in peril.”