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the web of life in southern Africa

Tyto alba (Barn owl) 

Nonnetjie-uil [Afrikaans]; Isikhova (also applied to African grass-owl) [Xhosa]; isiKhova (also applied to African grass-owl), umZwelele [Zulu]; Suunsu (also applied to African grass-owl) [Kwangali]; Sephooko (also applied to Marsh owl and African grass-owl) [South Sotho]; Leribisi [North Sotho]; Zizi (generic name for owl) [Shona]; Xinkhovha [Tsonga]; Lerubise (also applied to African grass-owl and Marsh owl), Morubitshe [Tswana]; alba witte kerkuil [Dutch]; Effraie des clochers [French]; Schleiereule [German]; Coruja-das-torres [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Strigiformes > Family: Tytonidae

Tyto alba (Barn owl)  Tyto alba (Barn owl) 

Barn owl, World of Birds, Hout Bay. [photo Duncan Robertson ]

Barn owl, World of Birds, Hout Bay. [photo Duncan Robertson ]

The Barn owl has the widest distribution of any owl and is found in every continent except Antarctica. It's often associated with deserted buildings, as it uses them as roosting sites. It preys mainly on small mammals and birds, although termites have been recorded in its diet. The female incubates the eggs while the male hunts. Incubation starts with the first egg, which means that there are chicks of different ages in one nest. Older chicks sometimes feed their younger siblings and, when food is scarce, sometimes resort to eating the younger chicks.

Distribution and habitat

It has the most widespread distribution range of any of the owls in the world and is found on every continent except Antarctica. It can be found anywhere that has abundant food and suitable roost sites, but it generally prefers open areas, such as grasslands, deserts and wooded savanna.  Often occurs in areas occupied by humans, where it normally roosts in buildings, mine shafts and tree holes. Like most owls it's almost completely nocturnal, roosting in the day and feeding in the night.

Distribution of Barn owl in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project ( Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Predators and parasites


Eats a wide range of prey, which varies in composition according to region. Usually, its diet consists of 75 - 97% rodents, with the rest largely made up of shrews and small birds. In urban areas, however, small birds dominate its diet, making up 40 - 95% of prey items. In desert areas, it tends to eat a lot of geckos and scorpions. It usually catches its prey by sitting on low branches, using its powerful hearing to locate small animals. Once it has heard something, it swoops silently down to the ground, grabbing the prey with its talons. The following animals have been recorded in its diet:


  • It does not build its own nest, but instead most commonly uses man-made structures (e.g. deserted buildings and mine shafts), tree hollows and caves. It often uses the same nesting site over many seasons.
  • Egg-laying season is year-round, peaking from August to December in the Western Cape and from February to May elsewhere in South Africa.
  • An average of six eggs are laid per clutch, but can be as high as 19 eggs in boom years, when prey availability is high.
  • The female incubates the eggs for 29-34 days, while the male hunts and brings food to the nest. Incubation starts with the first egg so, since there is 1-3 day interval between laying, there are always chicks of different ages in one brood. This means that sometimes older chicks feed the younger ones but, when food is scarce, the older ones are capable of eating their siblings.
  • The chicks stay in the nest for 45-55 days before fledging. Juveniles often return to the nest a week after learning to fly, and are able to hunt about three weeks later.


Not threatened, in fact common in large areas of southern Africa. Their population does vary year to year due to the availability of food, especially rodents.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG (eds) 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.